ZELINSKY: Levin should influence the drinking age

On Point

This past Saturday night, I had a few beers. I am 21, so the state of Connecticut said it was legal. Many of my underage peers also drank this weekend, technically in violation of the law. Across the nation, students and college administrators know this situation makes little sense. In fact, it’s almost trite to mention it. Yet a series of complicated political pressures prevent states from changing 21-to-drink statutes.

At the risk of being trite, I’ll venture to say that this discussion needs to happen.

A group of university presidents banded together in 2008 to try and break the deadlock. Calling their effort the Amethyst Initiative — after the stone that represents sobriety in Greek mythology — they advocate for an open dialogue on the drinking age. To date, only a single Ivy League school — Dartmouth — has signed on to the group’s statement, which has all but died from public view. President Levin should commit Yale to the Amethyst Initiative and reinvigorate the push for a more sensible stance toward alcohol. He is one of few who can seriously affect a broken status quo.

Two factors prevent states from implementing a lower drinking age or enacting another creative solution to regulate alcohol consumption. The first is a 1984 congressional act that removes 10 percent of a state’s highway funding if it deviates from norm.

Second, groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) remain convinced that stricter laws prevent alcohol-related deaths. The current research on the topic is unclear and possibly flawed, but MADD refuses to modify its stance. In the face of financial pressures and a sympathetic lobby, politicians are paralyzed.

What is worse, the federally mandated drinking age prevents state-by-state experimentation. Instead of allowing the individual states to act as fifty distinct policy laboratories in which the best law emerges, we have a single, sub-optimal situation with no feasible alternatives.

And so the unhealthy status quo persists. The recent change in Yale’s tailgating policy illustrates what goes wrong when we treat those under 21 as minors: Faced with unlikely access to alcohol, younger students heavily pregamed The Game.

Yale actually has one of the more liberal policies toward underage drinking: We focus on safety, not the law. Students face no disciplinary repercussions if they go to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, and the Yale Police would rather turn a blind eye than arrest an underage student for possession. Other schools are not so fortunate.

But even our current policy prevents Yale from teaching students how to drink responsibly. We cannot present underclassmen with mature social settings involving alcohol. Instead, binging becomes the only standard they know. We will not solve all problems related to alcohol if 18-year olds can legally consume — college kids will always party a little too hard. But it would definitely alleviate the situation, both here in New Haven and around the country.

The recent Title IX suit and the discussions of sexual assault on campus makes this issue even more pertinent. We know that instances of sexual assault can often involve binge drinking, though our community’s precise definitions of assault still require an honest and ongoing discussion. If we can tackle an irresponsible drinking culture, we might be able to further address sexual misconduct.

So why did President Levin hold out on Amethyst Initiative in 2008? And why might he resist today?

The reason could be pretty simple: Yale stands to gain little from the Amethyst Initiative and much to lose by taking a public stance on a contentious issue. In our self-contained bubble, Yale sees fewer repercussions of the federal government’s ill-thought-out rules. Our state-school counterparts lose out, but we can sit secure with a cooperative police force that little enforces the law.

Unfortunately, as long as Levin and the rest of the Ivy League (minus Dartmouth) abstain from the Amethyst Initiative or a similar push, the group will remain ineffective and defunct, as it has been since 2008. Counteracting a lobby like MADD and a 10% reduction in highway funding requires serious clout — clout less prestigious universities lack. The Ivy League and its presidents, however, still invoke intellectual respect in American culture and politics. They should sway the balance where others have failed. Until they do so, the well-being of American college students (Yalies included) will suffer.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.

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