Can Medical Amnesty Bring Sense to Underage Drinking Debate?

More college students are dying from drinking, but amnesty could be the answer.

July 17, 2009— -- Set foot onto any college campus, and you'll probably find underage drinking on any given night.

But the debate over college drinking is heating up again over the advantages and disadvantages of "medical amnesty" policies to encourage students who abuse drugs and alcohol to seek potentially life-saving medical treatment without the worry of disciplinary action from the school's administration.

For the past 20 years, the United States has maintained the legal drinking age of 21 with little debate over the justification of this policy. In April 2009, more than 100 college and university presidents signed the Amethyst Initiative, a public statement calling for "an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age."

Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is not one of the schools that signed the letter.

In spring 2008, freshman and New York native Matthew Sunshine, 19, was finally getting adjusted to college life, having found a steady group of friends and a social life filled with typical college parties and football game tailgates.

Some friends said he had a habit of drinking more than others. But they said he could control his drinking so that he could still walk people back to their dorms.

Sunshine died June 10, 2008 from alcohol poisoning after attending a party in his on-campus dorm. A student discovered him unresponsive the next morning with a blood alcohol level of 0.396 -- more than four times the legal limit for driving.

Sunshine's father told "The Daily Northwestern" that students pressured his son to drink, drew pornographic images on his face and took pictures for the Internet.

College Campuses Tasked to Monitor Drinking

"This phenomenon occurs on college campuses nationwide and Northwestern is not immune from such societal issues," William Banis, Vice President of University Relations, said in an email statement to students and faculty.

The family is planning to file a lawsuit against the university for their son's death and seeking a resolution that includes "both economic and non-economic" components, Chicago attorney Robert Clifford, who is representing the family, told

"What's unique about the Sunshine claim is that the family strongly believes that some meaningful change needs to take place in America about how universities monitor alcohol consumption on campus," Clifford said.

He cited usage of the Red Watch Band program, started at New York's Stony Brook University where Sunshine's mother, Dr. Suzanne Fields practices. Fields told that the program trains volunteers to act in alcohol-related emergencies while "promoting kindness and compassion while helping friends in need."

The program has spread to over 100 colleges and dozens of high schools, though Northwestern's administration has not adopted it.

Alan Cubbage, vice president of university relations, declined to comment on Sunshine's case in light of the potential lawsuit.

Drinking is clearly not an overlooked issue on college campuses. According to federal records, 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005. The number of alcohol-poisoning deaths per year rose from 18 in 1999 to 35 in 2005; over the seven-year period, 83 of the college-age victims were, like Sunshine, under 21.

A separate Associated Press analysis of hundreds of news articles about alcohol-related deaths in the past decade found that victims drank well past the point of recollection — with an average blood-alcohol level of 0.40 percent, or five times the legal limit for driving. In nearly every case, friends knew the victim was drunk and put him or her to bed to "sleep it off," which might have very well been the case in Sunshine's death.

Medical Amnesty Policy

The debate among students focused less on what preventative measures the university could have taken, but rather if Sunshine's life could have been saved had a medical amnesty policy been in place.

The university has no immediate plans to implement a medical amnesty policy, citing legal considerations, yet many students would support one.

Senior Shane Michael Singh, 21, who serves on the New Student Week board of directors, says the policy could only be beneficial, especially to inexperienced drinkers such as freshman.

"If it's part of a school's a mission statement to ensure that students are safe to get help when they need it, medical amnesty falls under that," Singh said.

John McCardell, director of Choose Responsibility, an organization advocating lowering the drinking age to 18 and issuing drinking learner's permits to adults 18, 19 and 20 to promote responsible consumption, told that the minimum drinking age is a "law out of step with reality."

"Our official position can only be abstinence, but what do we do in a situation where 75 or 80 percent of our population is not abstaining?" said McCardell, who was also the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont and wrote a 2004 op-ed in "The New York Times" about the bad social policy of the current drinking age.

The college, which had an alcohol-related death in February 2008 when 19-year-old student Nicholas Garza was found in a creek in Vermont after consuming alcohol, has had a medical amnesty policy for several years now, but calls to Middlebury administrators for comment on its long-term benefits were not returned.

"We're talking about saving human lives, because the fact is, young people's lives are at risk," McCardell said.

Across college campuses, activities that promote binge drinking have apparently become increasingly popular.

Several Greek life students at two Ivy League universities reported a university-banned drinking activity called "progressives" where sorority members attend different fraternity houses for a "power hour" of liquor and beer. Each fraternity has a different theme and a different drink (i.e. Mexican décor with margaritas).

Excessive Drinking, a Growing Problem Among College Students

Sarah, 20, a member of a prominent sorority at one of the Ivy League universities, who wished to keep her last name private, told she herself has participated in "progressives" and seen firsthand people "black-out" and "vomit" from the excessive drinking.

The university, which has a medical amnesty policy, did not return phone calls for comment.

"I haven't had to call 911 for any of my friends, but I've heard of people not thinking twice for help because nothing is at stake for them," Sarah said. "Drinking is too much fun to just have one or two. It's hard to stop, but at least amnesty gives us an option."