Two clients of mine recently made the newspaper, but not by choice. They are dormitory roommates here at the University of Maine at Farmington and both are 19 years old. Both are also excellent students who had never been in trouble of any kind.
Never, that is, until a few days ago when they made an ill-fated decision to enjoy a glass of wine or hard lemonade in their room with four visiting friends from high school, also 19 years old. These young women weren’t intoxicated or rowdy or bothering anyone.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that one of them is an outstanding student in the criminal law class I teach at UMF.
At age 19, these young women can join the military and buy real estate and carry on all of the other affairs of adult life, but we do not trust them to enjoy a drink in the privacy of their dorm room.
Unfortunately, the police were called and the two UMF students were handcuffed, arrested, fingerprinted and jailed for furnishing a place for their friends to enjoy their drinks.
The district attorney’s office has since dropped my clients’ charges in the hopes the matter can be handled more informally. It is uncertain yet what will become of the civil violations for underage drinking their four visitors received.
None of this ordeal was necessary, but I do not blame UMF or the police or even the local newspaper that found this unfortunate arrest to be newsworthy. I blame an illogical and counter-productive law that lets bright, responsible 19-year-old women legally do anything that I can do except enjoy a glass of wine in their dorm room.
People who have had children this age already may have confronted a law that forbade them from buying a case of beer for the young adults to enjoy safely with their friends in their home (with their car keys all confiscated). Instead, the parents could only hope that the unchaperoned evening these young adults had planned at some remote camp or gravel pit wouldn’t end badly.
We tried prohibition in this country 90 years ago, and it was a miserable failure. It is unreasonable to think that today’s young adults are any more likely to obey misguided drinking laws. Worse yet is that these laws teach some of them to disrespect other parts of our legal system as well.
Our police and college administrators shouldn’t be forced to implement a law that many — perhaps the majority — of the 18 to 20-year-old adults in this state do not obey.
Some people will say that if we lower the drinking age to 18 more deaths on the highway likely will result. If that is our guiding rationale, however, then perhaps we should talk about raising the legal drinking age to 23 or even 25.
I would much prefer a law that treats our 18-year-olds like the adults they are. Lowering the drinking age to 18 would be more fair, more honest, and more likely to allow us to have better discussions with young adults about responsibility, and looking after each other, and being open about the lives they lead.
If Maine’s current drinking law somehow did keep students at UMF from consuming alcohol, I still would argue the law was unfair, but at least there would be a reason for it. We all know, however, that our current law doesn’t keep these young adults from drinking; rather, it causes them to drink in more clandestine, unsupervised ways, often at places that involve risky car rides.
I think it is time we had an intelligent discussion in this state about our drinking laws. And, to be sure, it is a discussion our representatives in Washington will need to join because of the way years ago that federal agencies financially blackmailed states into raising their drinking ages.
The hard-earned federal tax dollars Maine citizens pay should not be used to keep us from making our state’s legal system more sensible and fair and, in the long run I believe, even more safe.
Woody Hanstein lives in Farmington and has been a lawyer for more than 30 years. He also has been teaching and coaching at the University of Maine at Farmington for many years.