Rethinking the age for drinking; rethinking the age for driving

The Amethyst Initiative got a lot of media coverage last month.

Launched in July 2008, the Amethyst Initiative is made up of chancellors and presidents of universities and colleges across the United States.  These higher education leaders have signed their names to a public statement that the 21 year-old drinking age is not working, and, specifically, that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on their campuses. The Amethyst Initiative supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age. Amethyst Initiative presidents and chancellors call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.

In Minnesota, according to this StarTribune article (with 187 comments attached), Gustavus Adolphus College President Jack Ohle signed on.

There’s no mention of the Amethyst Initiative on either the Carleton or St. Olaf web sites. Both colleges have web pages devoted to alcohol and other drug use (St. Olaf here, Carleton here).

I’m wondering:

  • Since St. Olaf is a ‘dry’ campus and Carleton isn’t, is the problematic drinking among students at the two colleges any different, on or off-campus?
  • Might this be a good time to also debate raising the age for driving?


  1. Anthony Pierre said:

    I think the main reason there is binge drinking with college students is that it is illegal to drink for most of college.

    September 1, 2008
  2. Curt Benson said:

    Changing the culture of binge drinking would be great, no doubt. I’m not convinced that lowering the drinking age to 18 is the answer. I’d support an “informed and open debate”. The Amethyst people say they favor such a debate, but seem to have formed their conclusion in advance.

    After clicking on the Amethyst Initiative link above, I did wonder who’s paying for this campaign. The header images look like they’re from advertisements. Good looking people smiling at their tasty drinks etc. There are other less appealing images associated with binge drinking that come to mind.

    September 1, 2008
  3. Jane Moline said:

    When I was in college the legal drinking age was 18. I was not aware of binge drinking at all. It was considered socially unacceptable to be noticably drunk, and one was supposedly embarrased by their own behavior if they became inebriated. I am not saying it didn’t happen–just that it was not such a social “right of passage.” I never cared for drinking games, although I knew of people who did so at private parties.

    I believe lowering the drinking age and being open and honest about drinking is better than the ridiculous idea that you are old enough to enlist and die for your country but not old enough to go in a bar and have a beer. Lowering the drinking age and expecting young adults to act their age is better than what we have going on now, which is basically alcohol overdosing leading to death at an unacceptable rate.

    St. Olaf and Carleton have existed for more than 100 years with St. Olaf always being dry. They got along fine. (Of course, Dundas has always been there too, to help.)

    There are two schools of thought on this–one believes banning drink for everyone all the time, and the other believes in treating drinking as part of everyday life where a glass of wine or a beer with dinner is normal but binge drinking is always unacceptable. Both have followers who believe they have successfully raised children who handle drinking appropriately as adults.

    I believe in Northfield we have a number of parents who turn a blind eye to teenage drinking because they think THAT is a normal part of life, and I believe that has led to their children going on to experimenting with other illegal substances, and eventually the heroin problem we have in Northfield.

    I think that making and keeping alcohol consumption illegal until 21 leads to more students casually breaking the law with alcohol and losing their inhibitions to break the law and try other “illegal” substances.

    September 1, 2008
  4. David Koenig said:


    My understanding is that in states where the driving age has been raised to 18, or where restrictions have been put on drivers ages 16 and 17, that fatalities and accidents have dropped significantly.

    I believe that NC has some positive experience in this area.

    Didn’t MN also make some recent changes?

    September 1, 2008
  5. Patrick Enders said:

    My understanding is that in states where the driving age has been raised to 18, or where restrictions have been put on drivers ages 16 and 17, that fatalities and accidents have dropped significantly.

    I’m guessing it significantly reduces the number of fatalities among 16 and 17 year old drivers, at the very least. 🙂

    September 1, 2008
  6. Megan Prichard said:

    As a recent (2007) graduate of a most emphatically NOT dry campus, I was intrigued by this initiative (my alma mater is not on the list, as of yet).

    The administration at my school started cracking down extra hard on fraternity parties, etc. during my first couple years in an effort to cut down on underage drinking. As a result, parties “went underground,” though they in no way disappeared – the only difference was that they now consisted of small groups of students avoiding campus security and quietly doing shots in their rooms. I don’t think it was at all coincidental that, during this time, there was a huge increase in students being admitted for alcohol poisoning (a sophomore with a .45 BAC comes to mind). I also used to run the campus bar, and can attest to the fact that the students who drank the LEAST on the weekends were the ones that could legally go to the bar and buy beer while hanging out with their friends. This may not mean that lowering the drinking age will drastically decrease binge drinking, but it’s encouraging to see college administrators acknowledging (if only implicitly) that simply applying harsher penalties will not solve the underlying problem.

    September 1, 2008
  7. Jane Moline said:

    Please do not digress into rules for young drivers. Young driver rules are based on physical and mental development issues for the 16 to 18 set. This topic is on whether the drinking age should be legal with adulthood or if the current norm of age 21 is better. Can we please stick to that topic?

    September 1, 2008
  8. Jerold Friedman said:

    At age 15, I had a beer in Germany. Germany, I hear, does not have a drinking problem anything like the United States. Germany’s success relative to the U.S. cannot be overlooked, and Germany has no drinking age.

    I would tend to think that less prohibition with more social stigma against excessive drinking is the way to go. If we can remove the rebellion against the drinking age of 21 and have peers criticize excessive drinking rather than police, I think we’d share Germany’s success.

    September 1, 2008
  9. Anthony Pierre said:

    lowering the drinking age will never happen, even though I think it would be a good thing. Social conservatives will always be the loudest voice.

    September 2, 2008
  10. David Koenig said:

    Curt, thanks…..I personally don’t think that those rules are restrictive enough.

    There is growing evidence that an appreciation of risk is not developed in the brain until early to mid 20’s. This would affect risk-awareness regarding driving as well as around drinking behaviors.

    There was an interesting presentation last year at St. Olaf by a psychologist from Notre Dame. Part of her presentation suggested that the “moral” function of the brain was also not fully developed until early to mid-20’s, and that such function could be damaged by excessive drinking, perhaps to the point of permanent underdevelopment. (I believe that I am somewhat accurately representing the position).

    There is no easy answer regarding the drinking issue (lack of risk awareness vs. the attraction of vice) . I think its a bit easier call regarding driving.

    September 2, 2008
  11. Griff Wigley said:

    To the person who’s submitting comments with the name “A Northfielder Afraid of Retribution”, your comments won’t appear here because you’re not using your real name nor a valid email address. Contact me, please.

    September 2, 2008
  12. Anthony Pierre said:

    david said:

    Part of her presentation suggested that the “moral” function of the brain was also not fully developed until early to mid-20’

    so does that mean most republicans drank heavily during their teens and early 20s?

    September 3, 2008
  13. Katherine Cooper said:

    Here is some information from the Minnesota Dept. of Health on the Lowering the Drinking Age debate.

    15. Lower The Drinking Age?

    In response to all the news coverage about whether or not to lower the
    minimum legal drinking age, we at the Minnesota Department of Health
    have put together a response to the arguments being made for lowering
    the drinking age.

    There is a full version and an abbreviated two-page version. Both
    versions are footnoted with sources.

    You will find them both at

    September 11, 2008

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