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Lowered drinking age has some support on campus

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Late on a Saturday night, with the Court Street bars bustling with the excitement of homecoming around him, a sophomore acted without thinking. Drinking enough to be brave, he lunged toward a silver Dodge Charger parked on the side of the street and smoothly glided across the hood, landing on his feet on the other side of the car.  Within moments he was greeted by an officer, and when he confirmed it was not his car, was arrested while his parents watched from only a few feet away.

“It all really happened in about a 90 second span, maybe even less than that,” said a 19-year-old student who wishes to remain anonymous. “I was in the Pigskin talking to my friend, and 90 seconds later I’m in the Athens Police Department.”

The student was charged with drinking alcohol underage, a first degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail. However, he will not be spending any time in jail. He will instead be completing an underage diversion program, which will result in his record being cleared.

Anyone charged with underage consumption, underage possession, false identification or disorderly conduct for the first time can complete five parts to have their record expunged. These parts include a fine of $319, 12 hours of community service that must be completed in Athens County, finishing a three-hour class about alcohol, reading a book about alcoholism and 90 days without a second offense.

In Ohio, it is legal to drink underage with your parents, but because of the student’s behavior the officer charged him for drinking underage, which is part of the diversion program, rather than another charge like criminal mischief, which is not.

After finishing the alcohol education class, the student said he felt as if he was the only one that should have been there.

“At the end of the class, we all told our stories about how we got arrested,” he said. “All the other kids, it seemed like, it seemed like I was the only one who really deserved it, to get arrested. All the other kids it seemed like they were just walking home, or they were just at a party standing around.”

The diversion program is not unique to Athens. These programs can be seen throughout the state and country, said the student’s lawyer Pat McGee. McGee handles the cases of many students per year as managing attorney for the Center for Student Legal Services, and he said a large portion of his cases are related to underage drinking.

“The majority of my cases involve alcohol,” McGee said. “The majority of the alcohol cases involve underage drinking to some extent, and that would also include furnishing alcohol to an underager.”

But for McGee, another broader issue comes into play.

“You have to keep in mind that Ohio is a weird scene simply because we are one of the few states that had a statewide referendum that voted to lower the drinking age to 19,” he said. “We had the 19-year-old age for about five years before the legislature was strong-armed into raising the drinking age to 21.”

McGee is referring to a series of legislative and judicial moves starting in the late 1980’s regarding the minimum drinking age.

In July 1984, Former President Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act into law after extensive lobbying from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, according to Choose Responsibly, a nonprofit organization aimed at lowering the drinking age.

The law stated that any state with a drinking age lower than 21 would lose a percentage of federal funding for highways, 5 percent in the first year and 10 percent for every year following.

Then, in 1987, the law was challenged in the Supreme Court case South Dakota v. Dole.  The law was challenged primarily on the basis of the 21st amendment, which repealed prohibition and gave the states the power of restricting the sale of alcohol.

South Dakota had previously had a drinking age of 19, for beer with a lower percent of alcohol. The vote was 7-to-2 with the majority upholding the National Minimum Drinking Age Act because the federal government was acting within its right to exercise control over the distribution of funds.

Funding for highways was also deemed relevant to the drinking age because “differing minimum drinking ages in the states created particular incentives for young persons to drink and drive while commuting to border states where the drinking age was lower,” according to the summary of the case.

“We are only following this federal law, you know, because of the blackmail, for financial reasons,” McGee said.

As McGee said, Ohio is a unique situation because of the layout of existing laws. According to the Ohio Revised Code, in a section entitled “Alternate prohibitions if federal mandate relating to a national uniform drinking age of twenty-one is no longer in force,” the legal drinking age for Ohio will revert back to 19 if the federal law is repealed. The new age would only apply to beer and not to liquors.

For some, like City Prosecutor Lisa Eliason, the drinking age would not make a difference.

Eliason began the diversion program in Athens County.

“When I was in college, I know what happened,” she said. “A lot of bad things can happen when underage people drink.”

The student, on the other hand, said he thinks having a lower drinking age would help ease young adults into drinking and decrease the desire to drink. He proposed having the drinking age at 19, but prohibiting the sale of alcohol to anyone under the age of 21.

For now, the required age remains 21, leaving underage students to opt for diversion. A few months and hundreds of dollars later, it is as if it never happened. That is, as long it does not happen again.

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