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Published: August 29, 2008 10:39 am ShareThisPrintThis
Local college leaders mull lowering the drinking age
By Alan Burke
Staff writer

Local college presidents are joining a nationwide campaign to examine the drinking age and to consider lowering it from 21 to 18.
The "Amethyst Initiative" was launched with a statement headlined "It's time to rethink the drinking age" and "Twenty-one is not working." Scores of presidents have signed.
Under current law, Endicott College President Richard Wylie said, alcohol enjoys the status of forbidden fruit. It tempts students to drink and often to drink surreptitiously and unwisely.
"Students are drinking at a young age," said Salem State President Patricia Meservey, "but they're having to do it behind closed doors."
In those situations, some presidents believe, unsupervised binge drinking becomes more likely. Young students are prone to get alcohol and drink it before it can be discovered. In short, Wylie said, they never learn how to respect alcohol.
Meservey points to the contradictions of the current restriction. "We do allow 18-year-olds to vote, to serve in the military, to sign contracts, to get married and have children."
Yet Meservey and Wylie are not quite ready for change. Rather, they stress conversation.
"I do not at this point support lowering the drinking age," Meservey said. "But we should take the time to look at lowering the drinking age."
"I don't know all the answers," Wylie said. "We need to have a national dialogue."
Also onboard with the initiative is Marian Court College President Ghazi Darkazalli, who said in a statement, "If students entering college at 18 years old can join the military and have the right and responsibility to vote in democratic elections, they should also have the right to make responsible and informed decisions about alcohol consumption."
Meanwhile, groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and local law enforcement officials are talking already - and they don't like the idea. The current age - 21 - was established nationally in 1984 after the federal government threatened states receiving highway funds with cutbacks.
Both Wylie and Meservey dismiss the idea that lowering the age would make life easier for colleges. To the contrary, Wylie said, it would likely complicate his job. Nevertheless, it might be better and healthier for students.
Gordon College President R. Judson Carlberg has not signed the initiative and would not comment.
"Gordon is a dry campus," spokeswoman Cyndi McMahon said. "Students who are of drinking age are entitled to drink off campus."
Both Gordon and Marian Court have religious affiliations.
Peabody police Chief Robert Champagne denounces the idea of lowering the age.
"If there's going to be a debate, it ought to be about raising the drinking age," he said.
He cites his experience dealing with sometimes deadly accidents involving drunken youths.
"The reality is that people do not make good decisions when they've had too much to drink," he said.
Champagne recalls that Massachusetts lowered its drinking age to 18 in the 1970s.
"It was a such a bad idea that it only lasted a few years," he said.
An uptick in highway deaths helped inspire a return to the old law.
Currently, 21-year-olds are found buying alcohol for 18-year-olds, Champagne said. Lowering the age puts still younger kids in jeopardy of obtaining intoxicants.
"I have no problem talking about it," Champagne said.
"I do have some reservations," Salem Chief Robert St. Pierre said.
Even so, he welcomes the initiative.
"I think it's something that needs to be discussed and looked at very carefully."
He worries particularly about binge drinking and how to stop it.
"I'd want to see what the discussion yields," St. Pierre said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving has targeted the Amethyst Initiative, offering on its national Web site statistics claiming that 25,000 lives have been saved by the higher drinking age.
MADD also includes the names of each signer of the initiative and urge supporters to write to them.
Amethyst is a word rooted in Greek mythology meaning "not intoxicated."
Note: This story has been modified to correct an error. Holy Cross has not signed onto the initiative.
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