It's interesting that at a time when the Scottish Government, and leading policy think tanks are seriously mooting raising the drinking age in the UK to 21 , in the US there is an emerging campaign led by college presidents to make a change in the opposite direction. The recently launched Amethyst initiative is a petition of over 100 US college and university presidents calling for the 21 age limit to be revisited. Their consensus statement is as follows:
I know nothing about the campaign beyond the website I stumbled upon, and of course there are 1000's of colleges in the US and I have no idea how representative the signatories are. But what did strike me was that many of the points made in the statement above are equally applicable to other drugs:
It’s time to rethink the drinking age
In 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which imposed a penalty of 10% of a state's federal highway appropriation on any state setting its drinking age lower than 21.
Twenty-four years later, our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that…
Twenty-one is not working
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.
How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?
We call upon our elected officials:
To support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.
To consider whether the 10% highway fund “incentive” encourages or inhibits that debate.
To invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.
We pledge ourselves and our institutions to playing a vigorous, constructive role as these critical discussions unfold
"A culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking - often conducted off-campus - has developed."
The parallel: Clandestine drug use is more dangerous.
"Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students."
The parallel: Abstinence only education doesn't seem to have worked with drugs
“By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."
The parallel: The need for students to go outside the law to get access to drugs fosters their disrespect for the law in general and for the authorities behind the law
"How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?"
The parallel: Fairly obvious
Age controls are an important element of any legal drug regulatory regime and there will always be a difficult balancing act between dissuading use, not inadvertently creating unintended negative consequences, and respecting the freedoms of consenting adults (itself another age issue). It's not easy and the statement above seems to point to one key point - that any system needs have its effectiveness objectively evaluated on a regular basis. These issues can never be written in stone.
I therefore wonder what the college and university presidents might say if they were approached to apply these same arguments about the prohibition of other drugs? Could this newly-established group -- dedicated only to rethinking the drinking age at present -- be another potential ally, or will it merely perpetuate the hypocrisy of our world by saying that prohibition doesn't work for alcohol or tobacco, but that it should apply to other drugs? That evidence based policy applies to alcohol and tobacco control but that illicit drug prohibition is cast in stone for all time.