In June, John McCardell and a group of college presidents and chancellors founded the Amethyst Initiative, calling for “informed and unimpeded” debate on the legal drinking age of 21.
Amethyst came out of the earlier nonprofit he founded in 2007, Choose Responsibility, that does, in fact, call for lowering the drinking age. The organization was formed after McCardell argued, in a New York Times op-ed piece, that the 21 drinking age was “bad social policy and terrible law” that abets a culture of binge drinking on college campuses.
While Choose Responsibility has an agenda that has proven to be polarizing, Amethyst was intended to bring everyone to the table, including opponents, to give the law a fair airing.
McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College, planned to spend the rest of the summer gathering public support for the initiative before issuing a statement urging elected officials to join the conversation.
“Invitations went out in the middle of July, and we started to get responses,” he recalled. “I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened next.”
On August 18, an Associated Press report described the Amethyst Initiative as a movement that aimed to lower the drinking age to 18. The next day, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the American Medical Association, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Governors Highway Safety Association all came out against Amethyst, charging that those colleges that had signed the initiative were in effect supporting the repeal a law that health officials claim has saved 25,000 lives since 1984.
In its statement, MADD accused more than 100 college and university presidents of signing on to “a misguided initiative that uses deliberately misleading information to confuse the public on the effectiveness of 21 law.”
About 130 U.S. colleges supported the Amethyst Initiative before the AP story. But now McCardell says other colleges around the nation, including three in Vermont, are reluctant to sign on, fearing it would imply institutional support for the lower drinking age.
The presidents of the Vermont colleges — Ellen McCullough-Lovell, of Marlboro College; Richard Schneider, of Norwich University; and David Finney of Champlain College — went on record last year in a Seven Days article; representing their institutions, McCullough-Lovell and Finney both supported lowering the drinking age to 18. Schneider said his “personal belief” was that “John McCardell had it right.” Now they say they’re hesitant to officially link their institutions to a policy opposed by government agencies and well-known advocacy groups like MADD.
Finney claims the goal of the Amethyst Initiative has been purposely confused by MADD and other organizations that would like nothing more than to shut down a debate about the national drinking age.
“Most of the stories in the press have described it as an initiative to lower the drinking age,” Finney said. “That’s not accurate. As such, the debate never had a chance, or hasn’t had yet, anyway.”
Indeed, MADD has characterized the Amethyst Institute as a front for Choose Responsibility, which argues that lowering the age to 18 would promote personal accountability among young people rather than the self-abusive behavior evident on college campuses. A 220-page white paper from the organization is due soon that will, among other things, assess American attitudes about drinking and measure the effectiveness of the 21 law.
McCardell acknowledges that Choose Responsibility staffers created the Amethyst Initiative’s website and sent Amethyst mailings on Choose Responsibility’s stationery. But, he insisted, the two organizations are “almost entirely separate and distinctive.”
McCardell will cede control of Choose Responsibility to a new executive director when the organization moves from Middlebury to Washington, D.C. He said he plans to ask Congress to repeal a clause in the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act that links highway funding to the 21 law — the biggest single obstacle preventing individual states from setting their own drinking ages.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving opposes that, pointing to statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that report a 50 percent drop in the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the U.S. each year since the federal law was passed.
“The science and data backing the 21 drinking age law is substantial and vast,” MADD spokesperson Misty Moyse told Seven Days, adding that underage drinking contributes to sexual assault, homicide, suicide and unintentional injury. “We’re concerned that there’s misinformation and that these college presidents are being misled based on the political agenda of Choose Responsibility . . . “
McCardell countered that data on drunk-driving fatalities since the 21 law was instituted is not as clear-cut as MADD asserts. He said recent research suggests that the 21 law may not alone prevent alcohol-related traffic fatalities, but simply postpone the age when they do occur.
“If we want to take drunks off the highways, is the drinking age the best way to do that?” McCardell said. “If it is, then why stop at 21? But if it isn’t, what’s magical about 21?”
McCardell also takes issue with MADD’S campaign to send about 1200 form emails to each Amethyst signatory. In some cases, the emails — McCardell called them “spam” — overloaded campus servers. Moyse, the MADD spokesperson, said the emails were sent to convince presidents that lowering the drinking age is not the best way to prevent underage and binge drinking.
That view likely got a boost on September 16, when an editorial by the New York Times repeated MADD’s claim that the Amethyst Initiative is an attempt to lower the drinking age. Amethyst signatories “say they are not advocating a change per se, only a ‘dispassionate debate,’ but the intent seems clear,” the Times said. “Certainly, surreptitious drinking can lead to excessive drinking, but that does not justify the college executives’ conclusion that ‘21 is not working’ where binge drinking is concerned.”
McCardell said that, while the Times editorial “is certainly very influential,” other newspapers across the U.S. have supported the Amethyst Initiative. Still, he’s frustrated by the campaign to discredit what he and other college presidents believe is a legitimate public policy issue.
“It’s disappointing,” he said, “because all the presidents are calling for is a debate over a law that is very hard to say is working out entirely as it should be on its own terms.”