Answer to Underage Drinking: Make It Legal

Getting youth drinking out in open would combat dangers of abuse, schools say.

ByABC News
September 11, 2008, 6:42 AM

Aug. 20, 2008— -- By the time Lizzy Holmgren turned 21 in her senior year at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she had already learned how to do shots – 10 at a time – or drink as many as 20 during a day of heavy partying.

But as a sophomore in 2004, when a classmate died in a highly publicized case of alcohol poisoning, she began to see the dangers. Just weeks after arriving as a freshman, Lynn "Gordie" Bailey and several other pledges were "encouraged" to drink four bottles of whiskey and six bottles of wine in 30 minutes as part of a fraternity "bid night."

Left to "sleep it off," the 18-year-old was found dead the next morning – covered in ritual writing his fraternity brothers had scrawled over his body. One of Holmgren's friends had tried to wipe the ink off the corpse and couldn't sleep for weeks.

Quite frankly, said Holmgren, even though it's the students who "perpetuate" the alcohol culture, they need reining in.

"When you are older, it's not as cool to be drunk," she told "But when you are in school, you are so excited that your parents aren't there, that you feel you can't get into trouble and you are invincible."

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1,700 college students die each year in alcohol-related deaths – not to mention the harm they cause other innocent victims in car accidents, sexual assaults and fraternity hazing.

The problem has vexed universities for so long that this week nearly 100 college presidents from some of the most well respected schools in the country proposed a radical idea: They are asking lawmakers to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18 to curb the allure and "underground culture" of college drinking.

If you make it legal, they say, it drives binge drinking out into the open, where schools and police can regulate it.

The controversial idea sparked immediate outrage.

A variety of groups, led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, are fighting the initiative, faulting the universities for refusing to take responsibility for their underage students.

"We think their first concern should be the health, welfare and safety of the students, and it certainly isn't," said Virginia native Jeffrey Levy, who first waged the war against the college presidents in 1997 after the death of his 20-year-old son in an alcohol-related car accident.

"Their facts are terribly wrong," Levy, who sits on MADD's board of directors, told "They want to take themselves off the hook. If they change the law, it's not their problem."

His 20-year-old son, Jonathan – a passenger in a car driven by a friend who was "drunk beyond imagination" – was one of five college students killed in Virginia in just one weekend. After that, Levy led an attorney general's task force to do something about it.