WASTED DAYS AND WASTED NIGHTS
Binge drinking is a national epidemic. But is lowering the consumption age a solution – or just another slogan?
Thursday, November 6, 2008
“YOU, YOU, YOU!” growls a group of students huddled in the kitchen of an on-campus apartment at CSU Monterey Bay. As the night wears on, more friends cluster inside the cramped crib, carrying 12-packs of Natural Ice and Keystone Light.
It’s a typical college habitat: the cult TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia plays without sound on a large flat-screen as Shwayze’s dirty, hip-hop anthem “Buzzin” booms from a stereo.
X-Box games, video game controllers and empty beer bottles are strewn across the living room table and a green-felt, beer-stained poker table sits in the middle of the dining room.
A large Corona beer flag, a Bob Marley tie-dyed tapestry and labels from 40-ounce bottles of Old English and King Cobra malt liquor line the walls.
“FRESHMAN YEAR, I SAW THIS GUY GET ALCOHOL POISONING. IT WAS SURREAL– HE WAS FOAMING AT THE MOUTH.’’
A few gather like a primeval tribe to smoke weed in one of the back bedrooms.
A couple of couches, a few beer banners and—most importantly, a makeshift ping-pong table—make up the décor of the garage-turned-party room, where a crowd gathers around a beer-pong match already in progress.
The other featured drinking contest, the “You!” game, is Nick Kova’s innovation. As the towheaded senior explains, slightly slurring his words: A partygoer is singled out and pressured into guzzling down an entire alcoholic beverage in one breath while everyone around shouts “You, you, you!” over and over.
Though most of the students are of legal drinking age, Kova guesses at least four people attending the party are under 21—but still knocking it back.
They are not alone.
Kova, who turned 21 last February, says his current drinking habits are no different than when he was underage.
“I’ve been in more fear of getting in trouble now than when I was under 21, as odd as that sounds,” he says before announcing that he’s going to down some “schizels” (slang for “shots”).
But it’s not all fun and games.
At the same party, one student recalls the downside of college drinking.
“Freshman year, I saw this guy get alcohol poisoning,” says a 20-year-old junior with blonde, shoulder-length hair, who asks not to be identified.
“It was surreal—he was foaming at the mouth,” she continues, cracking open a Natural Ice. “Stuff like that happened every weekend during the beginning of my freshman year. Every weekend you’d hear the ambulance.”
Everyone knows that college kids are going to drink, whether or not they’re of age. No one, seemingly, knows what to do about it. But the crisis has reached such proportions—excessive alcohol consumption contributed to more than 4,600 deaths of people under 21 in the United States annually from 1999-2005, according to a Centers for Disease Control study—that novel proposals are being offered.
In July, the Amethyst Initiative, drafted by John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont (and affiliated with the Monterey Institute of International Studies) offered a plan to begin a national debate on lowering the legal drinking age to 18. The creators of the initiative and the 130 university president signatories believe a lower drinking age would result in less clandestine underage binge drinking. (The initiative is named for the stone amethyst because the word is derived from the Ancient Greek for “not’’ and “intoxicated,’’ says the group’s website, www.amethystinitiative.org.)
But many believe this complex problem will not be fixed by a simple solution, however appealing it may sound.
CSUMB President Dianne Harrison opposes the Amethyst Initiative but believes it makes a “compelling argument”: It addresses the problem of those who are under 21 “who are forced to go underground and end up drinking more.
“Our laws aren’t very consistent,’’ she says. “You can serve in the military but you can’t have a beer.”
But while she hopes for the best, the realist in Harrison is always prepared for the worst. Anytime a student is involved in an accident (auto or otherwise) the first question she says she asks is: “Was it alcohol-related?”
She has seen the consequences of student alcohol abuse firsthand. Last year, a CSUMB student who had been drinking heavily fell and was critically injured.
“These things worry me to death as the university president and as a parent,” she says. “For these reasons, I’m not sure if the initiative will gain much support.”
Due to the complexity of the issue, Harrison often seeks outside advice.
“What kind of alcohol education do we need to provide for freshmen?” she constantly asks the administration. This year CSUMB welcomed its largest incoming freshman class—around 850—since it was founded in 1994.
“OUR LAWS AREN’T VERY CONSISTENT. YOU CAN SERVE IN THE MILITARY BUT YOU CAN’T HAVE A BEER.”
Since most freshmen are 18, that makes the problem of dealing with underage drinking that much more daunting, but Harrison claims CSUMB has one of the most comprehensive alcohol-education programs in the country. In October, the school’s Personal Growth and Counseling Center organized a National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week, promoting “personal responsibility and respect for the law when it comes to the consumption of alcohol.”
She notes that “substance-free’’ housing is a popular choice for many students. However, as is the case at most colleges and universities with similar programs, substance-free housing is not always substance-free.
Dorm 206 is CSUMB’s substance-free dorm. In the evening, the lobby is crammed with students doing homework, chatting about classes, playing foosball and watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—this time with the sound on.
First-semester residential advisers Steven Matthews and Katherine Pendleton both lived in the substance-free dorm before becoming RAs. Pendleton lived in a regular dorm last year and is relieved to be back in the substance-free dorm as an RA.
“It was rough last year,” she says. “People would get so drunk they’d be passed out in the hallways.”
Dorm 206 seems like a parallel universe to the Animal House antics Pendleton witnessed last year. Many of the doors to students’ rooms are wide open. Bulletin boards hang on each floor with alcohol- and substance-abuse information. One of the boards reads: “Alcohol Mythology,” listing such myths as: “I can sober up quickly if I have to...” and “People who drink too much only hurt themselves...”
The halls of the first, second and third floors are just a little louder than a library. On the third floor, three girls gather in the hallway with their laptops.
“As a non-drinker, I believe the age should be lowered to 18,” says resident Jessica Tatum. “[The underage population] wouldn’t feel the thrill anymore.”
Sarah Waterman says, “ smells better and it’s less distracting.”
“[Dorm] 202 smells like a bar,” Stephanie Spross adds. “People say they have to Febreeze their clothes to get out the smoke and pot smell.”
RAs are warned to be on the lookout for heavy drinking and alcohol poisonings around the start of the school year and, especially, the holidays. “There are usually a lot around this time of the year,” Matthews says.
Even though the residence hall is substance-free, Pendleton says a handful of parties do involve alcohol. Last week, she reported two students for drinking. “They’ll probably be moved to another dorm,” she says.
Junior Chanel Hason lived in 206 during her sophomore year due to a “res-life screw-up” (the dorm is usually reserved only for freshmen.)
“It was different,” Hason says. “It wasn’t as rowdy and everything was nicer. They use the rooms on the first floor for tours.”
But she adds, despite the “substance-free” label, “some people would smoke pot in their dorm rooms—you could smell it in the halls. And other people would have small parties with alcohol.”
The 20-year-old even had an occasional “margarita party” in her dorm room.
“It’s pretty hard to get three floors of people who are completely clean. Most people like it [Dorm 206] because it’s quiet.”
Dorm 208, next to 206, consists mostly of freshmen. It’s a notoriously heavy drinking residence hall.
“I’m aware of two students living [in 208] who were binge drinking last weekend,” says one resident, who sports short, spiked hair and a black T-shirt. “It was their first time drinking and they didn’t know their limits. One got alcohol poisoning and was taken to the hospital, and the other was just smashed, running through the halls.”
A CSUMB police log from that weekend confirms his story: “Incident-medical aid\medical aid\208 Residence Hall, Officer was detailed to a call of a student with alcohol poisoning. The student was transported to the hospital for further treatment.”
An 18-year-old freshman, barefoot and dressed in board-shorts, living in Dorm 211, next to 208, says he drinks “four or five times a week; sometimes six.
“ABSTINENCE IS PROHIBITION, AND PROHIBITION DOESN’T WORK. [BUT] COLLEGE CAMPUSES NEED TO BE SAFE ENVIRONMENTS.’’
“I have a high tolerance for alcohol so I can usually drink a lot and not really get that intoxicated,” he adds.
The CDC defines “binge” drinking as five or more alcoholic drinks in about two hours (four drinks for women).
The Amethyst Initiative isn’t McCardell’s first attempt at addressing the national underage college-drinking problem. In 2007, he started Choose Responsibly, a nonprofit organization founded to stimulate discussion about the presence of alcohol in American culture.
McCardell and Choose Responsibly drafted the Amethyst Initiative in July 2008. Supporters include the presidents of Dartmouth College, Duke University and Santa Clara University.
“Twenty-one is just not working out,” McCardell says. “There needs to be debate.”
He adds that the goal of the initiative is not to lower the drinking age but rather to begin debate.
“Our current laws aren’t working,’’ he says. “The initiative doesn’t hold a position on whether the age should, in fact, change. As a college president, the only approach is abstinence, which is unrealistic. Abstinence is prohibition, and prohibition doesn’t work. [But] college campuses need to be safe environments and teach responsibility.”
The minimum legal drinking age of 21 was put into place to decrease drunk driving. But while statistics show the roads have been safer since the age increase, they also show that binge drinking and alcoholism among the underage population have increased.
“The public is ready for debate—this debate is about policy versus reality,” McCardell says.
The drinking scene at CSUMB is a microcosm of a national alcohol epidemic. Alcohol education, alcohol-free events and laws have had little effect.
The statistics are grim. According to the CDC report, at least 157 people aged 18 to 23 drank themselves to death between 1999 and 2005. During the same period, 83 of the deceased were under the legal drinking age. And the proportion of current drinkers who binge is highest in the 18- to 20-year-old group.
According to CSUMB’s campus crime statistics, there have been more than 700 reported “liquor law violations” on campus during the past three years. This is more than the next five classes of violations put together—no other category of on-campus offenses comes close. Most violations are by students who are under legal drinking age.
Over the past month the University Police Department’s daily log reads more like a pub crawl than a crime blotter: “Officers responded to an intoxicated subject. The subject was transported to CHOMP by ambulance for evaluation and treatment”; “Officer cited a subject in the residential halls for being a minor in possession of alcohol”; “Officer contacted two underage female students with alcohol in the south stairway. Both were cited and released.”
UPD Chief Fred Hardee is dressed in a freshly pressed uniform; his hair is neatly parted and looks unmovable. Honors, awards and family photos decorate his office.
Hardee believes the minimum legal drinking age should remain at 21.
“[The initiative] goes against everything that’s been established,’’ he says. “Numbers prove that when the legal drinking age went to 21, fatalities were reduced. We would be taking several steps backwards if [it] became 18 again.”
In 1984, lawmakers set the national minimum drinking age to 21. In order to get all 50 states to comply, the law required that a portion of federal highway funds be withheld from states that initially didn’t comply.
According to Mothers Against Drunk-Driving, 25,000 lives have been saved as a result of the higher legal drinking age. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates the legislation has reduced traffic fatalities involving drivers 18-to-20 years old by 13 percent.
But the consumption habits of underage binge drinking continue to be alarming. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that about 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by those under 21 in the United States is by binge drinkers.
Excessive drinking among underage students isn’t confined to school campuses. At a “CEOs and office hoes” party on a Saturday night, the streets of a Marina neighborhood leading up to a small house are lined with cars. People walking to or from the party occasionally dip into a bush to vomit or urinate.
Most of the 150 or so partygoers are dressed in the themed attire. The guys wear mismatched suits and ties and the girls wear mega-short, Britney Spears skirts with tight, button-popping shirts, leaving little to the imagination.
CSUMB Junior Chris Olson, one of the hosts, says he lived in the dorms but was kicked out after getting caught drinking in his room with an underage student.
Olson stands in his driveway drinking from a red plastic cup marking the hands of those who pay the $3 entrance fee.
He wears a cardboard sign strung around his neck that says: “CEO in search of work. Will work for beer, buds and boobs.”
The house overflows with drunken college students. In the two-car garage, a couple of kegs, a regulation stripper pole and wall-to-wall people sweating profusely ensure a constant 100-degree, humid climate.
“There are a lot of seniors [at the party] and a lot of freshman girls,” senior James Marquez says distractedly as a blonde removes her shirt to reveal a black lace bra.
Whether students party on or off-campus, booze is readily available in large amounts despite the law. Eighty percent of college students drink alcohol, 40 percent binge drink and 20 percent binge drink three or more times over two-week periods, according to a 2007 U.S. Surgeon General’s report. Sure, there are certain measures that could make a difference, including focusing community attention on underage binge drinking, holding simulated DUI classes with real instructors; and conducting panels of student peers who have experienced the repercussions of binge drinking. But in the end, there are no foolproof solutions to this complex problem.
“Alcohol abuse is insidious, and there is no magic age,’’ Harrison says. “[The Amethyst Initiative] is too simplistic for such a complicated problem. There is no silver bullet.”