REGcartoon4As underage students return to University of Wisconsin this fall and freshmen attend the university for the first time, discussion will inevitably turn to the relentless oppression engendered by the drinking age. Students across campus will spend their hard-earned money on fake IDs, borrow the old IDs of their relatives and their classmates who look just remotely like themselves and take any risk to get into the bars and purchase liquor. Don’t be fooled by UW’s recent drop off the list of the nation’s top 20 party schools — the culture of underage binge drinking is alive and well on campus.

College presidents and chancellors from around the country have recently formed an organization known as the Amethyst Initiative to lobby lawmakers to rethink the federal drinking age. So far, this group includes 128 college administrators, including the former chancellor of UW-Parkside, Jack Keating and the president of Ripon College, David Joyce .

Incoming UW chancellor Biddy Martin has a chance to make her mark by supporting this worthy cause. She seemed to indicate openness to the Amethyst Initiative in a recent Capital Times interview. It would be a radical move for her to support lowering the drinking age. Binge drinking is a huge problem for the campus and the state, and conventional wisdom indicates such a policy could make the problem worse. Thus, support for the initiative from Martin has the potential to make a big splash and draw a lot of attention.

Many studies have been conducted on the effects of the legal drinking age, and available evidence seems to indicate the current drinking age just moves the problem underground. It breeds the kind of dangerous clandestine drinking college administrators should really worry about. The kind of drinking that detracts from students’ educational experience and leads to sexual assault, unplanned pregnancies, STIs, visits to detox and even deaths. Alcohol kills about 1,700 18- to 24-year-old students every year.

Congress has effectively mandated the 21-year-old drinking age since 1984 by depriving any state with a lower drinking age of highway funds. Unfortunately, it is not clear the law has had the desired effect. Alcohol-related automobile fatalities have indeed declined since the passage of the law, but they were in decline long before the law’s implementation due to safer car designs, the proliferation of seatbelts and airbags, tougher enforcement and the trend toward designated drivers.

While the decline in fatalities has been particularly large among 16- to 20-year-olds, fatalities have declined much less among 21- to 24-year-olds between 1982 and 2004. The incidence of alcohol-related automobile fatalities for 21-year-olds was twice that of 18-year-olds in 2002. This indicates raising the drinking age simply shifted the age group most at risk of alcohol-related deaths.

It is also clear underage prohibition does not prevent underage drinking. According to the latest National Survey on Drug and Alcohol Use in 2005, 85 percent of 20-year-olds reported using alcohol and two out of five consider themselves binge drinkers, consuming five or more drinks at within a short period of time. To put that number in context, only about 15 percent of adults are considered binge drinkers. According to the CDC, underage drinking is much more likely to involve hard liquor, since the goal for most underage drinkers is to get wasted as fast as possible.

There are many policy solutions that are likely to target risky drinking rather than punishing underage but responsible drinking. Alcohol taxes in Wisconsin are the second lowest in the nation, and raising them by a modest amount, while unpopular, could reduce binge drinking at the margins. Another important policy to supplement the lower drinking age is maintaining zero-tolerance laws for drivers under 21. This should be accompanied by toughening the penalties for drunken driving violations and potentially marking drivers’ licenses so those convicted of DUIs cannot be served in bars and liquor stores.

The time has come for lawmakers to end their counterproductive efforts to stamp out youth drinking. It does more harm than good to turn drinking into a “forbidden fruit,” prohibited even after the commonly accepted age of adulthood. It is better to allow drinking when one is still under parental supervision so parents can encourage healthy decisions. The underage individuals already breaking the law by consuming any alcohol tend to do so in unregulated and reckless ways. And of course, there’s no logical reason someone who’s old enough to vote and fight for their country isn’t old enough to legally have a beer with their friends. So please, Ms. Martin, get behind the Amethyst Initiative and help reframe the alcohol debate away from prohibition and toward sane and fair limitations.

Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and economics.