The freedom to drink should start at 18

The July 4th holiday weekend is the perfect time to celebrate the strides our nation has made toward liberty. We gave the Brits the boot, freed the slaves, granted women the right to vote and the right to control their own bodies. We continue to take giant steps toward freedom and equality — like last week’s Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act — while swatting away the efforts of Cro-Mags in places like Texas who want to drag us back to the caves.

Americans are leading all of humankind into an era of unprecedented enlightenment and emancipation from the dark forces of prejudice and superstition, but we’ve still got some work to do. The end of drug prohibition is high on my personal list of big wrongs to right, and we’re headed in that direction, but there’s another cause that ranks even higher yet has less momentum these days: moving the legal drinking age back to 18.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of this right’s restoration is so commonplace and commonsensical that it’s become a cliché: If 18-year-olds are considered mature enough to fight in wars, they’re mature enough to drink in bars. To this I would add that if 18-year-olds can vote for the politicians who start wars, they’re old enough to choose the wrong brand of beer, too. (“Bartender, another round of Coors Light, please.”)

In all seriousness, this mini-Prohibition for young adults is more destructive than constructive for all involved. It’s a misguided policy that can actually destroy lives.

The most widely recognized and pervasive of the law’s destructive effects is binge drinking by college-age adults, the consequences of which can be fatal (drunk driving, alcohol poisoning), debilitating (alcoholism, disabling accidents, incarceration) or downright annoying (Dave Matthews Band songs). That’s what prompted over 100 college presidents to launch the Amethyst Initiative in 2008 and spark a rational debate about the proper drinking age. Frustratingly, that spark has failed to ignite any substantive change in the past five years. (To Maine’s shame, only one leader of a major academic institution in our state signed on to the initiative, Maine Maritime Academy President Leonard Tyler, and he’s since retired.)

Among the law’s less widely recognized consequences are those that result when young adults attempt to exercise what should be their legal right to imbibe by breaking this unjust law. The other day I got an e-mail from the neo-Prohibitionist pressure group 21 Reasons that warned about the use of fake IDs. The group wants young adults to know that flashing a phony license to buy booze can result not only in a fine of up to $600 and suspension of one’s real driver’s license for as long as a year, but also a criminal record that “employers, schools & licensing boards may see” and “bigger fines, JAIL time & LIABILITY” if a young adult gives another young adult so much as a sip of sin juice.

These sorts of scare tactics make my blood boil, and I’m now twice the legal drinking age. It’s infuriating to see the scolds of society insist that 18-to-20-year-olds are too childlike to handle alcohol but are adult enough to do hard time or have their career aspirations crushed by one ill-advised decision.

Just like the full-blown Prohibition of the last century, the ongoing version aimed at young people increases crime and creates more life-threatening situations than it discourages.

When I was in that age group, I committed fraud and theft numerous times to get beer and (even harder to admit) wine coolers. Growing up in a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., my friends and I would drive into the inner city (one of the most violent places in America then and now) with wads of cash and attempt to convince the poor, usually black men hanging out on the streets to buy beer for us. Sometimes they returned with the goods, sometimes they didn’t. In retrospect, only luck saved us from getting both robbed and shot.

Then, rather than consume our booze in moderation, in the relative safety of a home or business with older adults present, we hid in the woods and got smashed as fast as possible. This ridiculousness, fun as it was, would have been unnecessary had we been legally allowed to drink responsibly.

As Maine reconsiders its liquor control regime later this year, lawmakers should also reconsider the drinking age. It’s time to take another small step toward the ideals our country was founded upon.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.