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Amethyst Initiative: Changing drinking laws?

Drinking is something that you often hear students on campus talking about, but not what you would expect a room full of university presidents to be discussing. This past June, university presidents from around the country got together to talk about drinking. The results turned into somewhat of a national phenomenon.

“To say that the Amethyst Initiative has been covered by every major newspaper in the country isn’t much of an exaggeration,” said John McCardell, founder of the Amethyst Initiative.

In July of 2008, John McCardell, former President of Middlebury College launched the Ameythst Initiative. The Initiative is made up of over 100 college presidents from acros­s the country.

“These leaders have signed their names to a public statement saying that the 21-year-old drinking age is not working, and specifically that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on campuses,” says the Initiative’s website.

According to McCardell, the Initiative does not specifically call for the drinking age to be lowered.

“These presidents are not calling for a particular change in the law, what they are calling for is a serious public debate over whether the current law is working,” said McCardell. “Once that debate is held we can decide on specific policy changes.”

The founder is very passionate about his efforts and has personal reasons for starting the Initiative.

“I was a college president for 13 years, I was a parent of high school and then college-aged young people, during that same time I got to see how this law in reality worked out,” said McCardell.

The initiative is coming at a time when it has the potential to impact lawmakers. In 2009, the transportation bill is up for re-authorization by Congress. This bill includes a 10 percent reduction in annual highway funding to any state setting its drinking age lower than 21. Removing this part of the bill would open up possibilities for changes.

“Removing the incentive will not, by itself, change the drinking age in any state. Only the state legislature can do that. But removal will allow serious discussion and debate to be resumed,” states the Amethyst Initiative’s site.

“When the new Congress convenes there will be an opportunity to challenge the 10 percent forfeit of the Federal Highway Fund. That’s an obstacle that needs to be challenged and in my opinion needs to be removed,” said McCardell. “A decision to take it out is not a decision to take it out forever, but it would give us five years to see if there are policies that work better.”
Drinking is an issue that affects most college students in one way or another, either by drinking or being around those who are.

“We’ve had a rise in students that we’ve seen for alcohol intoxication, not necessarily alcohol poisoning. Mostly it has been underclassmen,” said Jenny Monn of Health Services.

A change in policies related to drinking could have a big effect on the day-to-day life of the average college student. Whether that effect would be positive or negative is debatable.

Some feel that reconsidering public policies related to drinking could help cut down problems with binge drinking at colleges. Kenyon College, located in Ohio, is one of the major supporters of the Initiative.

“Our President is one of the 100-plus college presidents who signed that letter, it’s really just to open a dialogue and get a better understanding,” said Mark Ellis, the News Director at Kenyon.

Kenyon’s President, S. Georgia Nugent, stated, “college students and alcohol have become a volatile combination.” Nugent expressed concern about the effects of the drinking age on the health and safety of students; citing such practices as pre-gaming among younger students as a particular concern. According to her, the drinking age turns alcohol into a “forbidden fruit” with added excitement and allure for the younger students.

“Would changing the drinking age solve alcohol abuse on college campuses? No, probably not. Would it help to curb the phenomenon of binge drinking? Very possibly,” stated Nugent.

Arguments suggest that lowering the drinking age could result in more responsible alcohol use. Artwork by Sheli Hay.
Arguments suggest that lowering the drinking age could result in more responsible alcohol use. Artwork by Sheli Hay.

Anita Breaux, vice president of student affairs at Millersville, argues that the problem with binge drinking is rooted more in culture than in policy.

“More and more students are coming into the university with drinking issues. It seems counter-intuitive to lower the drinking age and increase access,” said Breaux.

“ We are working on more systemic initiatives to change the culture. Our college students arrive on campus with the idea that everyone is out there drinking.”

MU has made significant efforts to educate the campus about responsible drinking. Currently, all incoming students receive an alcohol education program called Choices, while Peer Health Educators facilitate programs related to responsible drinking.

McCardell is hopeful that more signatures will be coming in to support the Initiative. So far, the Initiative has been signed by more than 100 college presidents.

“We sent out about 2,000 letters and we’ve heard back from about 200. We take that to mean that some institutions are still trying to decide,” said McCardell.

McCardell doesn’t have a specific number of signatures he would like to get. “We’d like as many as possible, but if it stopped now I think we would have made a very emphatic point.”

MU students have varied opinions on the Amethyst Initiative; some feel that a lower age would work well on campus.

“I think it’s okay when students can drink at 18. I think that in Germany we are able to learn how to get along with alcohol. In my home country they see it as nothing special,” Magdalina Hyski, a junior studying abroad at MU said. “If they allow it at 18, people might learn to use alcohol properly. Drinking is more about community, you don’t need to get drunk.”

Others feel that now is not the appropriate time to change the policy.

“I think that in our culture the age of 21 is appropriate. But there’s a lot of good arguments for why it should be lowered, such as you can go to war and you can get married but you can’t drink,” said Emily Seeberger, a Peer Health Educator. “I just don’t think many people are old enough to handle the responsibility.”

Others feel that age was not a deciding factor.

“It’s hard for students younger than 21 to make responsible decisions about drinking, but there are plenty of people over 21 who have trouble doing that,” said Kristen Pfeil a resident assistant. “So I don’t think its age. Its knowledge about alcohol and abilities to make responsible choices.”

MU will probably not be joining the Initiative in the near future. President McNairy has issued a public statement against the Initiative; stating that the answer to the drinking issue does not lie in policy changes.

One thing is clear; the initiative has certainly sparked a national conversation.

“In some respects I would say that one component of the Amethyst Initiative I do agree with, is where they say we want to open up the dialogue,” said Breaux. “I agree with that, but we as a university don’t have to sign onto an agreement to do that, we can do that on our own.”

“The fact that this story has gotten so much coverage is incredible,” said McCardell. “There are many conclusions you could draw from that but the most reliable one is that public opinion wants this debate to happen,” said McCardell.