Debating the Drinking Age

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(HOST) Should Vermont lower the state drinking age to 18? Commentator Allen Gilbert thanks two Vermonters who are leading us to search for answers to that question.

(GILBERT) John McCardell is a brave person. So is Representative Richard Marron. John McCardell is the former president of Middlebury College. Last year he wrote an opinion piece, which was published nationally, that advocated lowering the drinking age to 18. Representative Richard Marron is a longtime legislator from Stowe. This year he introduced a bill in the Vermont Legislature to lower the drinking age to 18.

The topic of a lower drinking age has been like a third rail in American politics. Touch it and you’re dead. Whether older teens should be able to drink has taken on the tones of a moral issue that can’t be discussed rationally. Yet that’s exactly what John McCardell and Representative Marron want us to do: to discuss rationally whether it makes sense to have 18 as the age when one can marry, go to war, and take out a mortgage – but can’t buy a beer.

This issue popped onto the national radar four years ago when Jenna Bush, the President’s daughter and then 19, was busted twice within one month for underage drinking. At the time, an astute Free Press letter writer said, it’s not the age that matters. It’s the problem that matters. We need to treat substance abuse problems as a health issue, not a criminal issue. In other words, when you drink too much, you’ve got a problem, whether you’re 18 or 38 or 58. Wouldn’t it make more sense to talk about this problem, rather than whether an 18-year-old should be able to drink?

If we want to continue to insist, as a society, on an adult’s right to drink alcohol, shouldn’t we talk about how we might teach responsible drinking? Some college officials who deal with a lot of underage drinking problems advocate a system of “gradual access” to alcohol. Teach kids to drink under adult supervision, rather than force them to experiment on their own – or drink themselves silly the moment they turn 21. Most states give young drivers restricted licenses until they’ve got some experience. Why not do the same with drinking? Teach through trust and potential, rather than through blame, accusation and guilt, the officials say.

During a December PBS program on America’s drinking problems, one of the panelists – a judge from Maryland, Eric Johnson – said bluntly: “We need a national conversation about this. We need to talk about what we think about alcohol.”

The head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Wendy Hamilton, asserted that lowering the drinking age “isn’t about rights and responsibilities. It’s about health and safety.” She argued that raising the drinking age has saved lives – not just car deaths, but suicides, homicides and drownings. Sitting next to Hamilton and Judge Johnson was John McCardell. The discussion was proof that he had achieved some measure of success toward his goal.

This is Allen Gilbert. And my hat is off to John McCardle and Representative Richard Marron. Thanks for getting us talking about this stuff.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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