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Proof?

Illustrations by Joe Cepeda

Proof? (continued)

If there is to be a debate over the MLDA, researchers interviewed for this story say it has to be an honest one, with all the cards laid on the table. In the case of the Amethyst Initiative, that means questioning some of the group’s assertions and pointing out areas of impact the initiative has yet to address.

Of the former, perhaps most notable is Amethyst’s notion that lowering the drinking age is essentially an act of fairness and equity. “Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military,” reads the statement signed by the 135 administrators, “but they are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.”

“I don’t buy that argument,” counters Sue Baker. “At a certain age, you go from junior high to senior high. So, if you’re old enough to go to senior high, you’re old enough to do drugs? I just don’t get that ‘if you’re old enough to fight for your country, you’re old enough to put a harmful substance into your body.’”

Jernigan, who is also a sociologist, points out that American society has consistently decreed that the passing of time allows the assumption of different responsibilities. Eighteen-year-olds “can’t run for Congress, for president, and in a lot of states can’t rent a hotel room,” he notes. “We have lots of different ages of majority. For sex crimes it’s 16. Smoking is 18. Alcohol is 21. They speak to our consensus as a society around what is going to protect our children and permit their development.”

Advocates for lowering the MLDA also contend that legalizing drinking for all college- age students will create a less clandestine, more controlled atmosphere where students stay or come on campus to consume alcohol as opposed to going to off-campus frat parties and bars. But Debra Furr-Holden, who has interviewed numerous young adults on their drinking habits, says that’s an unproven assertion. “We have no data to support that. I don’t think most of the on-campus opportunities for drinking are going to appeal to the population we most want to impact, which are heavy binge drinkers. They want to drink in ad-lib locations; bars where excessive drinking is allowed, clubs, fraternity and private parties … it’s just not going to appeal to the most problematic of the group.”

Phil Leaf, PhD, a Mental Health professor and director of the Bloomberg School’s Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, is also skeptical. “If you’re not living on campus, why would you come on campus just to get alcohol? Unless it’s amazingly cheaper on campus, in which case you’re going to get some heat from the local bars.”

“There have been literally hundreds of studies that have looked at the law,” says David Jernigan. “The preponderance of the evidence is clear: These laws have saved thousands of young people’s lives.”

Left unaddressed by any effort to lower the drinking age are two major areas of concern. The first is the 25 percent of college students who, according to the NIAAA, report that their academics are suffering because of alcohol use. The second is the potential impact that lowering the MDLA to 18 would have on high schoolers and their underage friends. “You tend to know people closer to your age than not,” says Leaf. “Some of the people in high school will be 18 in their senior year. It increases access just because of relationships with people who will legally be able to purchase.”

And that access, says Jernigan, could guarantee that some kids will never get to college, or at least not to the college of their choice. “Human brains, as it turns out, are not mature until the early 20s. The research that’s been done on 16- and 17-year-olds [shows that] heavy drinking in that period leads to demonstrably lower test scores. And when they do MRI imaging of these kids, you see less activity in the brain than in nondrinking kids of the same age.”

Despite all these reasons for rejecting a lower MLDA, Jernigan says that the Amethyst Initiative can be the beginning of an important dialogue. He says it all depends whether college administrators truly want to solve the problem as opposed to getting off the hook for enforcing the existing law on their campuses. If it’s the former, he just wants them to be armed with public health facts. “I’m really glad they care about the problem,” he says. “If this debate they’re calling for can lead to more widespread use of solutions that are based in science, then I’m all for the debate. But if it leads us down the road to increasing access to alcohol for a group that is hugely at risk of adverse consequences from drinking, then I think it’s all a big mistake.”

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Alcohol on Campus: The Solutions

Alcohol on Campus

Preventing deaths, injuries and other problems related to alcohol abuse requires multiple, coordinated solutions, says David Jernigan.

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