Party On? Not In Lower Merion

Why is our society so consumed with fear about underage drinking?

A group of high school sophomores were at a party on the Saturday night of Halloween weekend at a relatively early evening hour. The host’s parents were home, and all the other parents knew where their kids were. There was no noise problem and nothing was out of control. Around 9:25 p.m. someone arrived toting beer, unbeknownst to the host’s parents. Five minutes later the police arrived. Nobody seems to know who made the call. It could have been a party-goer or a disgruntled kid who wasn’t invited. Somebody let them in. Apparently that’s all it takes for our police to commandeer a private home. And for this small party, eight Lower Merion police cars showed up.

From there it all went downhill. Kids were phoning their parents crying. Parents had to abort their evenings to rush over there. Police were lining the kids up on each side of the room and forcing them to take breathalyzer tests, in spite of the fact that no one appeared intoxicated, nobody was actually caught with alcohol and most of these kids aren’t old enough to drive. One officer was loudly and repeatedly demanding a young girl to “Breathe Harder!” Another officer told a parent, who refused to allow her daughter to submit to a breathalyzer, that alcohol was spotted on the premises. She replied, “I have alcohol in my home, too!” Her sober child was cited for not submitting and has to appear in court. It will probably be thrown out, as these things usually are, but first the kid has to be taken out of school and the mother will have to take a day off work. Does anyone else see anything wrong with this?[SIGNUP]

I have heard similar stories a few times now, including police being turned away at the door by the homeowners, and then becoming so determined to get into the house that they literally stalk the place until a kid comes along who lets them in. There are several troubling aspects of this. Why are the police so intent on entering private homes? Why are our local police harassing these kids? What’s with the heavy-handed Gestapo tactics? Isn’t this teaching relatively good kids to (rightfully) disrespect authority? At least authority that storms into private homes and bullies children into potentially giving up their civil rights. It’s a police state mentality. And shouldn’t our police department have more important things to do? Well, no it seems. Digging a little deeper, I have been informed that the police can fine homeowners $800 per kid at a party if they can prove liquor was consumed. Wow, what a great cash grab for the township! No wonder our police arrive at the parties almost as soon as they begin. This is so much more lucrative than solving crimes or sitting around on a quiet weekend night. Too bad beer-sipping teenagers are the pawns.

The next issue: Why is our society so consumed with fear about underage drinking? I’m not suggesting we encourage 15-year-olds to drink, but do we need to overreact? We’re not talking about drinking and driving either. That’s another issue completely. But haven’t all the previous generations experimented with booze as teens? We survived to tell about it. And even brag about our escapades. I am the child of a police officer and grew up surrounded by police officers, and I even worked for a police force in a civilian position. Believe me, I hold police in high regard and have the utmost respect for law and order. At the same time, I have a really hard time seeing the sensibility of setting such an unrealistically high legal drinking age as exists in the U.S. Ontario’s drinking age is 19. Quebec’s is 18. Most European countries set the age at 18, although they don’t seem to need to enforce it. In other places, private homes are free of legal interference. A parent who wants to serve a little wine with dinner to his or her children is legally free to do so — which some might argue teaches children to appreciate the combination of food and wine and learn responsible drinking. Most people agree that the repressed are the ones to go overboard. Tell someone they can’t have something, and it becomes the thing they covet the most. Can you say alcohol poisoning? Binge drinking? But who are we kidding? Because we tell them not to drink, they won’t? And when we tell them they can at age 21, they’ll suddenly flip the switch and delicately sip a chardonnay or light beer for the first time? Please. The age-old argument still stands: If we expect our 18-year-olds to vote, fight in wars and figure out what they want to major in, aren’t they old enough to tap a keg?

A lot of my friends are parents of teenagers. We talk about the realities of kids drinking all the time. Most of them are much more concerned about their kids getting caught than actually consuming alcohol. Not one of them sees the evil in a beer at a party or a glass of champagne at a special occasion — provided nobody is driving, of course. They only fear repercussions because our society seems to have lost its perspective. What are we protecting these kids from exactly? Fermented fruits and vegetables? Themselves? Maybe it should be overzealous police and puritanical fear-mongers.

Just for fun, I looked up drinking laws worldwide online and found some novel, complicated and even bizarre drinking restrictions. The age for legal drinking in the majority of countries is 18. In most strict Muslim nations alcohol is prohibited completely, although the insiders tell me that’s as much of a joke as teenagers waiting until they’re 21 to taste booze. Germany allows alcohol to be sold to 14-year-olds if they’re with their parents. England allows children older than five to be given liquor in private, and 16-year-olds can order beer in a restaurant if they’re eating a meal. I’ve been to London twice and did not witness any hoards of unruly drunken teenagers running wild in the streets, by the way. But take heart, the U.S. is not totally alone in its strict stance. Other liberal thinking superpowers like Guam, Palau, Micronesia, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, Oman, Pakistan and Kazakhstan also have a minimum age of 21 to drink. At least we’re in good company. Meanwhile, I have a few good years left before I can look forward to the call from my child at a local party being shaken down by the cops. What a strange local rite of passage.