The Penn State alcohol policy has been an abject failure. Irresponsible and excessive alcohol consumption appear to be at an all-time high in Happy Valley, yet attempts to curtail drinking have only made things worse. So how did we get to a place where Mount Nittany Medical Center can expect alcohol overdoses every weekend and underage drinking an public drunkenness charges clog the local magisterial district courts? The sad reality is that Penn State’s alcohol policies have had the unintended consequence of encouraging students to drink hard liquor instead of beer.
Believe it or not, kegs were once allowed in the Penn State dorms until 1984, or so I have been told. And in my Penn State undergrad days, kegs were a staple of every frat and apartment party. Yet kegs in State College are now relegated to house parties and bars, as apartments eventually joined the university’s keg ban in a misguided effort to discourage excessive drinking. Likewise, Penn State has since imposed an outright ban on all alcohol in the dorms, even for those over 21.
These policies have backfired, just like they did during Alcohol Prohibition, our nation’s only public policy blunder to fail more miserably than the War on Drugs. Students are not going to stop drinking alcohol because it is banned or restricted. Alcohol is simply too engrained in our Western culture, coupled with the fact that the most socially acceptable time to party is in one’s youth. During Prohibition, bootleggers smuggled hard liquor because it takes up less space than beer and wine. The same thing now repeats itself on the Penn State campus. It is a lot easier to smuggle in a handle of vodka than a case of beer, and it is a lot easier to dispose of one empty bottle than 24 empty bottles or cans.
When Penn State students drink now, bad things are far more likely to happen than in the past. The overwhelming majority of underage drinking and public drunkenness cases I see these days arise from hard liquor. My clients tell me that a lot of parties do not even have beer; there is only hard liquor. And after two or three years of drinking hard liquor underage, these students will have been trained to drink hard liquor instead of beer once they turn 21.
Off campus, the keg ban has completely changed the Penn State drinking culture for the worse. If you cannot have kegs, then the only feasible and economical way to serve a lot of people is through hard liquor. Go to the Hamilton Street State Store Thursday through Saturday, and you will see young men in Greek-letter shirts filling up shopping carts with cheap hard liquor in plastic bottles, destined for the mouths of lightweight freshmen, who will be doing shots and guzzling jungle juice, instead of drinking cheap beer like their Nittany Nation ancestors.
As everyone knows except American college freshmen, no one should ever drink hard liquor unless they have had experience with training-wheel drinks like beer and wine. That is precisely why the drinking age in Germany is 16 for beer and wine, but 18 for hard liquor. That is the kind of law you get from a people known for Mr. Spock-like rational thinking, an obsession with safety and a love of drinking.
In my undergrad days, we had a beer-based drinking culture, and the alumni even older than me will tell you the same thing. Of course people got drunk, but hospital trips were rare. This is because it is incredibly difficult to overdose on beer, while hard liquor can pose a challenge to even the most seasoned boozers. And this is why beer drinking should be encouraged! If young people are going to drink, and we know they will, then they should be drinking beer.
Obviously, Penn State cannot actively encourage beer drinking, but it could at least stop inadvertently encouraging hard liquor consumption by discouraging beer drinking. I would have no problem with banning hard liquor in the dorms, while allowing beer and wine. The keg ban in the frats and downtown apartments must end. Until Penn State returns to its drinking culture of yore, we will continue to see irresponsible drinking, which creates a negative externality for the entire community.
Matt McClenahen is a Penn State alumnus and criminal defense lawyer in State College, PA. He is a beer snob who rarely imbibes in the hard stuff. http://www.mattmlaw.com/Criminal-Defense-Overview/Alcohol-Offenses-DUI.shtml