Back in 1984, during one of those recurring periods when lawmakers take up the belief that they can eliminate bad behavior by passing more restrictive, cleverly worded laws against it, the federal government muscled the states into bumping the legal drinking age up to 21 by threatening to withhold highway funds. In Winona we can easily see the consequences, most of them, naturally, unintended. Particularly among college students, underage drinking takes place all over town wherever student housing exists, with attendant uproar, trouble, rowdyism, and a general disorderliness, no supervision save what senior guys might provide to underclass girls (oh, to be young again).
Of course there is a much more serious downside, as some of these innocents arrive from households where knowledge, apparently, was never imparted that there is a significant difference in the properties of soda pop and hard liquor, increasingly packaged and flavored like something dispensed at the Dairy Queen. In Minnesota since last fall, there have reportedly been at least five deaths caused by the consumption of toxic amounts of alcohol. One of them was right here in sleepy Winona.
Similar problems exist across the nation, particularly on and around the campus, to the point that 100 college and university presidents have signed a manifesto called the Amethyst Initiative. It sounds like one of those cocktail potions designed to debauch 18-year-old girls, but actually poses a serious and difficult question: would we not be better off as a society to take the legal drinking age back down to 18? The initiative poses the question of whether it is fair to ask adults under 21 to vote, sit on juries, and enlist in the military, while denying them the innocent pleasure of a glass of beer.
In reality, I think, the signers are sick and tired of being the nearest thing to a controlling authority over the circumstances in which youngsters are first introduced to the pleasures and pitfalls of drinking alcoholic beverages. Obviously, underage drinking off campus or in the dorms is not a good situation, often dangerous.
What is to be done, other than introduce Drinking 101 to the curriculum? I would suggest that the situation that existed pre-1984 right here in Winona, was highly preferable to what we have now, if not perfect. Eighteen-year-olds could drink legally in the bars, to which they flocked, in concentrated locations. Drinking was marginally supervised by the proprietors, who had legal liability for over-serving, though admittedly hard to pin down. In any case, wobbly rookies downing shots of Watermelon Schnapps could be cut off by a responsible authority who, at the least, did not want to clean up a mess in the (hopefully) lavatory.
At the same time, police, knowing where the party was taking place, could eliminate much of the guesswork as to where and when to patrol, and the neighborhoods were relatively peaceful, at least more so than today. And the issue of drinking and driving was more easily addressed as opposed to the current situation where underage drinking is spread out all over town.
The scenario could be tweaked one way or the other. Perhaps 19 would be a better choice, in an attempt to weed out the high school seniors and, inevitably, their younger friends. In Wisconsin, years ago, there were beer bars for 18-20-year-olds, which allowed a sort of training wheels situation for young drinkers. It is hard to drink enough beer to lapse into a coma, although plenty easy to take on a package that shouldnít be driving around in a car. I would argue that the latter would be minimized and more easily controlled in an organized legal setting.
There is a good argument that young people and society would be better off if they didnít drink until the age of 21. Unfortunately, the present laws donít accomplish that, but do insure a troublesome and dangerous problem of underage drinking.