Students are returning to campus, and for the first time in years, the drinking age is up for debate. More than 100 college and university presidents — including ones from Duke, Johns Hopkins and Eckerd College — have signed a statement calling for 18-to 20-year-olds to have the same rights as every other U.S. adult. It sounds like a no-brainer, but then this is the same nation that endured Prohibition for 13 years.
In my experience, students are going to drink whether or not they're of legal age. These people are old enough to vote, purchase a home and die for their country in combat. They shouldn't be treated like criminals because they want to enjoy a few libations after passing an exam that required a couple all-night study sessions. Hell, they shouldn't be criminalized if they want to get knee-walking drunk every Saturday night. Opponents slam this argument for the same wrongheaded reasons that propelled the Dry Movement a century ago.
Our country has passed many silly laws over the years, but the 18th Amendment easily ranks as the most ludicrous and un-American. President Woodrow Wilson had the good sense to veto the grossly unconstitutional Prohibition Act, which closely resembled a Russian law enacted in 1914. But myopic Americans populating small towns across this crazed nation, and a cowardly Congress that overrode the President, made Prohibition a cruel reality. By the end of January 1920, you could be arrested for purchasing a bottle of beer, having one in the back of your horse-drawn wagon or allowing grape juice to ferment in the privacy of your own home.
The law remained enforced for more than a dozen years. Finally, after virtually every thinking person in the country realized that banning alcohol was a foolish, costly, absolute failure, President Franklin Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933 and within weeks signed into law an act that reinstated a persons' right to drink. This led to the evil 18th Amendment being repealed by the 21st Amendment later that year. "I think this would be a good time for a beer," FDR declared after signing the amendment. (Never trust a president who doesn't drink.)
Small-minded Methodists, Baptists, a group called the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, Mormons and the Ku Klux Klan were among the key players in the Dry Movement. The Roman Catholics, though, fought for their right to party. Unlike their Bible-thumping counterparts, the Catholics recalled that Jesus' first miracle was turning water into wine (John 2:1-11). Widely read newspaperman H.L. Mencken was another notable "wet," the term for those who were pro-alcohol. "Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: They have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists," Mencken wrote. "None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished."
Fast-forward half a century. Mencken's words are relevant to the Prohibition imposed on 18-to-20-year-olds. People in positions of power have at last spoken out about the absurdity of the law. Their reasoning is that the current law encourages binging. "It's time to rethink the drinking age," reads the statement signed by the university and college presidents. "21 is not working."
As expected, organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (the modern-day Woman's Christian Temperance Union) are one the verge of hysterics over the notion of allowing adults of all ages to have drinking privileges. MADD's website is peppered with stats claiming alcohol-related traffic deaths have gone down since the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21. Other factors, like safer cars, aren't part of their equation, though. The site also includes recent pro-prohibition editorials by "family newspapers" like the Miami Herald, which dares not anger its aging readership. "The college presidents who want to lower the drinking age to 18 from 21 have got to be kidding themselves," scolds the once-formidable South Florida publication.
Here's my proposal. The drinking age should drop to 18, but with a couple of caveats. You also have to first complete high school or earn a GED. And have no criminal record. Then you can apply for your driver's license to be upgraded with an insignia that says you have the right to buy, transport and consume alcohol. Maybe even throw in an exam about drunk driving and binge drinking that kids must pass.
Been a juvenile delinquent? Dropped out of school and refused to earn your GED? Then you can still be arrested for buying a beer until your 21st birthday.