18 vs. 21: How Old is Old Enough?

In the debate that has spread nationwide, former Middlebury College President John McCardell feels the drinking age should change

You can go to war when you are 18. You can obtain a marriage license when you turn 18. You can vote for whom you think should be president of the United States when you are 18. You can't sit down at a bar and have a beer until you are 21.

There is a debate brewing regarding this issue of the drinking age. It is beginning to appear in some of the major media markets such as Newsday and 60 Minutes, and it all started in a tiny office on Merchants Row in Middlebury, Vermont.

Colleges such as Plattsburgh State University have been taking part in the conversation, where two professors, Dr. Jurgen Kleist, professor of German, and Dr. James Armstrong, professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Anthropology Department, led the conversation. Around 150 students, faculty, and community members were in attendance to give their opinion on the matter.

John McCardell

John McCardell sits at his desk at the Choose Responsibility Offices

Former president of Middlebury College, John McCardell and his organization are the reason for the current debate. He is now the president of the Choose Responsibility initiative, which is fighting to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. McCardell is also a co-author of the Amethyst Initiative, which contains 129 signatures of college presidents around the country who feel a debate is needed regarding the legal drinking age, not just lowering the age.

The Choose Responsibility's office contains three computers, three telephones, a map of the United States, stacks of research information and articles printed regarding the debate, and a dry erase board with some more clippings of news articles. "I told you there's not much to see," he says with a smile and a wink. He right now only has two employees working with him in the small office. Nick Desantis, a recent graduate from Middlebury College, and Assistant to the Director Grace Kronnenberg. All three of them talk passionately about lowering the drinking age to 18.

"I can't disagree with his (McCardell) arguments, but I have a hard time disagreeing with some of the evidence based arguments on the other side."

"The law doesn't make any exceptions for being 18," he says. "Except for one. Why is there one?" He feels that if someone is being considered an adult, when you take away a right it becomes more persuasive to break the rule. "21 is just arbitrary," McCardell says. "21 used to be the age of majority (voting), now it's 18."

Tom Fisher, the Manager at the Green Room bar in Plattsburgh, New York, has been in support of lowering the drinking age for a long time, especially when he was 18 he says. "You can die for your country, you can vote and you can shoot a gun," Fisher says. "It would make the ID easier too, then kids could just present their college ID" The Green Room is usually packed every Friday and Saturday night. So if the age were to change, business would only be better. "It wouldn't be any more chaotic than it already is," he says. "It would probably just be busier earlier and during the week because the kids would want to go out more."

SUNY Plattsburgh President John Ettling is one of the many college presidents to have received the Amethyst Initiative, and he says he has "profoundly mixed feelings" on the topic itself. "McCardell's letter says that the law turns 18-20 year olds into cynics," he says. "It says it's unfair not to let them have beer, and it's a fundamental fairness issue." He has talked to the dean of students, the director of residence life, and resident directors, people he says are "on the front lines" and they are all opposed to the idea. He does feel that both sides present a good argument. One of them is that statistics show that drunk driving fatalities have gone down significantly since the age was raised in 1984. "I know there are numbers of other factors that have to be taken into consideration when you try to evaluate the relationship," he says. "There are new safety rules such as the seatbelt safety law and cars have been built stronger." President Ettling received the petition about a month ago and attached to the petition was McCardell's reasoning behind it. "I can't disagree with his (McCardell) arguments," Ettling explains. "But I have a hard time disagreeing with some of the evidence based arguments on the other side."

Discussion at Plattsburgh State

Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Kleist lead a discussion at Plattsburgh State University.

McCardell has statistics of his own. "Five thousand lives are lost to alcohol each year," McCardell says. "Sixty percent of them are being lost off the highways. The risky environment in which the consumption of alcohol is taking place is a problem." Where drinking is usually happening, he adds, is in the basements of homes and out of the eyes of the public, where the danger really lurks.

"When the age was 18, binge drinking was not even apart of our vocabulary," he says. "It's hard to say there are more abuses now when drinking is done in secret." He feels the problem is not the drinking that occurs in front of us; it's what we don't see that concerns him.

"The abstinence message doesn't really sway," McCardell says. "Police are having trouble enforcing it, but you are really limited in what you can say." McCardell had trouble being the president of a college and not being able to speak his mind on the topic. "It puts you in an impossible choice," he says. "I would say it less publicly when I was president, four years ago though I wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times."

Though he says he wants to lower the drinking age to 18, he knows there needs to be a certain set of rules attached to make the transition go smoothly. He would like to put a program in high schools where students would be taught alcohol education. Then after the students graduate from high school, they would receive a license. "It's like a learners permit," he says. "It's an incentive to prevent under age drinking."

The D.A.R.E. program, which started in 1983, has been included in 75 percent of the schools around the nation according to their website. It is a program led by local Police Officers promoting a drug and violence free lifestyle, which alcohol is considered a drug. "I think it's a bad example," McCardell says. "All they promote is abstinence."

"Prevention is still a new science. Anyone who can tell they have to answer to prevention is being disingenuous."

D.A.R.E. Regional Director for the State of New York, Ronald J. Brogan, has a different perspective on what D.A.R.E. really is. "It teaches resistance skills for peer pressure, and information on why kids shouldn't be drinking before 21." Brogan was also around when the drinking age was 18, a law he refers to as "archaic". "The drinking age was 18 in New York and 21 in New Jersey," he recalls. "I remember several kids dying from drunk driving." Brogan sees 21 as the right age, no higher and certainly not any lower. Brogan doesn't believe the argument of if you can go to war then you can have a beer. He sees it as a useless argument. "Its crap, it's apples and oranges," he says, "One has nothing to do with the other."

D.A.R.E. is advised by Dr. Herbert Kleber, whose specialty is addiction psychiatry, and he advises the program as they change their curriculum every year. "Prevention is still a new science," Brogan says. "Anyone who can tell they have to answer to prevention is being disingenuous."

McCardell says his program would present a completely different perspective, an unbiased learning experience regarding alcohol. "What we're envisioning is 40 hours of instruction focusing on the history," he says. "Alcohol has been in our culture for years."

Choose Responsibility meeting

The Choose Responsibility Team Discusses the Agenda

With the Amethyst Initiative, the debate isn't asking to lower the drinking age, but to change the drinking age in general. If the age is to be increased, the age of 25 is in mind. McCardell personally doesn't agree with this, but understands the argument. "Public policy should be based on science," he suggests. "Science shows that the brain has matured at age 25."

"I don't think its an age thing at all. Personally, I think it's a culture thing," McCardell says. "Some people aren't prepared to make responsible decisions about alcohol at age 50."

Do you think the drinking age should be lowered to 18?