Rethinking the Drinking Age

03/26/2015 03:06 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015
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We don't know the details of how young African-American University of Virginia student Martese Johnson ended up with a bloodied face outside the Trinity Irish Pub on St. Patrick's Day. Yes, he was 20 and the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) in the United States is 21. Were all the drinkers at the bar 21 or over? Seems like easy pickings for the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) agents waiting outside. But if they were so concerned about under-aged drinking, why weren't they going from bar to bar, citing bar owners instead of allegedly roughing up students?

It's not as if the Virginia ABC has an unblemished record -- several years ago, a group of undercover ABC agents swarmed a young woman (another UVA student) in a grocery store parking lot, suspecting she was buying beer. Actually, she'd purchased sparkling water and cookie dough. Arrested for fleeing (she didn't know who they were), she ended up suing and settled out of court.

This attention on the evils of under-aged drinking makes me curious about the logic of the MLDA. You can serve and die for the military at 18, but aren't trusted to walk into a bar and have a drink? You can serve on a jury, vote and be prosecuted as an adult at 18. If you're mature enough to perform some of the fundamental responsibilities of citizenship, why aren't you trusted to handle drinking responsibly? Traffic fatalities caused by drunken teenage drivers have decreased since the laws changed in the '70s and that's excellent. However, if the goal is to make our roads safe, why don't we bring back Prohibition? There are plenty of drunken adults involved in fatal car accidents.

In most countries, the MLDA is 18. The countries that share the MLDA of 21 with the United States are Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, Palau and Sri Lanka. Does something seem a little wrong with this picture?

Why don't we trust our 18-year-olds?

When I was growing up, my parents (and many other parents) were realistic about teenagers and drinking. At that time, the drinking age in Virginia was 18 for wine and beer and 21 for hard liquor. My parents didn't encourage my brother and me to drink, but pointed us towards a reasonable approach. They knew we would be in situations where alcohol would be present (usually beer or Boone's Farm "wine"). They warned us of the consequences. If caught with alcohol, you could be cited. Alcohol is a drug. Drink only in moderation. Never find yourself in a situation you can't control. Never drive after you've been drinking or accept a ride from someone who has been drinking. And the sine qua non of any lecture on alcohol: Don't mix (a lesson my brother and I learned the hard way).

On my first night of college at the University of Virginia, there were parties in front of the dorms. Kegs of beer and watermelons injected with vodka. I sipped a beer from a plastic cup and watched kids around me getting drunk, many for the first time. My parents' level-headed (and trusting) approach to the alcohol issue came in handy.

Immutable fact: kids will drink. When our two children were growing up, they saw my husband and me enjoy cocktails. We let them sip wine. They tasted martinis ("Gross!"). We wanted to demystify alcohol, but at the same time, be honest about the consequences. In high school, we knew our eldest would go to parties. He was not encouraged to drink. We pointed out the dangers and trusted him to make the right decisions.

My daughter is about to go off to college in the fall. Do I want to pretend that the MLDA will protect her from fake i.d.s, vodka-laced watermelons or assault by ABC agents? Does a legal drinking age of 21 change any of these things?

The Alcohol Beverage Control system in Virginia clearly has some issues in the area of enforcement. Why can't they concentrate more on education for responsible alcohol awareness? On the Virginia ABC website the first program they offer is the "Miss Virginia School Tour" where "Miss Virginia travels across elementary schools spreading a message of health, wellness and prevention with students and teachers." The emphasis seems to be zero tolerance.

Can we give ABC agents something better to do than lurking outside bars trying to catch kids with fake i.d.s? Arrest drunk drivers (of any age). Enforce DUI consequences. Teach responsibility and the dangers of binge drinking. We want the same thing. But at some point -- 18 or 21 -- we need to trust in our young people enough to figure it out for themselves.