Why the US drinking age is incompatible with student life

5 Feb

No matter how acclimatized I may have become to the delights of the South, some cultural differences between student life in Leeds, England and in South Carolina continue to absorb me. When I found out I’d be studying abroad in the states, one of the most common questions friends asked was, “What are you going to do about drinking?” Despite having enjoyed the good, clean benefits of a comparatively dry six months here, the prospect of turning 21 this week has never seemed more enticing.

A large part of student life in England revolves around drinking. Ever since I turned 18 it has always been ingrained in my social life. Think of all the social events hosted by USC: ice-cream kick-offs, pizza nights, sports days, Bustle at the Russell, acoustic nights, free cinema trips, and so on. Then replace them with pub quizzes, nights out, pub-crawls, welcome parties, wine nights, cocktail nights and a helping of warm mulled wine at Leeds Christmas market. Drinking alcohol at university has always been a positive, liberating and normalized experience.

Raising the legal drinking age to 21 in America makes alcohol into the forbidden fruit within an otherwise liberal Garden of Eden. I’ve been fascinated by the way that alcohol is treated here; passed around at parties as if it’s a Class A drug and smuggled into cook-outs in guitar cases. I don’t see the harm in drinking alcohol at 18 when at that age and lower, students in America can drive a pick-up truck, have sex, get married and join the armed forces. An American 18-year-old is legally able to take someone’s life in combat or bring new life into the world before he or she can pop open a can of beer at the end of a long day.

American drinking laws also make leading a straightforward social life more difficult. As soon as I turned 18 in the UK I was able to say yes to a variety of social events that made it extremely easy to meet new people. In America, however, invites are always plagued with follow-up questions, such as; ‘Is it a 21 and over bar?’ ‘Is the party on campus?’ and ‘How strict is your RM?’

One of the most nonsensical effects of the laws is their impact upon hall life. When I arrived in America I was stupefied to learn that RMs are required to patrol residence halls and report students found drinking alcohol. Amongst all of the brilliant things RMs do for our university, asking them to act as police deputies and be the face of an impending $250 fine is irreconcilable with a positive community atmosphere. No matter how much they get paid, asking RMs to monitor the alcohol consumption of other students is as unfair to Residence Mentors themselves as it is to their residents.

Then there’s the real police force. An enormous proportion of police resources and investigations go towards scouting out underage drinkers in Five Points and house parties. If the police force is operating to make the community a safer place, I would much rather they spent their time investigating life-threatening, serious crimes rather than arresting over-intoxicated students. What’s even worse is that the police are nowhere to be seen on game days, during which everyone knows that everybody else in Columbia is gathered outside Williams-Brice Stadium drinking beer from solo cups. I’m not suggesting that the police should crack down on drinking at tailgates. Rather, I’d like to ask, how can they condone underage drinking so fiercely in some contexts and turn a blind eye to it in others? Sporadic exposure to alcohol hypes up the mystery behind drinking and allows it to attract a golden, contraband status in the student community.

Going to university is synonymous with becoming an adult. You move out, you buy and cook your own food and you pay bills within a relatively safe and protected bubble. It’s the perfect stepping stone between being a teenager and entering the ‘real’ working world. Failing to trust students with alcohol consumption undermines the other adult responsibilities they are entrusted with upon moving out and becoming independent. Encouraging development, maturity and growth on one level yet denying students the privilege of drinking on another sends out a confusing and contradictory message. That message sedates the progression to adulthood and imbues alcohol with a dangerous, mystical status.

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