The battle over booze

Castleton’s President Wolk by virtue of the alphabet appears 7th on the MADD hit list. Yet he proudly proclaims “for a long time I was the only one on it.”The hit list is generated and posted on the web site of the second most powerful political lobbying organization in the U.S., Mothers against Drunk Driving. It names over 130 college presidents, alphabetized by their institutions, who have signed the Amethyst Imitative supporting lowering the drinking age to 18.

The Amethyst Initiative is promoted by the activists group Choose Responsibility, and is the brain child of former Middlebury College President McCarddal. It is a petition signed by college presidents that states “We call upon our elected officials: To support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age. To consider whether the 10% highway fund “incentive” encourages or inhibits that debate. To invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol. We pledge ourselves and our institutions to playing a vigorous, constructive role as these critical discussions unfold.”

MADD released a statement that called the initiative “misguided” and providing “deliberately misleading information meant to confuse the public on the effectiveness of the 21 law.”

MADD’s President Laura Dean-Mooney posted a message on the MADD Web site saying “parents should think twice about sending their teens to these colleges.”

“By signing onto this initiative, theses presidents have made the 21 law nearly unenforceable on their campuses. In fact I call into question whether or not these campuses are bothering to enforce the 21 drinking age,” she said.

MADD also calls into question the motives of the presidents.

The Amethyst Initiative asks each president to articulate a message in writing about why he or she has signed it. The messages can be found at Most of the presidents claim that 21 is not working because it promotes clandestine and binge drinking.

They also say it’s hypocritical that the 18-year-olds are legally able to vote, marry, sign contracts, borrow money, be held responsible for any criminal activity, and fight for our country, BUT not be responsible enough to sit down and socialize with the rest of the adult population over a beer. Many of them refer to the 21 law as prohibition.

In an interview, Wolk said that the current situation doesn’t allow us (faculty and administration) to model appropriate and responsible behavior around consuming alcohol. He talked about other cultures that don’t have the problems we have because they have a much more open approach to alcohol.

Maria Carrenno, a parent of a Castleton junior, said, “I grew up in Spain. Alcohol was everywhere it was no big deal. Here when you go into a bar its dark with a long bar and a pool table. Only people who are of legal age are allowed in. It promotes a belly up to the bar, and get drunk mentality. In Spain the bars have tables and its light, and open. The whole family goes. The adults drink alcohol the children don’t but they see their parents drinking socially with food and friends, not getting shit faced.”

This is exactly why CSC senior Yvette Furnia believes that the 21 law should stay in place.

“I don’t think our culture has an appropriate relationship with alcohol to lower the drinking age. I think other countries do because they have better education that involves their parents. A less harmful relationship,” she said.

The Choose Responsibility Web site states that “The U.S. is one of only four nations world wide with a drinking age as high as 21.” It also offers up the following facts:

In the state of Vermont, 10 percent of federal highway funds, or about $17 million, is at stake if the state were to switch the drinking age. Representative Michael Obuchoski (Windham – D) said that each state can set its own drinking age, but withholding highway funds hold the states hostage.

Wolk spoke about when each state had different drinking ages and how teens would travel across the boarder to New York so that they could drink legally, and some were involved in accidents when they returned home. He said that he thought back then that a standard drinking age for all states “made sense.”

Increasing the age to 21 didn’t stop the travel-to-be-legal behavior, it just changed the destination. From Rutland the Canadian boarder is about two hours, where any 18-year-old with a passport can legally drink alcohol. Many CSC students admitted taking trips to Canada to party, but even though it’s legal only Furnia would go on record saying, “Sure I drank when I was in Montreal before I turned 21.”

MADD claims that data shows that an “estimated 25,000 lives have been saved by the 21 drinking age.” Using data collected by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, MADD says that the 60% drop in fatalities from 1982 to 2006 involving persons 18 to 20 years old proves the point.

Choose Responsibility counters that with its own data from a National Highway Safety Administration study that found “the largest number of alcohol- related traffic fatalities occurred among 21 year-olds followed by 22 and 23 year-olds. Twice as many 21 year-olds as 18-year-olds” and claim that 21 law doesn’t reduce the accidents it postpones them.

MADD sites age demographics and says when there are more people in that age bracket the numbers go up and when the population of that age demographic falls so does the number of fatalities.

Choose Responsibility says that other factors have not been given credit for having a more “dramatic” impact on lower fatalities. Safer cars with airbags, higher awareness of the consequences of DWI, designated drivers, and “more vigorous law enforcement.”

Data from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program of Vermont shows that over a 10-year period, drivers who had crashed and were charged with driving under the influence dropped from 320 statewide in 1995 to 49 in 2004

In 1995 seven drivers age 15-17, 40 more age 18-20, and 48 age 21- 24 were charged with DUI after a crash. The majority of drivers that were charged with driving under the influence after a crash that year were not under age, but from the older adult population. One hundred four drivers were 25-34 years of age, while 77 were 35-44 and finally there were 44 who were 45 years old and above.

Ten years later, the data shows a tie between the 25-34 year olds and the 45 plus crowd. Each had a total of 12 crashes that resulted in a DUI . Followed by the 35-44 age group with 9 accidents, and 21- 24 year olds with 8. Coming in with the lowest number of DUI charges stemming from a crash were the 18-20-year-olds with five and the 15-17 year-olds with just one.

In the state of Vermont, a driver who is arrested for DUI must attend the CRASH program for their first or second offence. Counseling is also mandatory with the second offence. On the third offence the operator faces the lifetime suspension of their license.

From July 1, 2007 to July 1, 2008 a total of 3,167 drivers were mandated to take the CRASH course as a condition of their DUI charge. Nine percent of those were age 17 to 20 while 21 percent were in the 21 to 25 age range and the remaining 70 percent were 26 plus years of age with the oldest being 83 years old.

Repeated calls to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and messages sent by way of his Web site have yet to yield a response to questions about this issue. Questions included asking his position on the issue and whether one group of adults has the right to impose a forced prohibition on the youngest members of our adult population. He was also asked via e-mail, if 18-20 year-olds turned out in large numbers for the coming election would they then become a voting block with clout that could get the issue on the ballot? And how would they get the question on a ballot?

While Sanders did not answer those questions, Obuchoski did. He said that he wasn’t going to take up time with the issue now but if it came up for vote “considering the information available” that he would “support the lowering of the drinking age.”

If fact he and Representative Bill Johnson (Essex-Caledonia-Orleans-R) co-sponsored a resolution that called “on the federal government to forgive the state the transportation penalty if the state allowed the military under 21 to drink.”

Obuchoski also said that if 18-20 year-olds turned out strong for the vote and “put the state on notice that they were doing so in support of a lower drinking age that would be a powerful political statement.”

To get the question on the ballot requires an action of the General Assembly. Residents would have to petition the select boards on a town-by-town basis.

Wolk agrees with Obuchoski that if the youngest voters organized they would have a lot of clout.

“More young people voted in the last election than in previous elections . there was a long time during the last 20 years or so after 18 year olds got the right to vote where their numbers were less than the regular population. If there was a draft I think you would see a lot more 18 to 20 year-olds,” he said.

He spoke of the ’60s when youths were motivated by race, poverty, and the war to demand a voice in government. When there was no longer a draft “so much of the youthful altruism subsided.” He went on further and spoke with pride about the CSC students who have been returning to activism and community service in greater numbers than other colleges.

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