Monday, October 07, 2013

Deeth's Drinking Age: A Reply

October 6, 2013 10:30 a.m.

21 -- "Not Just a Good Idea, It's the Law"

Reluctantly, I must part company with John Deeth -- for whom I have enormous respect when it comes to his political work and judgment -- on the matter of underage drinking. (His original column, and his response to this blog essay, appear below in their entirety.)

There is a long list of reasons why.

A drinking age of 18 is something that he and a great many others support -- including those whose motto is "Iowa City: Where Great Minds Drink Alike." [Photo credit: Nicholas Johnson.]

Teach Children Respect for Law: Follow It or Lobby to Change It. So far as I'm concerned, those who would like to change the law are welcome to try. It is not my purpose on this occasion to make arguments for, or against, reducing the legal drinking age to 18. Thus, assertions such as, "If you're old enough to fight a war, you should be old enough to have a beer," are irrelevant. From my perspective, arguments for changing the law are unpersuasive as reasons for violating the law.

Perhaps it is the lawyer in me, but I think it is irresponsible, and poor parenting, to tell our children, as John Deeth writes, that "It's tacitly OK to start drinking in your late teens, as long as you don't get caught." Kids have enough inclination as it is to be bound by no higher moral and ethical standards than whatever is required to avoid getting caught. Are there any laws, regulations, or religious values that John believes one should comply with, whether or not one will get caught? If so, he has failed to provide us his standard by which we might figure out what they are. From this perspective, young men might also be advised, as some seem to believe without the advice, that "It is tacitly OK to start raping in your late teens, as long as you don't get caught."

It's Not True "You Can Only Learn From Experience." I am similarly troubled with his unqualified assertion that "you can only learn from experience." Does he really believe that the only way young college women can only learn of the possibility of pregnancy from drunken, unprotected and unwanted sex is to become pregnant? The only place students can learn of the risks of toxic blood alcohol levels is in an emergency room? The only way they can learn of the possibilities of killing friends and themselves in auto accidents while driving drunk is by doing so?

I thought the human species had options. I thought one of them was K-12 and college education. What a multi-billion-dollar waste education turns out to be if "you can only learn from experience." (And see the comment on this blog from "Anonymous," below, a 21-year-old who seems to have found other paths than "experience" to knowledge regarding alcohol.)

Our "21 Only" is Neither "21" Nor "Only" -- It is a Compromise, and One Bar Owners Should Embrace. From the standpoint of the law, and common sense, what we call in Iowa City a "21-only" law is far from what its name suggests. It is a very generous compromise between what the law might require, and John's "18-only" position, one that ought to be gratefully grabbed by him, bar owners and students seeking the nation's "Number One Party School," rather than being opposed by them.

"Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" head writer Mason Williams' multiple talents include a knack for one-liners, one of which is: "Here's a ball; don't bounce it."

Think about it. The law forbids those under 21 from purchasing, possessing, dispensing, or consuming alcohol. Bars are business establishments designed to maximize income from the sale of alcohol. That's not to say that nothing else goes on there, or that no one enters a bar except for those whose sole purpose is the consumption of alcohol. It is only to say that sales of alcohol are bars' exclusive business purpose and source of profit. Clearly, any activity that would substantially reduce profits would probably not be permitted to continue for long.

The common sense approach, and the law in many jurisdictions, would be to forbid anyone to enter a bar who cannot legally engage as a customer in the business in which that bar is engaged. That would be "21 Only" -- only those 21 or older would be permitted in bars.

Our "restriction," by contrast, only prevents underage students from being in bars for four hours a day: from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. They can go into bars during the early morning hours (when bars are open on game days), they can go in throughout the day, they can go in at night until 10:00. Whatever one can say of such a law, it is clearly not "21 Only."

So why do bar owners and some students want underage students in bars between 10:00 and 2:00? Because underage students want to drink alcohol then (in the many ways they find to do so), and the bar owners want the profits.

Just as it is not my purpose to make arguments why the drinking age should be kept at 21, rather than lowered to 18, similarly I am not making an argument for keeping (or repealing) the law that forbids underage students to be in bars after 10:00 p.m.

All I am pointing out is that our out-by-10 law is not "21 Only," as it permits underage students to be in bars 20 out of every 24 hours a day. This standard seems to me a quite reasonable compromise between keeping them out entirely, and letting them drink 24/7.

We Have Already Separated the 'Alcohol Abuse' and 'Underage Drinking' Issues. John Deeth writes that we need to, "separate the 'alcohol abuse' issue from the 'underage drinking' issue." Aside from the PAULA-only violations (possession of alcohol under the legal age), and even for most of those, it seems to me that what Iowa City police are already doing is precisely what Deeth is proposing.

John says we must "recognize the rights and wishes of young adults." He seems to be trying to turn a violation of law into a "right." Even if there was a "right" to violate this law (underage drinking), hopefully even John Deeth would acknowledge that there are no rights to violate the laws that are violated as a consequence of underage drinking: driving over the 0.08 blood alcohol level, rape, fights, property damage, public urination, and other behavior of the young inebriated. See, "'GO, HAWKS!' -- Just Not in My Yard."

It's relatively unlikely in Iowa City -- not impossible, but relatively unlikely -- that any underage students who have consumed modest amounts of alcohol will be arrested, if they are otherwise behaving as rational, sober adults, they are not walking around with open containers, and they are not engaged in other varieties of law violations or obnoxious behavior.

"Separate Alcohol Abuse and 'Underage' Issues"
John Deeth
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 6, 2013, p. A6

America has a dysfunctional coming of age ritual with alcohol. It’s tacitly OK to start drinking in your late teens, as long as you don’t get caught. That makes access to alcohol, while not difficult, still a valuable commodity for the coming-of-age person, emphasizing the link between adulthood and alcohol and encouraging over-use when the “forbidden” (nudge wink) fruit is available.

The college drinking culture cost me a point off my GPA and my first serious relationship. My own difficult experience with alcohol tells me you can only learn from experience. That’s why I so adamantly oppose the 21 drinking age and why I voted “yes” to repeal the 21-only ordinance.

21-only supporters try to claim that this fight is not about the drinking age. But by refusing to engage on this under-discussed issue, they perpetuate that cultural dysfunction and lose credibility with the same young people they’re patronizingly trying to “protect.” That makes it harder to address the binge drinking problem they claim to care about.

Nearly every politician I know privately says the 21-only drinking age is unworkable. Some even admit it’s unfair to the young adults whose support they eagerly seek in general elections. But almost none say so in public. The city-university establishment stance on this is that the end, cracking down on the No. 1 Party School, justifies the means.

For almost all purposes besides alcohol, 18-year-olds are considered adults. In 1971, our nation made a wartime decision, by the overwhelming majority that a constitutional amendment requires, that the age of adulthood was 18. The drinking age is nowhere near as enshrined. It’s just legislation. It can be changed.

Even an assistant city attorney now admits that the 21-only ordinance has human rights implications. But instead of addressing that by recognizing rights, the city wants to redefine rights to get their desired outcome.

Rights fights are uncomfortable sometimes. You have to stick up for unsympathetic characters like Larry Flynt and Illinois Nazis, and Vodka Samm and self-interested bar owners. (Yet self-interest is OK if you want to keep beggars away from your jewelry store.) Rights aren’t less important just because the right in question is less high-minded.

Some people in this town would be happier if the university were nothing but athletes, tenured faculty, invisible grad students who never leave the lab and the cultural amenities usually seen only in much bigger cities. But without our students, without those immature and inconvenient freshmen and sophomores, there is no Iowa City.

The young adults who drive Iowa City’s economy want and deserve adult fun. I’m not pretending that 19-year-olds will go to the bar “just to dance,” or sip on one drink while earnestly discussing their literature class in a quiet pub. They’ll make mistakes.

That’s the point. “We don’t want to go back,” says 21 Makes Sense (sic), yet their vision looks back to the we-know-what’s-best-for-you attitudes of the 1950s. Instead, we should encourage young adults to make their own decisions and take responsibility.

Only when we separate the alcohol abuse issue from the “underage” (sic) drinking issue, and recognize the rights and wishes of young adults, can we Old People be taken seriously on the very real problem of binge drinking.

And voting “yes” to repeal the 21-only ordinance is a good first step toward the conversation about the drinking age we need to have.

Iowa City grandfather John Deeth turns 50 this year. He had his last drink on Aug. 25, 1985.


JD Mendenhall, Iowa City said...

Well stated, as usual, Nick. I also tend to agree with John Deeth, but definitely not in this case. Thank you for pointing out the fallacy in his argument. The "21 only" law, which is hardly that, already overemphasizes our local drinking culture. I don't think you get named a top party school unless there are multiple opportunities and an encouraging culture to drink to excess. The UI, Iowa City, and their resective citizens need to drive this issue, not bar owners with contrary goals and young adults without enough "experience" to be left solely on their own.

John said...

Nick, you're a great friend but I'm disappointed that a legal scholar of your skill is distorting my argument almost beyond recognition.

Thank you for including my full text so your readers can see that my statement "It’s tacitly OK to start drinking in your late teens, as long as you don’t get caught" is, in context, an indictment of our culture's attitude toward alcohol and not a personal endorsement. Indeed, to my children and my young friends, I would personally warn of the dangers of excessive drinking, based on my own painful experiences.

My entire point here is to initiate a conversation about this contradiction in the law, where 18 is considered adult for all major purposes with the singular exception of drinking. This makes drinking a particularly special symbol of adulthood and in my opinion and (indirect, anecdotal) experience, encourages rather than discourages excessive drinking when alcohol is accessible, while doing little to actually limit access.

Amending the Constitution is a daunting task requiring a near-consensus level super-majority. Once the issue becomes in any way partisan, that consensus level support is unreachable. As you well remember, we made the decision in the middle of an unpopular and divisive war that the default age of majority was 18. Do we want to revisit that? I don't, though I'm sure many in Iowa City would be happy if we did.

It's far easier to change mere legislation than the Constitution. And to me, the 26th Amendment carries far more legal and ethical weight that the 1985 highway bill that set a de facto nationwide 21 drinking age.

You state: "it is not my purpose to make arguments why the drinking age should be kept at 21, rather than lowered to 18." Fair enough if you choose not to participate in the conversation. But it begs the question: just what SHOULD the legal drinking age be, and if not the Constitutional voting age of 18, why not? Refusing to answer that question seems to be the official party line out of "21 Makes Sense," as is the deliberate misuse of the term "underage" to describe 19 and 20 year old adults.

I'll answer: I believe that age should be the Constitutional 18 rather than the merely legislated 21. And since I believe an 18 year old should be able to stay in a bar till closing time and drink to their responsible limit, by extension I believe in letting a 19 or 20 year old stay in a bar till closing time "just to dance." It's an incremental step closer to the rights they should have, and therefore I vote Yes.

I don't have any illusions that "just to dance" is what will happen. I don't endorse lawbreaking. But I don't shed many tears over violations of a law that's unenforceable and unfair.

Anonymous said...

The tone I'm getting in Mr. Deeth's article appears to be that underage drinking in college is a necessary learning experience for all students.

Well, I'm a current (under-21) student at Iowa and I learned all I needed to know about underage drinking from watching the people living down the hall coming home drunk, obnoxious, and eventually with PAULAs and hefty fines. No thanks...not an experience I need to be partaking in.

I understand his argument about why the drinking age should be lowered to 18, but since federal law stands where it is right now, I think it's an incredibly dangerous position to say we should encourage breaking of said law (i.e. repealing the 21-ordinance.)

With that being said, I'm probably one of the only under-21 college students opposed to a repeal. But from what I've seen on Friday and Saturday nights, I don't think we could maturely handle such a privilege.

Dave Murray said...

I feel that as one reaches the age of adulthood one should be able to choose to drink alcohol. However, as I've witnessed, a large portion of young adults are simply incapable of maintaining reasonable judgement once becoming intoxicated. In the private homes of citizens such behavior could be socially acceptable, but not in public walks, streets and bars. The dangers are too great.
Mr. Deeth has a well written editorial however his persuasiveness is weak. Learning about alcohol should happen in familiar and limited environments; one's or a friend's home not in public environments surrounded by unfamiliar people while bowing to untold social pressures. For some reason this is one argument everyone seems to have gotten wrong. Bars are the worst place to find out how much alcohol you can handle. Groups of friends (or family) in a private residence will always be much more responsible to each other than complete strangers.

Steven D said...

My problem with the 21 only after 10 is two fold. One, why is it OK for Under 21 to be in the bars until 10 PM OK? I go out around 10 and see a crowded bar of drinkers turn into a much less crowded bar of drinkers. This law doesn't really change whether they drink or not - just when which I think is a little hypocritical. Secondly, age and responsibility don't always go together. I have met many under 21 year old drinkers (I honestly did not know most were under 21 until I was there when they were celebrating their 21st birthday) who were responsible drinkers. They didn't drink to excess. They were polite and friendly. I have also met many over 21 who are drunk and rude and "in a fighting mood". I'm all for the European way - let them drink early so it isn't such a big deal but I doubt America will ever pass that law. So then education. More education. Earlier education. If they break the law and get caught - they are responsible and have to pay just like someone over 21 who gets arrested for a DUI. I am for repealing the 21 law. Even with the 21 Only law Iowa City is considered a party school showing that the poll isn't an argument that should be used.

Douglas said...

"18 is considered adult for all major purposes with the singular exception of drinking."

Sorry, Mr. Deeth but you're wrong. Being a member of Congress and being President are two more exceptions. And last I heard you couldn't rent a car either.

I frankly am sick to death of the "old enough to vote" argument. Call me a fascist but if you know so little about the candidates that you just vote for the guy with the "D" (or "R") behind his name, or about the issues that you just don't bother (or worse, just tick something to tick something), then you shouldn't be voting at all. This goes for 18 year olds as well as 80 year olds. Make drinking a license activity: You have to take a test and if you pass, you get a license to drink.

John Neff said...

The age dependence of hazardous use of alcohol decreases much faster than a Constant/Age with most of the problems in the 15 to 25 age range. The peak age is about 19 so 21 is a reasonable compromise for the minimum legal age to drink.

The problem is that people the 15 to 20 age range violate the law and have done so since 12/5/1933 when prohibition ended. My impression is that the Iowa City down-town zone acts as a catchment for obnoxious drunks and when enough people get fed up there is a crackdown.

There has been a big increase in the cost of law enforcement and I am surprised they have been able to keep the level of enforcement high for such a long time.