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Licensing Students to Drink?

Flap over proposal by University of Colo. to allow kids under 21 to drink

The problem of underage drinking on campus is as old as college fraternities and about as manageable as a toga party. But one university chancellor is pushing a highly controversial plan that would literally license students to drink.

The University of Colorado in Boulder wants to give students under the legal drinking age of 21 drinking "learner's permits" - much like beginning driver's licenses. The purpose, school administrators say, is to educate students how to "drink responsibly" and to better monitor who is actually drinking.

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"There's this incredible hypocrisy of the 'age 21' rule," says CU chancellor Roderic Park, who is proposing the radical idea. "The data show that 90 percent of high school seniors drink. A quarter of them say they drink regularly."

But the problem goes beyond simply underage drinking. According to a Harvard University study of 17,592 American college students last year, nearly half of college students can be described as binge drinkers - meaning they consume four or more drinks in a row on a regular basis.

Under the proposal, the university would allow 18- to 21-year-olds to obtain a permit letting them buy beer or wine at bars and restaurants, but not at liquor stores. Applicants would need a parent's signature to apply for the permit, and they would then have to complete an alcohol-education program. The drinking permit would be subject to suspension for any alcohol-related offense.

Mr. Park recently floated the idea in Washington, but so far, no one is jumping to endorse it. "As the father of a teenager, I can't think of a worse message to send," says Congressman David Skaggs (D), who represents Boulder. "Underage drinking kills, with or without a license. It would be stupid to legalize it and put bars in charge of enforcement."

But Park says the current approach of prohibition doesn't deter underage drinking or alcohol abuse. Society, he says, would be better served by teaching youths how to drink moderately.

"There's a great deal of concern on public university campuses about the extent to which students are drinking," acknowledges Roz Hiebert of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. "These kids are away from home for the first time, unsupervised. They just don't know the consequences of their drinking."

Locally, the proposal is eliciting mixed reviews. CU administrators, student leaders, and some law-enforcement officials say they like the concept. "It's a good possibility to consider," says Boulder Police Chief Tom Koby. "It would allow us to create an education program around responsible drinking. The current policy doesn't allow you to educate people how to consume alcohol."

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But others balk at the approach. "I don't think that's where we want to go," says Sgt. Anthony Padilla of the Colorado State Patrol. "That age group has the highest potential for motor-vehicle crashes. And the whole feeling is that they're not responsible enough [about drinking] at that age."

"I don't think we can teach responsible drinking behavior to 18-year-olds," adds Terry Waffensmith, of the Denver chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "I don't think they have the maturity to be 'social drinkers.' I didn't at 18. At that age, you only see the moment."

But Police Chief Koby counters: "People learn responsibility over time. You can't throw people into a culture with no exposure to it and expect them to do well." In Europe, he says, such as in Germany, where beer is widely available and no minimum drinking age is imposed, teens go to parties and drink soda.

William Mickel, manager of Boulder's popular student hangout The Sink, disagrees with the proposal. "Personally, I don't feel like baby-sitting 18-year-olds. I have enough problems with people over 21. This would just put more drinking and driving on the road."

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