The city of Iowa City is hotly debating whether to require all bars to no longer allow patrons under the age of 21 through their doors after a certain hour. This debate comes up every few years when I guess those in charge feel like they’ve solved all of the other issues facing the city.
Iowa City is a college town. As such, there is a large segment of the population between the ages of 18 and 21 who live, work, and socialize in rather close quarters. This debate largely centers on the pedestrian mall downtown, as that is the location of many bars where the college kids go to dance and have fun.
Now, I don’t know what the numbers actually are in regard to the percentage of under-agers who go down there to dance and just dance, and those who go down there to dance and illegally consume alcohol, but I’m sure a fair number indeed do the latter. But actually enforcing the current law (serving to or consumption of alcohol by a minor in public being illegal ‘round these parts) solves that problem (or would reduce it significantly), does it not?
If you are serious about enforcing that law, give the taverns a financial incentive to help you. Increase the fines for serving people under the legal age. Work with them often on training their employees to spot fake IDs. Do frequent spot checks on enforcement. I think the important thing is to make it a partnership between the city, police, and the bar owners. This problem can be reduced without punishing everyone.
Having said all that, let me get to my real argument: It is time to reduce the drinking age back to 18. At that age, one can sign legally-binding contracts, get married, go to war, and many other things that indicate that those of that age have attained a degree of maturity and responsibility. Yet while we agree that our children are mature and responsible enough to do those things, we think they are not mature and responsible enough to consume alcohol responsibly.
If it is the case that those under 21 are not mature enough to consume alcohol responsibly—and you’re free to argue that it is—whose fault is that? I’m looking at you, parents, and I’m looking at all of us in this society. It is our fault if we do not teach our children how to consume alcohol responsibly. Most parents teach their children nothing about responsible consumption, and yet we as a society expect them to eventually have that skill. What a surprise when it doesn’t work.
Would it not be better if parents, rather than taking the lazy way out and simply saying “No, you can’t drink until you are 21,” began to educate their children about the best practices regarding alcohol use within the secure confines of their own home? I’m talking about everything from giving them the chance to enjoy a little wine with dinner from time to time in order to demonstrate that drinking does not have to equal getting drunk, all the way up to letting them over-imbibe if they so choose (within safe limits) and experience the spinning room, the queasy stomach, a hangover the next day, and so forth, all under the controlled supervision of their parents. You can then have examples from their own experience with which to educate them. Teach them to understand their limits, and the difference between how they might feel and what the law would say about their state of intoxication. We’d all be far better off if we were taught the skills involved in responsible alcohol consumption instead of each of us figuring it out (or, in many cases never figuring it out) for ourselves.
Drinking alcohol is a complex activity that demands education and experience, not entirely unlike how driving a car is a complex activity that demands those things. Imagine if we switched the driving age to 21. Prima facie this seems like it would save lives as people are in theory more equipped with higher-order skills at 21, which was the theoretical basis for the drinking age having been raised to that age. Then imagine that we essentially gave people no education on how to drive a car, and just handed them keys at 21. That is analogous to what we are doing with drinking, and the results would be just as poor.
Would it not be reasonable to provide honest, extensive and repetitive education on the both the joys and pitfalls of alcohol consumption, as opposed to this hypocritical “you might die in a drunk driving crash, and if you survive you’ll probably eventually get cirrhosis” scare-tactic BS they teach in high school health class now? Not that that stuff shouldn’t be in the curriculum, because both are legitimate issues on the topic, but kids aren’t so blind that they don’t see grownups everywhere enjoying alcohol. If all there is to it is fiery death and liver problems, why do so many people enjoy it? Now, realizing they’ve been lied to, the kids are going to rebel against these same people who tell them they are not allowed to do it, which is not entirely unreasonable on their part!
This would take effort on the part of parents, of course. The intent would be not simply to let your kids drink, but to give them the lessons they will eventually learn about drinking under your supervision, instead of learning the lessons completely on their own, or from their doofus friends, which is how a vast majority learn now. How is that not reasonable? I think the argument against this position is indefensible.
Here’s another idea: I’d be for licensed drinking, especially for youth, but wouldn’t be opposed to it for other people as well. Maybe from 16 up through age 25 you have a yearly refresher course on drinking. Pass a class, pass a test, and get a license. Over 25 you can stop going to the class or taking the test. Get popped for public intoxication or other such idiotic behavior a couple of times, lose said license for a spell and be subject to more reeducation and testing. You must show your Drinker License in addition to another document showing proof of age to purchase alcohol. Bar code the license and limit the number of drinks a day any one license can purchase. In this day and age that would not be all that difficult technology-wise, and compared with “prohibition to 21” that we have now, I think it’s awfully reasonable. Let people baby-step their way into this tricky behavior.
A significant percentage of people under the age of 21 already consume alcohol on a somewhat regular basis. This indicates a clear failure of the current policy. It’s time not to continue down the path we’ve already taken, but try something radically different in regard to this issue. It saddens me that most people in position to actually make something like this happen will lack the fortitude to enact it, largely because they don’t want to have to deal with the screaming of a bunch of neo-prohibitionist harpies who would oppose it. It’s so much safer to just keep doing what we’ve been doing, even if it is an abject failure.