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Drink up (or down)

BY BEAU ELLIOT | MARCH 09, 2010 7:30 AM

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Last week, quite famously now, the Iowa City City Council (yes, that repeat of the word “City” is quite annoying, but what are we going to do, rename the town?) brought back the 21-ordinance from the dead.

Curious. Maybe the city councilors have been watching lots of zombie movies lately. I hear they’re all the rage.

Oh, yes, I know: Imbibing alcohol is a huge problem in this burg, and University of Iowa undergraduates do little else. How thousands of them manage to graduate each year is anybody’s guess.

And, to tell the truth, 21-only doesn’t affect me much — I’m a year or two or three older than 21, and the watering hole I frequent now and then is 21-only. And when I was the age of most Iowa undergraduates today, I and the crowd I hung out with didn’t do much drinking. We had another substance that we preferred. As I recall, we referred to people who did prefer alcohol as beer-heads.

With probably more than a hint of scorn.

But, OK, this town has a drinking problem, UI undergraduates are at the center of it, and the 21-ordinance is the panacea.

Take the view of Tom Rocklin, the UI interim vice president for Student Services and occasional film censor. Last week, he told The Daily Iowan: “The big reason we’re taking a position now is that things have changed. The council has tried a number of ways to counteract underage drinking. Though they’ve seemed reasonable, they just haven’t worked.”

I don’t want to quibble with his language, but things really haven’t changed. You have a great number of college-age people (and the general assumption is most are UI students) filling downtown and drinking alcohol, especially on Thursday through Saturday evenings. It was true in 2007, and it’s true now.

It was no doubt true in 1997.

I just don’t see how making the bars 21-only is going to change anything. If underage people want to get alcohol badly enough, they will find a way to get it. That’s been true since there was a drinking age. That’s the history of prohibitions — people always find a way around them.

Take pot. As we all know, there’s a prohibition against it. So, nobody in this town smokes marijuana, right? C’mon. But the police bust everyone who smokes pot, right? Double c’mon.

There’s a school of thought (well, I’m not sure it’s a school or, for that matter, a thought) that holds the drinking scene, if 21-only passes, will simply move to house parties. And in response, a spokeswoman for the police, Sgt. Denise Brotherton, told the DI that it’s much easier to control three house parties than 42 bars. But what if it turns out to be 103 house parties? Or 203? Or …?

Obviously, I don’t know (and I don’t think anyone else does, either) if there will be a tsunami of house parties or how the police will handle the situation if there is.

But what I find truly noxious about the resurrection of 21-only is that elected officials are exhuming it after Iowa City voters overwhelmingly buried it at the ballot box in 2007 (58 percent to 42 percent, if you’re keeping score at home). In fact, Mayor Matt Hayek probably won his council seat in that same election because of anti-21-ordinance voters. (In 2007, he opposed the ordinance. A sitting city councilor who was pro-ordinance lost her re-election bid. Hmmm.)

Yes, I know — people change their minds all the time. Just look at the divorce rate. But it’s something along the lines of unseemly for an elected official to turn his back on the people who put him in office.

Oh, well.

One thing’s almost certain. If 21-only is instituted, those who make and sell fake IDs are going to make out like Goldman Sachs.


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