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Harvard has a drinking problem.
Maybe we’re partying too much: Rising alcohol-related UHS admissions led to a series of administrative crackdowns on unsanctioned boozy events ranging from Pfoho Golf to River Run. Or maybe we’re not partying enough: Last semester, the UC put up a cool 10 Gs in an attempt to fertilize the at-times barren social landscape, and the debate over final clubs often boils down to one between the social space haves and have-nots. So we find ourselves with a conundrum: Given the status quo, any step taken to solve either the problem of social space or the problem of alcohol consumption almost necessarily exacerbates the other.
However, there is one way to separate dangerous and illicit drinking from responsible drinking. The current drinking age legally and therefore institutionally severs over half of the students from the preferred methods of social interaction, ranging from the cocktail party to the kegger. Such legal alienation drives students to drink dangerous amounts in unfavorable situations. As a student who shares a name with both an alumnus brewer and a favored local lager, I feel it is my duty to play the role of Bacchus’s advocate.
135 college presidents, those of Dartmouth and Duke among them, realized that current alcohol policy is doing more harm than good. Hence the Amethyst Initiative, a 2008 petition that asserts we as a nation should rethink the legal drinking age.
President Faust, it’s time to sign the Amethyst Initiative. Harvard’s acknowledgment that the current drinking age could be the source of the various problems associated with alcohol here and across the country would instigate a broad national debate, which can do nothing but good. The initiative calls the need for a sober and honest discussion on a political topic that almost never gets discussed beyond stereotypes and facile appeals to emotion. To clarify, Faust’s signature would not commit Harvard to a stance in favor of a lower drinking age.
Harvard’s unique ability to generate headlines around the world any time anything remotely interesting happens here is a tool that should not be ignored. While the administration’s hands are legally tied when it comes to its on-campus alcohol policy, they do have a reasonable amount of power when it comes to shaping the national debate about those very same laws. Faust’s signature would push the stagnating Amethyst Initiative to the forefront.
Were the drinking age lowered to 18, safe drinking would replace binge drinking in the large majority of situations. Dangerous binge drinking does not occur in house-hosted Stein Clubs or happy hours. It occurs behind locked doors in dorm rooms and private clubs.
Dangerous drinking occurs among underclassmen who take too many shots of cheap vodka at a pregame because they don’t know whether they’ll encounter any more booze at their next destination. Dangerous drinking occurs not because there are too many opportunities for drinking, but because there are too few.
It’s easy to forget that the drinking age of 21 is a new invention. Until 1979 it was legal for an 18-year-old to drink in Massachusetts. The elevation of the legal age came from the 1984 extortionary congressional act that withheld highway funds from a state unless it raised the drinking age. The constitutionality of such a mandate is highly suspect and made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
The drinking age of 21 entices students to procure fake IDs. In a world with a drinking age of 18, the false identification market would hardly exist except for those who are looking to commit serious acts of identity theft or worse. This would make it actually worth the police’s time to investigate and prosecute within this smaller but malicious market. Aside from the enforcement perspective, the explosion of demand for fake IDs erodes respect for all laws among otherwise well-behaved youth.
Finally, legalizing drinking would eliminate its rebellious appeal. Sure, having a couple of drinks on the weekend is fun, but at the end of the day getting drunk is nowhere near as compelling as the average college student makes it out to be. Many kids binge drink because it’s new and it’s rebellious. The current law creates a reverse psychology in which drinking is more appealing because of its illegality, a lesson we learned during Prohibition.
If the administration is serious about addressing its dual problems of student over-drinking and under-enjoyment, then President Faust must sign the Amethyst Initiative. I understand the adminstration’s current perspective; they are compelled to abide by the letter of the the law. But Harvard has the unique ability to call attention to the counter-productivity of a law such as this one.
Sam N. Adams ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.
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