The Debate On Lowering The Drinking Age

60 Minutes: Some Say Age Should Be Lowered To 18, But MADD And Others Strongly Disagree

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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.