BOULDER COLO. POLICE CHIEF SAYS LOWER THE DRINKING AGE SO HE CAN FOCUS ON DUI INSTEAD OF CHASING MINORS UNDER AN UNENFORCEABLE LAW -- "60 MINUTES" SUNDAY
The police chief in a town where underage college kids routinely break the law by drinking alcohol believes the drinking age should be lowered because it is unenforceable and detracts from policing more serious alcohol crimes like DUI. Boulder Colo. Police Chief Mark Beckner's viewpoint is one of several in a Lesley Stahl 60 MINUTES report that examines the drinking law debate to be broadcast Sunday Feb. 22 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
If the drinking age were lowered from 21 to 18, says Beckner, "The overall advantage is we're not trying to enforce a law that's unenforceable. "The abuse of alcohol and the over-consumption of alcohol and DUI driving...are the areas we've got to focus our efforts. Not on chasing kids around trying to give them a ticket for having a cup of beer in their hand," Beckner tells Stahl.
John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, agrees and points to what he considers an even worse effect of the older drinking age. "This law has been an abysmal failure. It hasn't reduced or eliminated drinking. It has simply driven it underground, behind closed doors, into the most risky and least manageable of settings," says McCardell, who launched a national campaign to lower the drinking age.
A tragedy in Boulder underscores McCardell's point. At a fraternity near the campus of The University of Colorado at Boulder, 18-yr.-old Gordie Bailey died of alcohol poisoning during a fraternity initiation. His mother and stepfather feel the reason no one at the fraternity called authorities when their son passed out was fear of being caught breaking a law. "They had minors buying the alcohol, serving the alcohol to minors," says stepfather Michael Lanahan. "They had to make a decision about what they were going to do and unfortunately they made the wrong decision."
The drinking age was raised in the mid 1980s to help lower highway fatalities, but the Surgeon General estimates that 3,000 kids under 21 are dying of alcohol related deaths that do not involve driving.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has another view. "The inconvenient truth is that a drinking age at 18 would cause more funerals. Nine hundred families a year would have to bury a teenager," predicts Chuck Hurley, executive director of MADD. "When the United States reduced its drinking age in the seventies it was a public health disaster. Death rates in the states that reduced their drinking age jumped 10 to 40 percent," he tells Stahl. Hurley also says the 18-yr.-olds - some still in high school - would be buying for their younger schoolmates creating a trickle-down effect of more drinking at earlier ages.
McCardell realizes lowering the age is a long shot, but still thinks that doing so, with mandatory education, is the best solution. Why not make high schools teach alcohol courses like driver's education and let them dispense drinking licenses because kids will drink either way, says McCardell. "We have lived through prohibition. We know prohibition doesn't work. We know that on our college campuses. We know that in our households. We know that in our military," McCardell tells Stahl.