Lowering drinking age

In California, a proposed ballot initiative to lower the drinking age has been cleared to collect signatures. If it gets 365,880 signatures by April 26 of 2016, the drinking age will be lowered to 18 statewide. This is a mistake. Now, I’ve never heard of someone actually getting in trouble for drinking underage.  It’s not like high school students living at home with access to a liquor cabinet are living in fear of having their doors busted down by the police.

Drinking and driving is an issue, and lowering the drinking age isn’t going to help it. Sometimes, it makes sense to relax rules if the environment makes it safe to do so. I used to live in Kansas, in a city where kids could get their permits at 14 and a half, and their license at 15. It was a relatively flat, low traffic area with mild weather. I wouldn’t want 14-year-olds in big cities learning to drive, but the exception, in a small town, made sense.  Similarly, I can agree with flexible underage drinking rules, like being allowed to drink at holidays or, as is already legal, at home with parental supervision.

The motivation isn’t to “give young people their rights.” It’s to make money. The argument that teenagers should be allowed to drink has no basis. Teenagers already drink. The actual behavioral change will be an increase in alcohol sales, to a demographic that tends to have a lot of disposable income. The irony is, states that don’t have a drinking age of 21 lose 10 percent of their federal highway funding. Even with sales tax, most of the money from alcohol consumption goes to the manufacturers, not to the state.

Having a higher drinking age is kind of like McDonalds not offering fries as a default side in their happy meal. It doesn’t mean that the restaurant is depriving children of fries. The intent is to offer choices that might be better for a younger person, who will be impacted differently by something unhealthy. The option isn’t removed, but there’s acknowledgement that their judgement will improve with maturity.

Additionally, alcohol’s detrimental effects on the developing brain have been well studied. When it comes to the brain of an unborn infant, there is no minimum amount of alcohol that can be consumed by the mother that won’t affect the baby. Since the brains of young adults are still being formed into their early twenties, there is similarly no “safe” drinking age. Sure, the effects will occur later in life than they would for an infant, but compromising brain development at this stage still sets people up for impaired function for the rest of their adult life.

Neither of my parents really drink, and when they do, they don’t get drunk. I haven’t really encountered many drunken people in my life, but I have been around people who drink, people who enjoy drinking, who tell stories about drinking, and who construct their social life around alcohol.

I’ve had people tell me about the mistakes they made while drunk, about the anxiety that comes in the morning alongside a hangover. All the while, seemingly disconnected from who they were 12 hours ago, and what happened, because they were so intoxicated. In any other context, dizziness, vomiting, headaches, blackouts and amnesia would be frightening symptoms that would have someone heading to the hospital, but these sensations are welcomed in the name of having fun.

I don’t have the moral high ground here, just because I don’t drink. I don’t like alcohol, so it’s easier for me. I’m able to learn from the mistakes of teenage drinkers, so I can avoid making them myself. Other people I’ve known eventually learn from their own mistakes. That doesn’t mean they should be given a head start making them.