Licensed to Drink

A university chancellor backs an underage drinking permit.

Despite several studies showing that the age-21 drinking law has had no effect on binge drinking among college students, lowering the drinking age has not been a viable political option. But now Rod Park, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder, is proposing that qualified underage college students receive drinking permits.

Modeled after driver's license learning permits, Park's "drinking permits" would allow college students under 21 to purchase alcohol in restaurants and bars, but not from liquor stores. Students would need to get parental consent and to pass an alcohol-education test. If a student committed an alcohol-related offense, the permit could be revoked.

Park believes issuing permits will have a more positive effect on drinking behavior than outright prohibition. "My understanding about how to make people responsible is to give them responsibility and hold them accountable," he says.

Michael Haines, coordinator for Health Enhancement Services at Northern Illinois University, believes the parallel to driving is especially apt. "Imagine if we told young people 'Just say no to automobiles' and then at 16 gave them a license and told them to go at it," says Haines, who has seen binge drinking among NIU students drop 34 percent since he introduced an ad campaign promoting responsible drinking in 1989. (See "Purging Bingeing," December 1995.) David Hanson, a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam who has studied college drinking for more than 20 years, believes a learner's permit would promote drinking in more-controlled environments than fraternity functions and keg parties. Hanson has proposed his own drinking permit for high school graduates but says, "Park's plan may be politically more viable because it involves parental consent."

Park says his ideas can't be implemented unless Congress allows states to experiment. Gathering support will be an uphill battle, but Rep. Scott Klug (R-Wisc.) has introduced a bill that would return the drinking age back to the states.

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