The debate about considering a change in the drinking age continues in today’s Billings Gazette, with health advocates and most of the president of Montana universities arguing against the change. I’m not sure where I stand on the issue, but lean towards the idea that the current restrictions don’t work, and could very well increase binge drinking, as young people consume large quantities of alcohol when they can get access to it.
What I do know is that the arguments used to oppose lowering the drinking age need some work. One of the latest arguments is that young people lack the mental development to make informed decisions about alcohol:
Research has shown that the human brain is not fully developed until a person reaches her early 20s, said Jackie Jandt, who works in the chemical dependency bureau of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
"The last part of the brain to develop is the frontal lobe, which is where reasoning is," Jandt said.
It’s the oldest argument in the book, but given this claim, do 18 year olds (some younger) have the mental capacity to sign up for the military, sign a credit card agreement, pick a college, buy a car, or have a romantic relationship? How about smoke a cigarette?
At the same time many states and localities are charging children as adults for crimes, the argument that we should respect mental development seems more than a bit questionable.
There’s a limit to the power of paternalistic lawmaking. The fact is that students at colleges and high schools have easy access to alcohol right now. We know that “Just Say No” tactics don’t prevent drug abuse and that Prohibition didn’t work, and those who’ve been to college recently or worked with young people know that an absolutist position on alcohol has failed.
I say let’s actually listen to the people behind the Amethyst Initiative, to find out what answers they can offer. If the real concern is the health of young people, we need to consider a research-based educational approach, not just knee-jerk reactions.