OPINION | Get off the social host bandwagon


Please spare me another news report with stereotypical college students chugging endless amounts of alcohol that leaves me wondering, “who agreed to do this on camera?” However ridiculous, videos like these explicitly show the reality of underage and binge drinking on college campuses.

According to a Boynton Health Service report, 36.1 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds at colleges and universities admitted to binge drinking in 2007. Binge drinking, which the survey defined as the consumption of five or more alcoholic beverages in succession, among 21- to 25-year-olds was 45.7 percent. These are serious numbers, and I am glad the city is taking them seriously.

However, in response to this problem at the University of Minnesota campus and the city of Minneapolis as a whole, the Minneapolis City Council has proposed a restrictive ordinance.

The council will vote tomorrow whether to be the 40th city in Minnesota to adopt a controversial social host ordinance.

The social host ordinance makes it a misdemeanor to host or allow an event where underage people drink or may drink alcohol. This law attempts to restrict underage access to alcohol by targeting the place where it is consumed. In specific, the law would target large house parties, a traditional venue for binge drinking.

The proposed ordinance has raised quite a ruckus at the University. The Minnesota Student Association, the undergraduate student government, voted against a resolution in support of the social host ordinance, and several students came to speak against it at the public hearing this past Friday.

A Facebook group has been formed against the ordinance and several students have sent letters to Ward 2 City Councilman Cam Gordon, who proposed the ordinance, stating their arguments in opposition. These ranged from worries about problems arising from mixed-aged housing and fear of people avoiding medical attention for alcohol-related illnesses due to the severity of the consequences.

These concerns are justifiable. One of the first cases associated with the social host ordinance the city of Chaska adopted involves a heavily intoxicated 17-year-old who was dropped off at a gas station rather than a hospital. Fear of legal action is a likely suspect.

Also, fraternities and sororities present potential gray areas in which police would have total power to determine whether people of age were “allowing” underage drinking and if underage residents truly had “intent to drink.”

The consequences of a misdemeanor can be severe, up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail, and misdemeanors can remain on one’s record. Drake Nimz, MSA Academic and Services Committee chairman, believes police could instead use laws already in place to solve underage drinking problems, such as handing out more minor consumption tickets.

As far as reducing binge drinking, an article in the Journal of Health Economics released in December 2009 concluded that while social host ordinances do reduce traffic fatalities related to underage drinking, they have minimal to no effect on rates of alcohol consumption or binge drinking.

One of the main reasons Minneapolis is pushing the initiative is the large influx of parties it received after St. Paul passed a social host ordinance: a prime example of how underage drinking is simply shifted by restrictive laws, not stopped.

So if the social host ordinance is passed, what will really happen? People may card at house parties and Minneapolis may be praised for taking a stand, but underage drinkers will find another way to continue to drink.

What worries me is the stubbornness of government officials to realize that their methods of restrictive laws aren’t working.

So what can we do about alcohol-related deaths and drinking problems on campus? Due to the disproportionate and seemingly insatiable appetite college campuses have for alcohol, 135 college and university presidents have signed a petition titled the Amethyst Initiative, which supports an “informed and dispassionate” debate over the current drinking age of 21. Colleges and universities that have signed on include Duke, Dartmouth and Gustavus Adolphus College.

While you may not agree with lowering the drinking age, the Amethyst Initiative represents a strategy the City Council seems to be avoiding: finding ways other than additional restrictive laws to combat underage drinking.

Over the past 20 years, several new laws were passed in Minnesota to curb underage drinking and increase penalties for providers. These included the keg registration law passed in 2002 and “Kevin’s Law” passed in 1999, which increased the charges for an alcohol provider from a misdemeanor to a felony in the case of serious injury caused or suffered by the underage drinker.

The city’s adoption of another law will not stop youth drinking patterns. University of Minnesota research published last September in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found there was virtually no change in binge drinking on college campuses between 1993 and 2005. When coupled with Boynton’s more recent statistics from 2007, there has been no change in 14 years.

Cities and states should constantly look for ways to limit underage drinking and curb binge drinking, though the national drinking age has been set at 21 since 1988 and we still can’t control underage drinking. It’s time for a new strategy, because with the social host ordinance, the benefits don’t outweigh the risks.

Nora Leinen welcomes comments to nleinen@mndaily.com.