I was telling my college-age daughter recently that back in the olden days when I went to college, you could fill a red Solo cup with beer at a fraternity party and sip it all night long. No one knew if it was your first beer or your 10th. There was no need for “pregaming” – binge drinking in private apartments or dorms before heading out in public. And unlike today, college kids didn’t tend to use fake IDs as much.
That’s because when I was an undergrad, the drinking age was 18. Fraternities had kegs out in the open on university property, and student gatherings on campus often included beer. I remember university police regularly strolling through the fraternity parties, making sure everything was under control. That tended to keep a lid on things.
Then, 30 years ago this summer, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984, which mandated that all states adopt 21 as the legal drinking age over the next five years. States that did not comply faced a cut in their federal highway funds; by 1988, all 50 states had moved the minimum drinking age to 21.
The well-intentioned leaders of Mothers Against Drunk Driving were able to convince politicians that a vote against the bill was a vote in favor of drunken driving, and they succeeded in gaining unanimous passage in both the House and the Senate. According to the MADD website, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the law has saved about 900 lives a year.
Drunken driving deaths have decreased over the last three decades in large part because we now throw the book at drunken drivers in this country: All 50 states currently define a driver’s having a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher as a crime; 42 states suspend drivers’ licenses on the first offense. Every state also now has some type of ignition interlock law, requiring devices to be installed in the vehicles of convicted drunken drivers that prevent a vehicle from starting if the driver breathes into the device and produces a breath-alcohol level above a preset limit. Thanks to MADD, drunken driving isn’t the problem it used to be.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2010 drug overdoses caused more deaths than motor vehicle crashes among people 25 to 64 years old. The CDC estimates that from 1999 to 2010 drug overdose death rates jumped 102 percent. While first-time use of illegal street drugs such as heroin by young people increased from 90,000 users in 2006 to 156,000 in 2012, it’s abuse of prescription drugs that has really skyrocketed. One recent report cited by the Department of Justice says that between 1993 and 2005, the proportion of college students abusing opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin jumped 343 percent and 450 percent for tranquilizers like Xanax and Valium.
Prescription drug use among young people at colleges is, along with binge drinking, part of the epidemic of pregaming. The CDC reported that alcohol is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths annually among underage youth. The CDC also found that young people between the ages of 12 and 20 drink 11 percent of all the alcohol consumed in the U.S., and more than 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed during binge drinking.
Here’s the problem with both binge drinking and drug abuse: When you’re that impaired, you do things you wouldn’t normally do. In an April speech, Dartmouth College’s president listed the outrages he now witnesses regularly: “From sexual assaults on campus … to a culture where dangerous drinking has become the rule and not the exception … to a general disregard for human dignity as exemplified by hazing, parties with racist and sexist undertones, disgusting and sometimes threatening insults hurled on the Internet … to a social scene that is too often at odds with the practices of inclusion that students are right to expect on a college campus in 2014.” I doubt that list is unique to just one Ivy League school.