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Guest: Alcohol policies are in shambles, need re-thinking

BY JON SHELNESS - GUEST OPINION | MARCH 30, 2010 7:30 AM

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One theory holds that humans abandoned the nomadic life with the discovery of brewing. Large quantities of beer were just too heavy to carry around, so we invented civilization. But what we have now is civilization run amok around alcohol — at the University of Iowa and around the country.

The broad range of failed policies aimed at youthful drinking stretches from Washington, D.C., to all 50 states, to local governments, and to institutions of higher learning. Laws, ordinances, codes, and policies have been instituted to register kegs, curtail drink specials or “happy hours,” ban drinking in dorms, establish party-response police teams in communities, and more.

Now, Iowa City is about to try another unworkable policy by banning 19- and 20-year-olds from bars.

Ample evidence exists at Iowa State in Ames, Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and Drake in Des Moines that harsh restrictions on alcohol drives the behavior underground, pushing young people to use more hard liquor in unsupervised private house parties. Let’s not forget the predatory rapes and sexual assaults of unchaperoned women. And the thousands of deaths from alcohol-poisoning and alcohol-related accidents.

Who is mostly at fault for this? Older established adults who have devised this crazy-quilt of laws in college towns, forcing drinking underground, and enabling this behavior. Yet these same adults — many of them children of the 1960s — have the nerve to blame undergraduates for lacking the maturity to govern themselves.

In the words of Dr. Phil, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

The results of these laws, according to the Amethyst Initiative, an organization that encourages rethinking the drinking age of 21, are:

• “A culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’ — often conducted off-campus — has developed.”

• “Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.”

• “Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries, and enlisting in the military but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.”

• “By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.”

Currently, 135 college and university presidents and chancellors support the Amethyst Initiative.

The way to fix the problem in Iowa City is not to make access to alcohol even harder. In my opinion, the state Board of Regents and the Iowa Legislature have the moral duty, despite federal threats to cut highway funds by 10 percent, to reject the 21-year-old drinking age.

In protest, universities should be allowed to organize campus keg beer parties that require student identification to enter. Keg beer is easier to control and measure, and campus staff and student aides would be there to supervise. Campuses should also reopen campus bars and allow kegs in the dorms.

Additionally, lowering the drinking age will do little harm if laws around drunk driving and other alcohol-related offenses are strictly enforced. Proof comes from Canada, where the drinking age is still 18, yet drunken-driving incidents are down because of creative sanctions and education.

Let’s not repackage the Prohibition era of the 1920s. Instead, let’s be a trendsetter and make it easier for undergraduates to access alcohol in responsible ways.

Jon Shelness is a Des Moines resident.


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