Things to consider before taking shots at alcohol policy

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September 27, 2010

9:58 PM

As the rainy season begins to set in, students prepare for regular drenching and occasional water-filled potholes. Jackets, umbrellas and rain boots will soon become a fixture of campus, but there is more to the rainy season than just clothes. Students sit in coffee shops on gray and rainy afternoons with iPods and the whistling of espresso machines in the background. The campus becomes quiet as students hide from the downpour in the nooks of Earl Gregg Swem Library, Integrated Science Center labs and study groups. Then the weekend arrives, and houses and dorms fill with chatter, music and laughter. There is something almost romantic about the idea of abandoned rainy streets, stormy skies and the bright and dry indoors after a week of hard work. This picture, however, is biased and incomplete unless the inevitable presence of alcohol is taken into account. Friends talk and laugh through the night, drink cheap beers, share stories and let go of their worries of the week. Some do take it to excess, but for the most part students are safe and smart about their decisions, especially with the strong AlcoholEdu program.

These are the days that we will look back fondly upon with an appreciation that we may not have now. These are also the days, however, that students who wish to drink — and are under age — must be secretive about it. But why? Why even have AlcoholEdu if drinking is illegal? We do not have HeroinEdu, and heroin is illegal as well. Why is it that it is publicly unacceptable to drink alcohol when one is 18, 19 or 20, but on an otherwise insignificant day — one’s 21st birthday — drinking alcohol is suddenly and arbitrarily acceptable? Why is it that young adults can vote, go to war, get married, pay taxes, raise children and go to jail, but cannot relax with a beer on game day or enjoy a cocktail in the company of friends?

Looking back on the history of the drinking age, one learns that when the voting age was lowered to 18, most states also lowered the drinking age to 18. When drunk driving and alcohol-related death rates spiked as a result, the notion that a drinking age of 21 years would decrease alcohol-related deaths became popular. When President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Uniform Drinking Age Act, alcohol-related deaths did, in fact, go down. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, approximately 900 lives are saved per year because of this law. Over the 22 years that the law has been in effect, that amounts to about 20,000 lives saved — our student body four times over). That also amounts to a mere 0.037 percent of the national death rate.

The truth is that the drinking age is not some maliciously conceived law that aims to restrict the liberties of the country’s youth: It is a fundamentally well intentioned law with the sole purpose of helping keep our families a little safer. The drinking age of 21 years seeks to protect family and friends from going through the tragic ordeals of losing a loved one; yet, at the end of the day, the drinking age does indeed strip Americans of liberties. Adults in a free society should ¬— and must — have autonomy. It is the right of every individual to be able to live his or her life in the manner he or she chooses (without doing harm to others), and it is the responsibility of parents to instill good lessons and values in their children. The government is not America’s mother and father, and it is not its job to worry about American’s lifestyle choices.

More and more, people are beginning to recognize this truth. The College of William and Mary understands that its students are responsible adults who are embarking on their life journeys, and rather than using fear tactics and strict enforcement to keep students from drinking, the College seeks to inform its students and make resources available to those in need of help. Furthermore, the punishment for underage drinking is relatively little and does not normally involve legal repercussions. By facilitating groups and programs like AlcoholEdu, One and Four and Medical Amnesty, the College has demonstrated an understanding of — and respect for — student free will and sincere concern for the well-being of the student body as a whole. As the College and numerous other universities across the country have demonstrated, it is possible to give adults their liberties while instilling a sense of responsibility and maintaining safety.

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