In a letter to the The Times of Trenton on April 5, 2007, I argued that we must end apartheid for American adults by repealing the law prohibiting those between 18 and 20 from drinking alcohol. I agree with the editors of The Rider News that “lowering the drinking age in New Jersey is a remote possibility at best” under present circumstances, but I know from my own experience in the 1960s that much change is possible through collective political action. For a stronger voice than a few representatives on the Task Force, a student group, “Rethinking About Drinking at Rider,” (RADAR) is now forming for public discussion and action.
Alcoholism is not caused by demons, moral depravity or weakness of will, but it has a genetic basis. Natural selection explains the low incidence of alcoholism in cultures exposed to alcohol for thousands of years and the high incidence in those exposed to it for only a few hundred years. Alcoholism affects 7.4 percent of the U.S. population and is genetically linked to depression and bipolar disorder. Studies show that almost 60 percent of those with two or more DUI convictions report experiencing depression, bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses.
A recent article in The New Yorker (Jerome Groopman, “What’s Normal?” April 9, 2007) reports that a third or more of children diagnosed with attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder and depression may be bipolar, a condition that affects approximately 2 to 4 percent of the adult population and is just beginning to be recognized and treated in children. Formerly called manic depression, bipolar disorder is “as old as humankind and has probably been conserved in the human genome because it confers great energy and originality of thought.” Newton, Lincoln, Churchill, Goethe, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Woolf, Hemingway and many other geniuses in history were bipolar. We could use someone with a brain like Lincoln’s right now.
Learning about the effects of alcohol on one’s own body takes time, experience and up-to-date information and is better accomplished under the guidance of elders than in an underground peer culture. Sermonizing about the dangers of alcohol and demanding total abstinence have not worked. In many cultures parents have taught their children about using alcohol responsibly at home for millennia, but most American children are not introduced to it under adult supervision except in some religious rituals, and the first exposure is in a dangerous underground environment.
It is probable that more than 100 members of the incoming freshman class have a brain chemistry that is affected by alcohol in unusual ways, but we have no idea who they are. An archaic social stigma attached to both alcoholism and mental illness prevents many from seeking medical treatment, and fear of legal penalties slows response to emergencies.
The American habit of addressing problems by threat of violence is rarely the best solution, and only a very few other countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, have such a high drinking age. New Jersey law turns parents into criminals if they educate children about the safe use of alcohol, and college teachers would lose their jobs for drinking with students, who are thus abandoned to life-threatening risks in a climate of fear, dishonesty and enormous peer pressure.
It is often assumed that there is a correlation between raising the drinking age and lowering the number of accidents involving alcohol, but the decline in highway fatalities began before the drinking age was raised in 1984 and is related to alcohol education, designated drivers, seat belt compliance, lower speed limits and safer cars, as well as increased penalties for DUI such as ignition interlock devices for repeat offenders. The 21-24 age group was responsible for twice as many fatal crashes (32 percent) as the 16-20 cohort (16 percent) in 2005. According to John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College, changing the law simply delayed the deaths. Targeting people who are 18-20 is not only grossly unjust, but it is also based on false information.
McCardell wrote in The New York Times that “the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law” that has made the college drinking problem far worse. “If you’re serious about teaching somebody biology, you’re going to include a laboratory. College campuses could be little laboratories of progressivism.” Many college presidents agree but cannot publicly state their opinion for fear that their institutions will suffer negative consequences. McCardell advocates “drinking licenses” for 18- to 20-year-olds after completing an alcohol-education program and has recently formed “Choose Responsibility,” a nonprofit group that seeks to further public debate and to start a grass-roots movement to change the drinking laws.
Join RADAR now and find out more about the enlightened approach of “Choose Responsibility” and its strong promise for progressive change. Please stop by my office (A370) or e-mail me at Nicholson@rider.edu to sign up and attend a meeting.
— Carol Nicholson
Professor of Philosophy