Friday, April 25, 2008

Missouri enters debate over drinking age

Missouri voters will have the eyes of the nation on them as they vote on many ballot initiatives including a ban on affirmative action, a possible, limitations on the embryonic stem cell initiative passed in '06, and now an initiative to lower the legal drinking age to 18.

Six other states, including Vermont, South Dakota, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Wisconsin are also considering bills or referendums to lower the legal drinking age (Kentucky, South Carolina, and Wisconsin would only lower the drinking age to 18 for members of the military).

Before 1984, drinking laws were a matter of states' rights and the laws varied from state-to-state. MADD and other groups lobbied congress to pass the Uniform Drinking Age Act in 1984 which just encouraged all states to raise their drinking age to 21. Oh, and one little caveat: states who refused to change their laws would lose billions in coveted federal highway dollars. Leave it to the federal government to give the impression it is giving states a "choice" when in reality it is exerting the most effective type of coercion.

Hence, today every state uniformly upholds the drinking age of 21. Some of these states proposing a lower drinking age--by voter referendum or state legislative action--will undoubtedly risk losing 10 percent of their federal highway dollars. It's anyone's guess how Missourians will vote on this issue. Before 1984, Missouri already had a legal drinking age of 21, while Kansas allowed 18 year olds to drink (it was common practice for Kansas City area youth on the Missouri side to drive over to Wyandotte or Johnson County and drink legally). Kansas seems to be unwilling to revisit the issue: there is no action on the legislative front, and Kansas does not have the progressive and unique statutes that faciliate voter-driven initiatives and referendums, so any change in the short-term is unlikely.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2005 reported that 85 percent of 20 year old Americans had consumed alcohol and nearly 40 percent of them had binged. Government officials privately admit that alcohol use among youth has not decreased since the 1984 law was passed, but has actually increased, raising concerns about the effectiveness of the law, as underage drinking is driven underground, away from the watchful eyes of other adults in public places such as bars and restaurants. The troubling increase in binge drinking corresponds with this, as all the available data shows that European nations with legal drinking ages of 21 have much lower rates of binge drinking, while the U.S. and UK experience the highest rate of binge drinking.

Underage drinking is seen as a form of rebellion and teenagers revel in the ability to engage in an illegal activity, often consuming alchol to excess. Part of the problem is our nation's tendency to focus police resources on combatting underage drinking while taking a light and and less harsh attitude towards the real culprit--drunk driving. Norway allows its citizens to drink at 18 but it also has some of the harshest laws for drunk driving--a mandatory 10 year sentence on the first offense, which ensures a low rate of drunk driving in the country. The United States, however, has no uniform laws and often repeat offenders have to be caught 2, 3, or 4 times before they face ANY prison time at all. It's abominable, but our culture looks at drunk driving much more lightly, as a situation that many people do at some point in their lives, so it's not so bad (that's what Rosie O'Donnell said in not so many words on the View a while back).

What's the answer? I understand concerns about lowering the drinking age, but obviously what we have now doesn't work. And it's incredibly hypocritical to crackdown on underage youth who may drink a single beer and then give a pass to drunk drivers who habitually re-offend until they ultimately kill someone (which in some cases, still only involves fines of little more than $100).

What say you? Will this Missouri law pass and should it? Or should we focus on combatting binge drinking?


Evan Ravitz said...

The 2nd paragraph is missing something important: what the 6 states mentioned are doing.

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