Former Middlebury President advocates lowering drinking age

You may have seen him on ‘The Colbert Report,’ ’60 Minutes’ or this past Thursday, standing under the lights in Billings North Lounge. Former President of Middlebury College Dr. John McCardell led a discussion about lowering the drinking age in Vermont from 21 to 18. McCardell is the founder and president of Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit organization aimed at encouraging discussion about alcohol, American culture and lowering the drinking age. ‘Young people drink. People under 21 drink. They are going to get their hands on it. How can we make it safe and responsible?’ State Representative Kesha Ram said as she introduced McCardell. McCardell began by asking the audience how many of them had consumed alcohol before they turned 21. The majority of the room raised their hands. ‘This law is out of staff with the social and cultural realities,’ he said. ‘Seventy-five percent of high school students, 60 percent of sophomores and 40 percent of eighth graders have had alcohol,’ McCardell said. ‘You can say a lot about this but you cannot say the 21-year-old drinking age law is working.’ This 21-year-old drinking age has caused more problems than it has fixed, he said. ‘This law has created a clandestine, goal-oriented, binge-drinking culture,’ McCardell said. Director of Student Life Stacey Miller said that the college drinking culture is the core issue. ‘It is just natural when you get away from your parents, you are going to do crazy, zany things,’ she said. ‘I think first years are going to do the same thing whether the drinking age is changed or not.’ More needs to be done to remedy this problem than the change of one law, she said. ‘What are we going to do [as a society] to create a new drinking culture? There needs to be a bigger shift than just this law,’ Miller said. ‘What societal infrastructure are we going to create to promote a new culture?’ The current drinking age has caused problems and should be lowered, Steve Coon, the parent of a UVM student, said. ‘What is happening is that 18- to 21-year-old students have to find places to go. Instead of taking $20 to a bar to buy three beers and drinking in a supervised environment, they buy a case, go into a basement and play drinking games,’ Coon said. ‘If you can’t drink in a public place, but you are still drinking, what does that leave you with? A dorm? An off-campus apartment? A farm? These are the worst places to learn about and consume alcohol. It puts life, health and brain at risk,’ McCardell said. Sophomore Caroline Fenn does not agree that the entire state’s legislation should be changed. ‘I think that lowering the age in one area, like Burlington, as sort of a ‘tester’ would be a good idea,’ she said. ‘If the age changes to 18 everywhere, I feel like the amount of accidents caused by alcohol would greatly increase at first, but then go down.’ Another student said she is concerned with the effectiveness of changing legislation in just one state. ‘I don’t think it would work with just Vermont. It would work better if it were national instead of the idea of all the states against one state,’ she said. ‘Also, it is more likely that a 15-year-old will know someone who is 18, versus knowing someone who is 21, so younger teens will have more access to alcohol.’ McCardell invited the audience to a joint hearing two days later on underage drinking between the House and Senate committees responsible for alcohol policy. ‘Vermont is taking a leadership role on this issue,’ McCardell said. ‘What laboratory of progression is better than the Green Mountain State?’ States do not want to argue about the drinking age, because any state that lowers the drinking age loses 10 percent of their federal highway funds, McCardell said. ‘For Vermont, that 10 percent of federal highway funds adds up to $17.5 million dollars. It would fall on Vermonters to correct that justice,’ he said. McCardell encouraged audience members who agreed with the ideas of Choose Responsibility to sign a petition. ‘The state is ready to take this on in a bipartisan way and do what is best for us -‘- but they need to hear from us,’ McCardell said.