Here in Oregon in 2003, a volunteer firefighter died in a strange accident. Shannon Halverson, 20, a new volunteer, was attending the Oregon Firefighter’s Association Conference party in June 2003. She was the only person there under 21 and the only female. Ms. Halverson had been trained as an emergency medical technician (EMT) and also as a fire fighter. The only thing she had no knowledge of was how to manage her alcohol consumption. She was told to drink a good slug of Captain Morgan spiced rum, as an entry requirement, followed soon by beer, tequila, bourbon and rum, and chugging Jack Daniels as the men chanted “Go! Go! Go!”
United States is one of only five nations (along with Malaysia, South Korea, Ukraine and Russia) that prohibit alcohol consumption to anyone under 21 years of age.
Within 45 minutes she was in serious trouble, showing symptoms of alcohol poisoning and slipping in and out of consciousness—this in a room full of trained EMTs. No one called 911. Soon, nauseated and vomiting, she passed out, at which point they carried her out of the room. One of the men picked her up, but when he tripped and fell, her head was slammed against the concrete floor and she suffered a massive skull fracture. About 12 hours later, she was declared dead at a nearby hospital. In effect, she died from having no experience managing alcohol consumption.
We’ve all read these sad stories about young people whose inexperience with alcohol leads to tragedy. Our nation’s solution has been more and more restrictions. It’s not working.
For some time now, indeed, longer than some of our younger voting citizens have actually been alive, we have denied them some keystone adult privileges. They are eligible to become targets in our declared and undeclared wars, get themselves deeply in debt, be executed, become parents, buy homes, and vote in our elections. But they can’t sip a beer in the quiet of their own homes, unless they live in one of the 19 states where parents are allowed to share such a libation with their adult children.
I remember that during WWII, even uniformed older Boy Scouts had relatively easy access to “3.2” beer with no questions asked. I entered the Marines at 17, late in 1943 and in uniform never once during the war, and even after, was I ever questioned about my age. My photographs out of that time showed the youngest Marine on the planet. He didn’t look a day older than 14!
At that time I had a profound educational experience in the Marine Corps under the astute tutelage of my peers. I had no drinking experience, nor any clue as to the penalties of over-consumption, but once in the company of friends, I managed to reach a point of no return. Memory of that evening is fuzzy to say the least. We were all due back in our base by 10 pm and late penalties were quite severe. We had ignored the passage of time and the hour of 10 had passed.
My friends were all older and more experienced than I, but equally low in rank. I learned then that Marines never fail to care for their comrades: those guys pushed me over the fence. And then the three of them climbed over that same fence and dragged me to safety in our barracks. This taught me an important lesson: getting drunk is exceedingly stupid, because one gets sick and one’s friends will never let one forget even one minute of the episode. I have been mildly inebriated on a number of occasions since then, but never ever that drunk. It was the most important lesson of my early life. For me, the mere thought of getting drunk was (and is) frightening and even terrifying. We won’t even discuss that morning after, but it too is unforgettable.
A Patchwork of Laws
Yes, it is true that alcoholic beverages can cause problems. We know that about one person in seven will have difficulties from overindulgence in alcohol. We should note that the United States is one of only five nations (along with Malaysia, South Korea, Ukraine and Russia) that prohibit alcohol consumption to anyone under 21 years of age. Japan and Iceland prohibit under-20-year-olds from imbibing, while all but two Canadian provinces hold out for 19. Alberta and Quebec join 26 countries allowing 18-year-olds to drink. Norway, for example has a split program: Wine and beer for 16-year-olds and spirits for their elder 18-year-old siblings. Norway is not known for its drunks. More important: countries allowing 18-year-olds and younger to drink have far less problems with their young people’s drinking than we do in our country.
Of course we know that the Islamic world has always had alcohol prohibition, a practice based on the Haaram section of the Quran, which I interpret to mean that one may not consume alcohol prior to prayer; but which is taken across the Islamic world to completely prohibit any alcohol consumption (although it is widely ignored in much the same way that Prohibition was pretty much ignored in this country during the 1920s). Islamic countries do have a problem with alcohol, one they are quite unwilling to address.
It should be remembered that age 21 has, since the repeal of Prohibition (1933), long been the standard drinking age in most states. However, before Prohibition became the law of the land, most areas had few limitations on alcohol consumption by young people. Often it was “if they can reach the bar with their money, it’s OK.” Youth drinking problems in the nineteenth century were a well-kept secret. The repeal of Prohibition left such matters to the states.
Actually, as I see it, it is very dangerous to make young people wait until they are 21 to drink. They cause us no end of trouble for that reason. Where did the reader go when he or she was 18? Did you abstain? Or did you go out in someone’s car to get totally blotto? Maybe you got someone pregnant. Maybe you got pregnant in that car. (Incidentally, how many of us were actually conceived in such a situation? The truth could be quite shocking to our modern society.)
Our national leaders didn’t get it and they still don’t. Urged on by Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD), Congress passed what I think of as illegal legislation. The Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 violates the 21st Amendment (repeal of Prohibition) by requiring states to set the drinking age to 21, or lose 10 percent of their Highway funding from the federal government. The 21st Amendment left it to the states as to how alcohol consumption was to be managed. The Feds were to have no hand, whatsoever, in that.
A few years back in 2004, Peter Coors, (yes, that Coors) ran for the U.S. Senate, urging lawmakers to open a “debate on the drinking age.” He noted that the old laws allowing 18-year-olds to purchase and consume 3.2 percent beer was a “perfect” solution and should be “studied.” He lost his run for the Senate.
However, the reader may remember that “3.2″ beer was declared non-intoxicating in 1933! It is possible that law may actually still be “on the books,” as they say. If so, that could solve our problem. “Three point two” beer is actually 4 percent ABV, and could become the bridge that these young adults might use to join us. Maybe we could insist that they’d have to drink in the company of an older adult, or in a pub, where the management could keep an eye on them. It would be a chance for these young people to learn how to deal with alcohol consumption.
Last September, a group of 129 college and university presidents signed the “Amethyst Initiative” urging that this unfair situation be corrected by lowering the drinking age for our younger 18-20-year-old adults. This is another try at an earlier effort initiated in 2007 by John McCardell, a former president of Middlebury College in Vermont. His “Choose Responsibility” was an attempt to bring sanity to youth drinking. He pointed out “Prohibition does not work… [for 18-20-year-olds, who] are choosing to drink… [by taking it behind] closed doors… choosing to drink much more recklessly… underground and off-campus.” And in their automobiles as our grandparents did during Prohibition.
Today’s youth are “front loading,” getting drunk before going out. Some experts tell us a good number of these students (and even younger 16- and 17-year-olds) drink heavily and dangerously on occasion. There’s no argument from me about that. The “drink only at 21″ system ensures that these young people will be kept from learning how to manage their experimental consumption in a reasonable fashion. It also ensures that they will have few possibilities to find a safe venue in which they can experiment with alcohol consumption.
After the “Choose Responsibility” and “Amethyst Initiative” movements were introduced in the nation’s media, there was a rash of stupidity, with most newspapers rejecting the whole idea. True, they were supported by most (it seems to me) letters to the editor. I am at lost to explain this, but there it is. They claim that automobile crashes went up in the 1970s, binge drinking has accelerated, and that even younger children have taken up alcohol abuse.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy arrived with the “Just Say No” program as the answer. We now seem to have adopted that program as the answer to all of our problems with young people, especially in regards to sex, drugs and alcohol education. These days our youth take their education in drinking and in sex, to their automobiles. They are self-educated in two of their most dangerous situations.
They deserve better from their elders.