COMMENTARY: Double standards abound for young adults

Bad ideas abound, no doubt. But today we’ll consider four now percolating before the Delaware General Assembly. They are:

•Legalizing recreational marijuana.

•Lowering the blood-alcohol level for legal driving to .05 percent.

•Raising the age for purchase of cigarettes to 21.

•Raising the age for buying a rifle to 21.

Reid K. Beveridge

The original sin here, of course, occurred in 1984. That was when Congress mandated that all the states raise their drinking age from 18 (or in some states, 19) to 21. This was more or less what it had been before with a few exceptions.

We don’t know yet what the minimum age will be for legally smoking marijuana. There is still a lot of confusion in the General Assembly about how this legislation will be worded. For another thing, we don’t know is how the police will protect us from people driving who are stoned. There is no equivalent road-side test for marijuana consumption as there is for alcohol — the breathalyzer. True, a blood test will tell you if the person has used marijuana. But it sometimes, usually often, requires a court order to impose.

Pegging the marijuana age at 21 won’t help much either. See drinking age above and below. In fact, this is silly since a lot of marijuana use is with young adults. See Barack Obama and Bill Clinton comments on themselves.

Before the series of surgeon-general warnings beginning in the 1960s, teen smoking was common. A lot of kids in my 1950s high school smoked. A majority of their dads did and a lot of mothers, too. So what would raising the smoking age to 21 (18 currently) do? Probably not much. Smoking is far, far less common today than 50 years ago. Raising the age only makes scofflaws out of 19- and 20-year-olds who do.

Much the same thing can be said about the drinking age. With a couple exceptions, the drinking age in the United States was 21 until sometime in the late 1960s. It was around then that some people noted the paradox of the military draft ordering young men between the ages of 18 and 21 into combat in Vietnam, but without the opportunity to buy a beer legally.

Then in 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. Similar reasons were given for lowering the drinking age. But then in 1984, Congress raised the drinking age back to 21, based mostly on drunk-driving issues. Now, the United States has the highest drinking age in the world.

Let’s talk about the issues here. The first is drunk driving. The second is youthful binge drinking. The third is the problem of making scofflaws of young adults. First, the drinking.

If alcohol is to remain a legal substance in the United States, and it is, then the minimum age for consumption ought to be related to something other than driving and binge drinking in college. The question might be posed to the medical profession: At what age has a teen-age brain matured to the point that its development will not be adversely affected by alcohol?

The second part of the issue is the driving. Several states have raised the age for first obtaining a driver’s license from 16 to 17. This relates mostly to how accident-prone teen drivers, especially boys, are. However, this doesn’t seem to be alcohol-related so much as it is related to aggressive driving when other teens are in the car. Indeed, some of these same states are passing laws to also limit the number of teens in a car when a teen is driving without an adult.

So what does the state really care whether persons under age 21 get drunk if they aren’t going to drive? Even if they crawl home on all fours, other than embarrassing their parents, who cares?

All too often, young people age 18 to 20 binge drink because they can’t drink the way others do: In a restaurant or bar or at a legal party. Drinking in those venues is more likely to be moderate. The opposite of this, of course, is to drink clandestinely, which means often consuming very large amounts.

Further, the penalty for drinking too much and then having a ferocious, disabling hangover the next morning is nearly zero in college. That may be why non-college youth don’t binge as much: they have to get up and go to work the next morning and get fired if they don’t. No such penalty for cutting class.

The third concern is the hypocrisy/scofflaw issue? This also applies to smoking. Fifty years ago when I was in college, the 21-year-old drinking age only meant that the older students — often seniors — “procured” for their younger friends. Further as noted above, it meant that everyone obtained large amounts of alcohol — a fifth of hard liquor or at least a six-pack of beer — rather than having a drink or two in a bar. Such an outcome is a virtual guarantee of getting drunk instead of social drinking.

One night, several of us in college obtained a couple six-packs of beer and sat in the cemetery near campus, consuming it. Somehow I got back to my dorm room and into the right bed. I don’t remember how. But I didn’t drive back.

Same for the parties we had along the banks of the Mississippi River. What I did learn, though, was that after I and my girlfriend turned 21, we tended to drink in one of two popular bars rather than by ourselves. Which also usually meant getting something to eat.

So in conclusion: It’s fine and OK for people to drive around stoned out of their mind on marijuana, but woe to you if you have more than one glass of wine with dinner and then drive home. Or if you try to buy a pack of cigarettes when you’re 20.

But you can still enlist in the Marine Corps at age 18 without your parents’ permission, and find yourself in Afghanistan — where you almost certainly will be issued an assault rifle.

But if you’re back in the U.S.of A., oh, no. You’re too young to own a rifle.

Reid Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.

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