Is lowering the drinking age to 18 really such a good idea?

Renee James Contributor
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I looked up the definition and mission of the Amethyst Initiative so I could be certain of the group’s beliefs and purpose: “The Amethyst Initiative is made up of chancellors and presidents of universities and colleges across the United States. These higher education leaders have signed their names to a public statement that the problem of irresponsible drinking by young people continues despite the minimum legal drinking age of 21, and there is a culture of dangerous binge drinking on many campuses.

“The Amethyst Initiative supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age. Amethyst Initiative presidents and chancellors call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.”

Quite honestly, none of this sounds especially egregious. But it’s interesting that they call on elected officials to weigh in on the discussion regarding the legal drinking age. The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act “imposed a penalty of 10% of the state’s federal highway appropriation on any state setting its drinking age lower than 21.” But why aren’t they also calling on scientists to “weigh in?”

When I reviewed the list of chancellors and college presidents who signed the statement, I didn’t find the name Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University. Perhaps instead of signing a form that “invites new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol,” President Faust is listening to new ideas from scientists at her own university who have studied the adolescent brain, albeit not in conjunction with the Amethyst Initiative.

Harvard neurology professors Frances Jensen and David K. Urion have researched the adolescent brain, specifically the unique structure and chemistry it contains, and recently released a fascinating study summarizing their findings. Among their findings: the adolescent brain is about 80% developed. Guess which section is the very last to reach full maturity? The frontal lobe. Guess what the frontal lobe does? It reasons. It judges. It plans. Guess when all that finally coalesces into a mature brain? Between the ages of 25 and 30. Thirty!!! Note to self: when I ask my boys, in my typically exasperated way, “What on earth were you thinking?” particularly when they’ve behaved in ways that defy logic or good sense, they can honestly reply, “I wasn’t.” Or even, “I can’t.”

Through the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Jensen and Urion studied developing brains in people from ages 5 through 20. They learned that the growing brain has both “fast-growing synapses and sections that remain unconnected.” The result of this disconnect is that young people are more influenced by their surroundings than adults and are “more prone to impulsive behavior.” As I read this, it occurred to me that we can’t always expect young people to “think” their way out of compromising circumstances. Their brains haven’t grown up enough.

One of the most salient points the study makes is this: “Teen brains are more susceptible than their adult counterparts to alcohol-induced toxicity.” In other words, the harmful components of alcohol linger in teenage brains. As they put it, “what you did on the weekend is still with you during that test on Thursday.”

So what does this mean? Yes, I’m concerned about binge drinking among young adults in high school and on campus, as well as illegal activity, like using fake ids to purchase alcohol. But I don’t buy the “you can vote, you can sit on a jury, you can serve in the military” stance on the “legal age” of adulthood. What do voting, being a juror and serving in the military have to do with drinking? How does it make sense to say: “Yes, you may now do all of these very responsible things (vote, judge, serve). Therefore, you can do something else (drink), and possibly quite irresponsibly.” Last time I checked, voting, being a juror and serving in the military don’t impair your senses. I also don’t think it’s fair to say “twenty-one is not working” and that alcohol education has not made a difference in the behavior of young people.

But yes, by all means, let’s have the “critical discussions” the Amethyst Initiative calls for to help us determine the best approach to curbing underage drinking. I just want to make sure we invite people like Doctors Jensen and Urion to the table when we do.

Renee James writes social commentary and keeps track of the things that mystify her on her blog: It’s not me, it’s you, found at reneeaj.blogspot.com. Her email address is raaj3@msn.com.