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Drinking age needs another look

Ryan Williams | Thursday, September 2, 2010


By now we have all probably heard that relations between Notre Dame and the South Bend community are a little tense at the moment. It seems like wherever you go on campus, someone is talking about how they or someone they know were at an off-campus party that got busted over the weekend. If you’re a regular reader of the Observer, you’ll know that nearly sixty Notre Dame students have been arrested by the South Bend Police in the last week and a half. This unusually high number is in addition to the much-publicized arrest of 43 students at an off-campus party over the summer. Many people claim that the police are breaking up more parties than usual, and are arresting underage drinkers far more frequently, as opposed to merely issuing them citations. As a result, students are increasingly afraid to go off campus on weekends, for fear of running into the South Bend Police. Supporters of the police attest that they are just doing their job and enforcing the law, and that students should do more to discourage underage drinking in order to avoid contentious run-ins with cops. Critics contend that the police are focusing on petty drinking violations at the expense of some of the more dangerous violent crime that plagues South Bend.
The roots of the current tension between the South Bend Police Department and the Notre Dame student body can be traced back to a law enacted on July 17, 1984, called the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. This bill, cosponsored by a bipartisan group of senators (including both our current Vice-President, Joseph Biden, and Indiana’s senior United States Senator, Richard Lugar), mandated that any state which did not enforce a minimum drinking age of 21 years would be subjected to a ten percent reduction in its annual highway funding from the federal government. Prior to the enactment of this law, each individual state was free to set its own drinking age. In the aftermath of the act’s passage, the state of Indiana took an additional step, banning all consumption of alcohol by minors, including in private settings (the federal law only applied to public places).
There are several problems with the current situation. First of all, what goes on in a private home (so long as it is not harmful to the general population) is neither the business of the South Bend Police Department, nor of the State of Indiana. Allowing these entities to enter personal residences to stop underage drinking is an egregious violation of the fundamental values of privacy and personal freedom that are so cherished in this country. Additionally, the current illegal nature of underage drinking encourages a culture of rebellion that leads to irresponsible and dangerous drinking patterns. Dr. Ruth Engs, a professor of Applied Health Sciences at Indiana University believes that, “Drinking by [people under 21] is seen as an enticing ‘forbidden fruit,’ a ‘badge of rebellion against authority’ and a symbol of ‘adulthood.'” Dr. Engs contends that the drinking age should be lowered in order to teach and encourage responsible drinking habits among college-aged Americans. Indeed, this train of thought has been embraced by a number of university presidents, 135 of whom have formed an organization called the Amethyst Initiative, which seeks to reopen the national debate about the drinking age (and no, John Jenkins is not a member of this group).
But perhaps the most significant criticism of the current drinking age is that it is a straight up abuse of justice. In this country, 18-year olds are entrusted with the right to vote, can be selected to serve on juries, and can no longer be convicted of crimes as minors. In addition, men who turn 18 become eligible to be drafted into the armed services, should the draft ever be reinstated. That means they can be sent off to fight and die for their country in some far off place like Iraq or Afghanistan, but cannot even buy themselves a beer. We already hold 18-21 year olds to the same legal standards as all other adults in this country. Let’s ensure they receive all the benefits of adulthood in return, and restore their right to have a drink.
Ryan Williams is a sophomore finance and economics major. He can be reached at twilli15@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.