Editorial: Vote NO on repealing 21-only


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On Tuesday, Iowa City voters will decide the future of the 21-ordinance, a rule adopted in 2010 that prohibits people under the age of 21 from being in Iowa City’s bars past 10 p.m. — unless the bar in question is a music venue or it makes more than half its money selling food.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board suggests that voters vote “NO” to keep the 21-ordinance in place.

The debate surrounding this issue has degenerated into little more than a statistical stalemate, with each side padding its arguments with numbers that paint the ordinance in its preferred light.

Supporters of the ordinance point to statistics that show a drop in calls requesting service in cases of intoxication, fights, loud parties, assault, rape, and other crimes in the three years since the 21-ordinance took effect.

Opponents of the ordinance point to a recent report from the Iowa Policy Research Organization which found that certain alcohol-related crimes — PAULA citations, most notably — fell between 2010 and 2013 but may have done so even if the 21-ordinance had not been enacted. They also point to an increase in disorderly house citations and a slight citywide increase in ambulance trips as evidence that students have merely migrated from the bars to house parties.

It is unclear exactly what has happened to crime in Iowa City as a result of the 21-ordinance. Increased enforcement efforts and changed policies likely contributed more to these trends. For example, a 2012 ordinance that expanded civil citations for disorderly house infractions to include all tenants on the relevant lease may be responsible for any rise in disorderly house citations.

Ultimately, it’s really tough to untangle the effects of the 21-ordinance from other more substantial policy changes. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that downtown Iowa City is more docile than it was in the past and that the city’s neighborhoods haven’t been overrun by parties.

Opponents of the 21-ordinance have also made a number of claims that requiring 19- and 20-year-olds — legally adults — to leave bars at 10 p.m. constitutes a violation of their rights. We agree that the drinking age should be reduced to match the threshold of adulthood recognized elsewhere by the government, but this isn’t an appropriate forum for a discussion of the definition of adulthood. The drinking law — set by the state, encouraged by the federal government — is what it is, barring a legislative fight on a much greater scale than a municipal election in Iowa.

Those who support repealing the ordinance have also made a rather cynical appeal regarding the alleged ineffectiveness of the rule in curbing underage drinking. Students who want to drink, they argue, will do so whether in a bar or elsewhere. That may be true to an extent, but this argument misstates the mechanism by which the ordinance seeks to reduce problem drinking in Iowa City.

The ordinance may increase to some degree the difficulty (and, by extension, the economic cost) of drinking and deter some potential drinkers in that way. But more importantly, the ordinance seeks to remove the bar scene from the center of student life.

There’s some evidence that this effort may be working — survey data from the National Collegiate Health Assessment show binge drinking at its lowest point in two decades. Of course, as with any statistics, it’s tough to attribute this decline to the 21-ordinance specifically.

What’s important to remember in this debate is that there’s so much rhetorical gamesmanship going on that the truth — that the effects and consequences of the 21-ordinance are really mild in all directions — gets lost. The debate is framed in terms of big themes — safety, freedom, etc. — but those are all pretty marginally affected by this ordinance.

The city has proven to be amenable to changes to the law — the music venue exception most notably. It is by no means draconian. This isn’t oppression; it isn’t an infringement on anyone’s rights. It’s just an attempt by the city to better enforce the laws on the books and potentially reduce the incidence of problem drinking in Iowa City.

It’s certainly difficult to sort out the ordinance’s effects on crime and student behavior based on the relevant statistics, and it’s even harder to untangle them anecdotally simply because almost all of the Iowa undergraduates with a working memory of the pre-2010 Iowa City party scene are gone.

We’re left with the ordinance on the books — a relatively modest effort to solve a big problem. It deserves to stand.

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