This past Friday I attended a conference at Hampshire College about the drinking age and whether it should be changed. Alex Torpey, a graduating student , organized the conference as part of his Division III, or senior project.
Ralph Hexter introduced the keynote speaker and indicated that he feels the issues around the drinking age and drunk driving hinge on responsibility. President Hexter is a signer of the Amethyst Initiative which called for lowering the drinking age to eighteen.
The keynote speaker was Barret Seaman, author of Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You. Formerly an editor for Time, he now sits on the board of Choose Responsibility. Choose Responsibility is a not -for-profit advocacy group started by John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College and the originator of the Amethyst Initiative.
Seaman spoke about changes in college drinking since the 1960’s. Drinking has increased and many students now engage in a practice called pre-gaming. Pre-gaming involves drinking, often heavily, prior to going to a party or event. Annually, there are 1700 deaths of young people from drinking not related to driving.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) argues that the 21 year old drinking age has saved lives and that there has been a13% decrease in traffic deaths. Seaman , however argued that other countries with a lower drinking age have had bigger decline.
In the pursuit of harm reduction, Seaman feels colleges and parents need to change the idea of alcohol as ‘forbidden fruit’. According to him, the age of first use has been steadily declining in the twenty-five years since the drinking age was raised.
Seaman recognizes that the drinking will probably not be changed any time soon and argues for measures that will deal with the problem right now, including medical amnesty and offering safe rides.
After Seaman’s speech, there were three workshops. The first had the Dean of Students from Hampshire and Smith College, the public safety officer for Smith, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke and the public safety officer from Amherst College. The two Dean of Students discussed the medical amnesty policy of the two colleges. This is also a harm reduction model. In the case of Smith, if a student must go to the hospital because of alcohol abuse, the emergency room sends a report to the Smith doctor, who is the only person who will know the student’s blood alcohol content (BAC). The student then meets with the doctor. If there is a second offense the school has the right to let parents know. All of the speakers stressed that most students find themselves in this situation only once. They all also see the policy as a helpful, educational one and not punitive.
The next workshop was, on “The Pleasure Plateau” and the presenter was Emily Nagoski, the Wellness Education Director, Student Affairs from Smith College. She often meets with students, using a stages of change model for the interaction.The four stages are pre-contemplation, contemplation,action and maintenance. She tries to meet the students where they are, support their autonomy and freedom of choice, support their ambivalence around their behavior and the possibility of change, and to roll with their resistance to change.
She was a very lively presenter and I think she would be great with students. Emily explained that alcohol has a bi-phasic effect on the drinker. In the beginning you feel good, less inhibited and appear attractive. The more you drink the worse you feel. Eventually you drink enough that you can face a medical and sometimes fatal emergency.
The final presenter was David Hanson, a retired sociology professor from the State University of New York at Potsdam. He also maintains a website, Alcohol: Problems and Solutions. He discussed the dichotomous views that people can have about alcohol; alcohol as inherently bad or bad only if it is abused. According to Hanson, alcohol is neither good nor bad but a neutral substance. He feels the federal government supports the view of alcohol as inherently bad and therefore seeks to reduce consumption.
He encourages people to”think outside the box” about solving abuse of alcohol. He cited the case of Anchorage, Alaska which now offers $1000 to any package store owner who collects a false id. The state doesn’t pay the $1000 however, the person who attempted to buy alcohol illegally does.
Another idea he has was a drinking learner’s permit similar to a driver learners permit. This would invole stages of access to alcohol, achieved after passing educational courses.
The conference was very interesting and a great achievement for an undergraduate student. The few questions I have involve the solo focus on alcohol. On most college campuses there are many psychoactive substances available, not just alcohol. Any solution to alcohol abuse must also deal with the abuse of other drugs.
Alcohol is a psychoactive substance; I think this means it is not a neutral substance and helps explain our society’s ambivalence towards it. Finally I feel when we discuss our culture’s approach to alcohol and contrast it with other societies that may be more lenient, we must include information about the pyshiological effects of alcohol. Cirrhosis is the tenth leading cause of death in Amerrica. Recently other countries,including Britian, have seen a rise in this disease.