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.


  • River_Tam

    You are so brave.

    • public_editor

      And just in case we ever questioned his bravery: “This past Saturday night, I had a few beers. I am 21, so the state of Connecticut said it was legal.”

  • inycepoo

    > The current research on the topic is unclear and possibly flawed…

    Since when has this been the case again? Let’s not make up conclusions to support our own arguments, eh?

    • Branford73

      Myth: 25% of alcohol consumed in the United States is consumed by underage drinkers.

      Reality: This widely-cited statistic is just plain wrong. It was published in Teen Tipplers: America’s Underage Drinking Epidemic, a report generated in 2002 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the agency that provided that statistic and was misquoted by CASA, the actual figure is 11.4%.


      Regarding the claim that adolescent brains are more susceptible to damage than adult brains:

      The truth is in the only study that we’ve been able to find that compares drinkers who started drinking either after 21 or before 21, but still controls for years of drinking and quantity of consumption, researchers found the two groups to be indistinguishable in terms of long-term cognitive impairments.

      Demir, B. Ulug, B. Lay Ergun, E. & Erbas, B. (2002). Regional cerebral blood flow and neuropsychological functioning in early and late onset alcoholism. Psychiatry Research, 115(3), 115-125.


      • Branford73

        *Regarding the claim that the 21 year threshold in place since the federal government placed a 10% highway fund penalty on states who failed to comply is THE cause of reduced traffic fatality rates:*

        Motor vehicles are safer, air bags are required by law, law enforcement has been made more vigorous with improvements in Breathalyzer and radar technology, the legal BAC limit is lower, designated drivers–a term unknown before the mid-1980s–are used frequently, and, perhaps most importantly, seatbelt use has increased from about 14% in 1983 to 80% in 2004. Naimi, T.S., Brewer, R.D., Mokdad, A., Denny, C., Serdula, M., & Marks, J.S. (2003). Binge drinking among U.S. Adults. Journal of the American Medical Association, 289(1), 70-75.


  • kellygreen

    After laser-focusing on academics during high school, a hefty portion of the freshman class comes to Yale having never experienced proper drunkenness. Some stay sober, but many more arrive thirsty for a bit of (lots of) socialization. I can’t imagine the ensuing mess if those freshman could walk into a liquor store as soon as their parents leave campus.

    • Branford73

      You are assuming that removing the legal barrier would lead to a flood of drunkenness by college freshman who immediately drop their focus on academics once parents drop them off. Dubious. The legal barrier has been highly ineffective at stopping binge/excessive drinking and has instead encourage it. Whether it has been effective in lowering death rates from drunk driving in highly debatable.

      Choose Responsibility proposes allowing states to create pilot programs of provisional drinking licenses linked with alcohol education. For more details and a good discussion of the debate, see its website: http://www.chooseresponsibility.org

    • mrmike527

      Here here! I for one could not possibly imagine a Yale where Freshmen are free to irresponsibly get blackout drunk every weekend! I had a great Freshman year sipping fruity fizzy waters with all of my college peers, and if we were to repeal this law, there would be madness.

      • penny_lane

        I can’t tell if you’re joking, but in case you’re not:

        We already have a Yale where freshmen get blackout drunk every weekend. Ahh fresh piles of vomit in the Vandy courtyard…brings back memories ^_^

  • The Anti-Yale

    Old enough to vote? Old enough to enlist? Then old enough to drink.

    I have every reason to want to crack down on drinking and drinkers :

    My grandmother, my cousins’ 16-year-old son, and my 38-year old housemate, (the mother of four children) were all killed by drunk drivers.

    But no law is going to end drunkenness. Alcohol is the world’s oldest addiction.


    M.Div. ’80, etc.

  • yalengineer

    You do realized what happened between the initial proposal of the Amethyst Initiative in 2008 and now right? The fall of 2008.

  • SomebodySmart

    It is unusual in political debate to show hostility, but here it is necessary for the enemies of liberty to break out of their deep denial. They think they need only recite their lame excuses and invalid logic, (“Drinking alcohol during pregnancy harms the baby, so we have to impose Prohibition on men under 21 and not on pregnant women 21 or older.”) and the outvoted discrimination victims will understand and accept it.

    Consider these lines:

    “Rest assured, Senator, that we know why so many politicians would rather impose this blatantly unjust law on us than impose tougher drunk driving laws on themselves.”

    “We resolved we will not join the National Guard. Why should we sign up to protect the lives and property of a bunch of bigots who won’t even vote to protect our right to liberty.”

    “Just remember, Senator, the only reason your government gets away with it is because good cop-killers are hard to find these days. Meanwhile, we have resolved we will never render aid to a cop in distress. We’ll let your governmen t suffer the consequences of your malicious wrongdoing.”

    “If you enjoy the warm feeling you get from protecting us from hangovers, Senator, perhaps you should pour gasoline all over yourself and light a match. You’ll get a warmer feeling, and the human race will be better off without you.”

  • SomebodySmart

    If you drink, you drink. If you drink too much and die, you die. If you drive drunk, you and not somebody else under 21, should be punished. Drinking yourself to death does not violate anybody`s rights. The only legitimate function of any government is to secure the rights of persons. To see how effective the drinking age is in protecting young people, visit http://udadd.com/memorial.html

  • GlobalArts

    Nathaniel, do you *really* think students under 21 will drink less by lowering the drinking age? Sorry, I don’t buy it. The argument that students drink more because the law prohibits many of them from drinking is specious. Cocaine is also illegal, do you think that legal prohibition encourages college students to buy cocaine as well? There are Yalies of all ages who don’t drink, don’t show up at tailgates drunk, and actually are law-abiding! Yeah many are not, but making it easier for everyone to buy booze, is not going to help Yale’s prolific alcohol problem. Sorry but most people’s gut/common sense will not be with you on this one.

    • Branford73

      Drinking is not the problem. Binge drinking and drunkenness is the problem.

      Sometimes truth is counter-intuitive. Often guy/common sense can be wrong and reading and learning more about the subject will change it. The Choose Responsibility folk are not just proposing lowering the age and doing nothing else. It is linked to alcohol education and graduated licensing for the 18-21 folk. 136 University presidents in the U.S. have endorsed the Amethyst Initiative. Try reading some at its website and the Choose Responsibility site I identified above and see if your gut can be educated.

      Or are you among the many Americans who live by the credo, “Don’t confuse me with the facts. I am entitled to my opinion.”

      • GlobalArts

        I’ve actually read a bit about this & I find MADD’s research more convincing,
        Re: Dartmouth, you neglected to mention that there were several incidents of the police actually arresting underage students who drink, busting up parties, etc, which not only the students but quite a few parents did not like having a drinking arrest on their kids record. The Pres. met w/the police there to try to get them to stay off Dartmouth’s property indicating Dartmouth would take more steps to control the drinking situation. Dartmouth’s drinking problem is equal to Yales, but the police have more time on their hands since there is less crime there so they actually have arrested a number of students for drinking. The Amethyst Initiative’s link to alcohol education argument doesn’t amount to much, since there is no reason universities can’t and should do that now.

  • Goldie08

    This Tuesday morning, I had a few beers. They were 10.8% triple IPAs, so I’m taking a nap under my desk.

  • ldffly

    Is anybody on this page old enough to remember the Silliman Saloon? The incident cuts both ways. Kids were passing out 45 minutes after it opened. Proof that they didn’t drink much, therefore couldn’t hold their liquor? Or proof that the 18 year old legal age produced stupid, risky behavior such as trying to down shots at a fake western bar?