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The Debate On Lowering The Drinking Age

Drinking Age Debate 13:42

Last fall, a group of over 100 college presidents - including the heads of Dartmouth, Virginia Tech and Duke - signed a declaration stating that the 21-year-old drinking age is not working, and fireworks went off.

But the college presidents got what they wanted: a national debate about the drinking age.

When the age was raised to 21 in the mid-1980s, the goal was to reduce highway fatalities. But everyone knows that the 21 age limit hasn't stopped minors from drinking.

And now some experts believe it's actually contributing to an increase in extreme drinking.

This is what the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, John McCardell, believes and it's why he started the movement dedicated to lowering the age back to 18. It may seem counterintuitive, but he argues that lowering the age will make kids safer.

It's like the old days of prohibition: from the suburbs to college campuses to inner cities, kids find ways to get around the 21 year old limit. As McCardell puts it, it's so widespread, it's the norm.

"This law has been an abysmal failure," McCardell told 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl. "It hasn't reduced or eliminated drinking. It has simply driven it underground, behind closed doors, into the most risky and least manageable of settings."

Like basements, fraternity houses and locked dorm rooms, where kids go to hide from the law and from adults, including parents, who might teach them some moderation.

McCardell says the law has created a dangerous culture of irresponsible and reckless behavior, unsupervised binge and extreme drinking, like something called "Six in Ten" - downing six cups of beer in ten seconds, kids trying to perfect the art of getting drunk as fast as possible by playing drinking games.

And pre-loading - downing as much of the forbidden fruit as possible before going out in order to avoid getting caught drinking in public.

"It's bad law in that it is unwork[able]. It's bad social policy…," McCardell said.

Asked if it is unworkable or people just don't enforce it, McCardell told Stahl, "The issue of enforceability is present. But the fact is it is so regularly and routinely avoided, that enforcement results in two arrests or convictions for every thousand violations."

Mark Beckner, the chief of police in Boulder, Colo. - a college town - deals with underage drinking every day. "We're not in a situation where we can stop it. The best we can do is try to contain it," he told Stahl.

"So you're basically telling us that you simply can't enforce the law. They are drinking and you cannot enforce it," Stahl remarked.

"Well, we do enforce it," Chief Beckner replied. "But what we're seeing is it's not being effective."

Beckner has tried many different kinds of enforcement techniques over the years, including strict crack-downs.

"We'd find a party where we know there's underage drinking. We would seal the house. Surround the house with officers and we would write every single underage person coming out of that house. We wrote hundreds and hundreds of tickets those years. All we did is we pushed it further underground," Beckner told Stahl.

For that reason, he is one of the few chiefs of police in the country who publicly agrees with McCardell, and supports lowering the drinking age.

Asked what the advantage is to lowering the age to 18, Beckner said, "The overall advantage is we're not trying to enforce a law that's unenforceable. The abuse of alcohol and the over-consumption of alcohol and DUI driving. Those are the areas we've gotta focus our efforts. Not on chasing kids around trying to give 'em a ticket for having a cup of beer in their hand."

Part of Beckner's jurisdiction is the University of Colorado at Boulder, known as one of the country's top party schools. Boulder was the scene of the terrible tragedy of Gordie Bailey.

Gordie was 18, a freshman at the University of Colorado in 2004. He had been there only one month when he underwent a Chi Psi fraternity initiation with 26 other pledges also underage. Leslie and Michael Lanahan are Gordie's mother and stepfather.

They say the pledges were asked to drink 10 gallons of hard alcohol and wine in half an hour.

"You were certainly viewed as a better man if you could handle more," his mother said.

Asked how much Gordie actually drank, his stepfather told Stahl, "He had had 15 to 20 shots if you had to measure it. They were not putting it into shots and drinking it. It was just guzzling out of the neck of the bottle."

By the time the group got back to the fraternity house, Lanahan says that Gordie was incapacitated. "His eyes were rolling back in his head and he couldn't walk. This isn't something somebody who'd just had too much to drink. He was clearly in trauma."

Lanahan says that the fraternity brothers put Gordie on the library couch, and just left him there, alone. "The president of the fraternity did ask several brothers at intervals to go in and take Gordie's pulse, as if to say 'Tell me if he's alive or dead.'"

Lanahan told Stahl Gordie lay passed out on a couch for nine hours, until someone called 911 for help.

"We got a guy who's passed out. He drank way too much and we found him this morning," a student told a 911 operator.

Asked if Gordie was breathing, the student told the operator, "I don't know. He's not waking up."

"Gordie died alone in an empty room with his friends surrounding him. And it's just very preventable. Just inexcusable," Lanahan told Stahl.

Gordie died of alcohol poisoning. To try and prevent another senseless death, the Lanahans have created the Gordie Foundation to spread the word about the dangers of alcohol abuse, and recently released "Haze," a film about excessive drinking on college campuses.

"If the drinking age had been 18 instead of 21, would the kids have called for help when Gordie passed out?" Stahl asked Leslie Lanahan.

"I think so," she replied.

"So because it was illegal you think that's why they didn't call?" Stahl asked.

"I think that's right," Lanahan said.

Asked if he agreed with that, Michael Lanahan told Stahl, "Well, they had alcohol in the fraternity house which was against their policy. They had minors buying the alcohol, serving the alcohol to minors. They had to make a decision about what they were going to do and unfortunately they made the wrong decision."

John McCardell points to the story of Gordie Bailey as one reason he supports lowering the drinking age to 18 which after all, he says, is the age when we're considered adults for most things, like firing a weapon and putting you're your life on the line in battle. "Why don't we trust these young adults to make the same kind of responsible decisions about alcohol that we believe them capable of making in the voting booth, in the jury box, on the battlefield?"

"The inconvenient truth is that a drinking age at 18 would cause more funerals. Nine hundred families a year would have to bury a teenager," said Chuck Hurley, the executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving or MADD.

MADD was a major force behind raising the drinking age to 21 back in 1984 because of increased traffic fatalities from drunk, teenage drivers.

"When the United States reduced its drinking age in the seventies it was a public health disaster. Death rates in the states that reduced their drinking age jumped 10 to 40 percent," Hurley explained.

He told Stahl one could see an immediate jump in fatalities after the age was lowered. "When the drinking age was increased, the fatalities fell."

After the drinking age was raised to 21, the number of traffic fatalities among 18 to 20 year olds declined by 13 percent, which is why Hurley has some public health organizations on his side.

"We're delighted to be working with the American Medical Association, with the National Transportation Safety Board, with the National Safety Council, with the International Association Chiefs of Police, with the Governor's Highway Safety Association, with the Surgeon General of the United States, with the U.S. Transportation Secretary," Hurley told Stahl.

"There are a list of impressive organizations that have lined up against you," Stahl told John McCardell. "They feel that you have no data to back up what you're saying. That what you're proposing would be basically an experiment."

"Well, I think that first of all we need to understand that lives are being put at risk off the highways in increasing numbers year by year as a result of this law," McCardell replied.

"Increasing numbers," Stahl remarked.

"That number of lives lost to alcohol by 18 to 24 year olds is going up at an alarming rate. It isn't just about lives lost on the highways," McCardell replied.

So what we have is a conundrum: a law that has reduced highway deaths may, according to McCardell, be contributing to an increase in off-highway deaths. The surgeon general says more than 3,000 Americans under the age of 21 are dying every year of alcohol-related causes other than driving including homicide, suicide, and alcohol poisoning.

The chilling statistics appear to have little impact on behavior. As evidenced by a quick tour of the Internet, Web sites glorify excessive drinking and even teach kids how to do get loaded in a few seconds.

These drinking tips are so common and popular, YouTube and are used like instruction manuals.

Chuck Hurley of MADD says the answer is not lowering the age to 18. That, he contends, would just increase the availability of alcohol to even younger adults. "Guess what's gonna happen in high school? Literally the trickle down approach."

"So what you're saying is 18 year-olds today get 21 year-olds to go get them liquor. You're saying 15 year-olds would get the 18 year-olds to do that?" Stahl asked.

"Yeah, that is what we're saying," Hurley replied.

"If the age were 18, would it be easier to enforce? Then you'd have 17 year-olds. You'd have to enforce it against them," Stahl said. "Is it your goal to eliminate all drinking among people under 21?"

"Yes," he said.

Asked if that's realistic, Hurley said no. "Well, our goal really would be in an ideal world to eliminate underage drinking."

But he acknowledged that that's a difficult goal to achieve.

John McCardell thinks even aiming for abstinence is impractical. And besides, he thinks the real problem is alcohol abuse - excessive and binge drinking.

And so he has a proposal that accompanies his plan to lower the age to 18. "Alcohol education is what we need and that is a very important part of our proposal. And by that I don't mean temperance lectures and I don't mean prohibition, nor do I mean encouragement to drink," he told Stahl.

What he does mean is mandatory classes in high school that would include the chemistry of alcohol, the physical consequences of abuse, and sitting in on AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) sessions. Passing an exam would result in a license to drink.

"So what you're saying is alcohol education would be like driving education," Stahl remarked.

"That's a good analogy," McCardell replied.

"You'd have to take the course, there'd be a test, you'd get the license. If you violate it, the license is taken away?" Stahl asked.

"Right away, that's right," McCardell said. "And think about that analogy. It would never occur to us to say to a young person once they reach driving age, 'Here are the keys. Good luck. Go figure it out.'"

McCardell thinks this idea - testing and licensing - is better than leaving things the way they are. Given the vast opposition to lowering the age, his chances of succeeding are slim, but as a history professor he says it comes down to what we already know.

"We have lived through prohibition. We know prohibition doesn't work," he said. "We know that on our college campuses. We know that in our households. We know that in the military. We know that in non-college America as well. Legal age 21 seeks to impose prohibition on young adults. And that's the way, and in my view, the only way to look at this question."

Produced by Ruth Streeter

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