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McCartney: Drinking-age laws and cultural hypocrisy

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler’s failure to report apparent underage drinking at a raucous “Beach Week” party that he visited reminds us of America’s gross hypocrisy in keeping laws on the books that large swaths of society have no intention of enforcing.

Gansler, who’s running for governor, deserves all the criticism heaped on him for his double talk over the incident in Delaware. He said initially that he had no moral authority over other people’s children, even though he’s recorded public service announcements discouraging teen drinking.

Laughably, Gansler suggested he hadn’t been certain the youths’ red plastic cups contained beer.

Clearly, a top law enforcement official shouldn’t be tolerating such wrongdoing. But let’s be honest: Thousands of parents do the same every spring.

The legal drinking age of 21 is routinely ignored, especially on college campuses. Parents and other adult authorities often wink at the violations, or even cooperate to minimize potential harm by ensuring that nobody drives drunk.

We ought to have a large-scale public debate about lowering the drinking age to 18, combined with stepped-up education to encourage young people who want to drink to learn to do so responsibly and in moderation.

Sadly, the political climate doesn’t allow such a discussion. Anybody who questions keeping the drinking age at 21 runs into a wall of opposition from such advocates as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Supporters of the current law – which generally bars people younger than age 21 from purchase or public possession of alcohol – believe it’s vital to protect young people. Nobody in Congress wants to argue with that.

Consider what happened to the Amethyst Initiative of 2008. More than 130 college and university presidents declared that “twenty-one is not working.” They said the abstinence-only policy contributed to a dangerous culture of clandestine binge drinking among students.

Signers, who included the top officials at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins, stopped short of explicitly urging a lower drinking age. Instead, they called for “an informed and dispassionate public debate.”

It didn’t happen. The effort drew some interest, but then withered under a blaze of righteous indignation.

“It was immediately met with a vituperative response from MADD, which sent letters to everybody who signed it, saying they were endangering children under their care,” said Barrett Seaman, president of Choose Responsibility, the nonprofit group that launched the initiative.

“It’s been hard for us, given that kind of pushback, to get others to take the risk,” he said.

Now, I join practically everyone in applauding MADD for raising public consciousness to help stop drunken driving. I also concede there are risks in lowering the legal age to 18. In particular, it could encourage more drinking among those 17 and younger.

But people who defend the law have a responsibility to explain how they think it should be enforced and why they think that’s not happening now.

MADD says college administrators should do more.

“It’s time for college campuses to step up to the plate,” said J.T. Griffin, the group’s chief government affairs officer. “Shouldn’t we strive to have a place that’s for learning, that’s not about going out on Friday or Saturday night and getting wasted?”

But students I interviewed at U-Md.’s College Park campus said the law was unenforceable. Students use fake IDs or obtain alcohol from older friends – or even their parents.

University System of Maryland Chancellor William Kirwan, who signed the Amethyst Initiative five years ago, said through a spokesman that he stands by it.

“He did not and does not endorse lowering the drinking age to under 21, but rather supported a thorough public health policy discussion,” the spokesman said. Kirwan urged “thorough research on how young people can become informed to make better and more responsible decisions with regard to alcohol that conform with the law.”

That’s a thoughtful, conscientious position. It deserves a full airing rather than instant dismissal.

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