Princeton just survived a massive crime wave. Hundreds, if not thousands, of criminal offenses occurred during Lawnparties, as they do every single weekend here. In New Jersey, as in every U.S. state, it is a criminal offense to provide alcohol to minors. Those laws are so overlooked that it’s easy to forget that hosting a pregame is often criminal.
This is not an article about the dangers of underage drinking. This is an article about the danger of underage drinking laws. Allowing a situation where huge numbers of University students are committing criminal offenses, which are then ignored, is not a stable system. A single Princeton cop who decides to actually enforce the law could theoretically arrest dozens of students in a single night. This is not a good situation.
Princeton municipal police officers tend to tread lightly in spaces that students frequent, such as the Street. Despite not being part of campus and the site of large amounts of underage drinking, the area is largely left alone by Princeton town police. Speculation on an unwritten agreement between the University and the town about this phenomenon is left as an exercise for the reader.
The University’s alcohol policy is extremely understanding, which is a good thing. Although the policy technically requires all students to adhere to state laws, enforcement is focused primarily on “high risk” behaviors, such as drinking games and excessive amounts of hard liquor. Beer is served to students under 21 on the Street with impunity. Punishing students for an activity that many choose to participate in is not productive. The goal is ostensibly to keep students safe. McCosh, the UMatter bus, the tolerant policies, and other initiatives deal with the physical safety of students. However, our legal safety is lacking.
There are two solutions to prevent a situation where thousands of Princetonians drink illegally: either convince college students to stop drinking, or change the law. Since I doubt college students are going to stop drinking anytime soon, the laws need to change.
It’s important to remember that a drinking age of 21 isn’t normal. Every developed country has a minimum drinking age that is 19 or below, with the exception of the U.S. and Iceland. Granted, the U.S. doesn’t technically have a federal minimum drinking age. Every single state just has their drinking age set to 21. Why? Time for a bit of history.
In the U.S., the voting age was 21 until the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971. As a result, the accepted age of majority shifted, leading to 30 states lowering their minimum drinking ages. During this period, 18 was the accepted age of majority for nearly everything, including drinking in many states. 13 years later, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which told states to either raise their drinking age to 21 or lose 10 percent of their federal highway funds. Every single state complied.
This is important, since it means that changing the drinking age can be a state-by-state fight, instead of having to get Congress and the President to pass a law. All that it would take is a state to realize that criminalizing something that is legal in basically every other developed country is absurd. Yes, it would cost a bit of highway funding, but alcohol taxes could help cover that gap.
The situation is similar to another source of many Princeton crimes: marijuana. States have realized that the sales tax revenue is valuable, and the societal good of not criminalizing a common behavior is a common-sense decision. Marijuana also shows the danger of police selectively enforcing laws. It is well documented that African Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses that white Americans, despite nearly identical usage rates. This is because when authorities decide to only enforce the law selectively, they do not do so fairly. Does anyone really believe that if Princeton police suddenly decided to start enforcing the underage drinking laws, every segment of the Princeton population would be equally targeted?
Princeton claims that it supports and protects its students. Other college presidents have voiced their support for lowering the drinking age, so that their students may be protected for laws that exist in almost no other country. President Eisgruber and the Princeton community needs to push to change the law. The current system is not stable.
Beni Snow ’19 is a mechanical and aerospace engineering major from Newton, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.