It’s a Friday night in Ann Arbor and the promise of the weekend has students flocking to Main Street bars and clubs to engage in the great American pastime of intoxication. But with an undergraduate population of more than 29,000, some of these revelers are bound to be underage. In line, Zach, aged 18, fumbles for something in his pocket when he reaches the bouncer.
Thirty minutes later, Zach is at the bar ordering his fifth shot of tequila before stumbling home. This scenario is made possible by a simple invention: the fake ID. Couple this technology with a tendency for underage binge-drinking and you have a potentially dangerous cocktail for the social landscape of American college towns.
As a freshman new to the social scene of Ann Arbor, I set off across campus to talk to students. First, I wanted to learn more about fake IDs and how they texture the experiences of students at the University of Michigan. Second, I wanted to examine the particularly American brand of binge-drinking that these fake IDs afford to underage drinkers and the alternative drinking cultures found around the world. I was convinced these trends were two symptoms of the same disease, and that by finding the heart of the issue, young Americans could begin to develop a culture with more safe and responsible drinking habits.
The fake ID is an expanding American personality (touted in popular songs and joked about in blockbuster movies) with an entire underground economy. The Northwestern Business Review writes, “The quality of the product varies due to minute changes in the polyvinyl chloride, spectrophotometer matched ink and luminescent holograms. Up-front costs including the printer and templates can run up to $2000 alone.” I spoke to some students on campus to see if these popular anecdotes were consistent with their experiences. First, I interviewed a student who had just ordered their first fake ID ever:
MILES: How did you get in contact with the maker?
STUDENT 1: My friend asked me if I needed one and I said, "Yes, I do."
MILES: How much did you pay?
STUDENT 1: $80. I estimate there are about 30 people in my order, which makes it cheaper.
MILES: Why are you getting it now?
STUDENT 1: In high school, the local liquor store would sell us alcohol even if we didn't have a fake. In Ann Arbor, you need one to go out with friends to bars.
MILES: Are you nervous about purchasing it and using it?
STUDENT 1: Normally I would be, but the guy who I’m buying it from does them very routinely and I know people who have gotten fakes from him before. Using it, yeah … it seems kind of sketch.
Next, I spoke to a student from the undergraduate class of 2020 who told me a story about purchasing a fake ID:
"When we were in high school, you couldn't get IDs online. You had to get them from people. We had a car to go get it and we texted this shady-ass dude all our personal info. It was $150 an ID. We brought $300 cash and met this dude at midnight in an abandoned warehouse parking lot near (San Francisco Bay Area). Dude rolls up in a black Suburban, pulls in behind us, blocks us in and gets out of the car with a pit bull."
After an initial frightening episode, the high schoolers gave him an envelope with money and drove home. Phony Tony, the maker of the IDs, remains a local legend in the Bay Area, but this story articulates the potentially dangerous situations students are involving themselves in to bypass 21+ American drinking laws.
Finally, I spoke to not a supplier of fake IDs, but a liaison between customers and makers. This person characterized their position as “organizing orders (of fake IDs)” and said that they had about 10 customers in Ann Arbor at one point. Most of their fake IDs were modeled off of real East Coast IDs.
So, what’s the solution to this potentially dangerous scheme? An article in the U.S. National Library of Medicine titled, “Will Increasing Alcohol Availability By Lowering the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Decrease Drinking and Related Consequences Among Youths?” questions the theory that drinking laws should be made more lenient to cultivate responsible drinking culture. Proponents of this idea argue that the 21-and-over drinking age stigmatizes alcohol consumption to such a degree that young Americans are learning to drink in unsupervised spaces and that more permissive legislation would allow these underage drinkers to learn from more responsible, societally-normalized sources. After all, Europe has a safer drinking culture with its younger age drinking laws, right? In the popular imagination, French 12-year-olds are sipping wine with their parents at dinner and are learning to drink responsibly — it’s America that’s obsessed with taking shots and “blacking out.”
This, however, is not the case. “If you look at the data, there's no evidence to support the idea that Europe, in general, has a safer drinking culture than the US … European teens ages 15 to 19 tend to report greater levels of binge drinking than American teens,” writes German Lopez of Vox. When looking at the percent of 15 and 16-year-olds who report being drunk in the last month, Denmark, the U.K. and Austria are the most severe with 49, 33 and 31 percent respectively. The U.S. by contrast, is on par with Latvia at 18 percent. Furthermore, nearly all available evidence suggests that stricter alcohol policies can reduce deaths, and another article by the U.S. National Library of Medicine titled “Case closed: research evidence on the positive public health impact of the age 21 minimum legal drinking age in the United States” puts this misconception to rest.
So it seems that a 21-and-over drinking age is safer, but maybe it’s less about the actual age and more about the cultural attitudes and behaviors toward drinking. There’s an unspoken acceptance that underage drinking will happen, especially in colleges, and yet the legal angle doesn’t reflect this. “Drinking alcohol has become a rite of passage for some young people in this country, and many students come to college having learned to drink during their high school years,” says the University Health Service.
And yet, besides special cases of medical amnesty, the looming threat of receiving a Minor in Possession violation, which entails a $250 fine to the 15th District Court, often disincentivizes underage drinkers to seek help from authorities. Here, perhaps, is where the opportunity to learn from international practices truly lies.
Canadian universities have begun to implement “drunk tanks,” or spaces for intoxicated underage drinkers to recover safely and without the threat of punishment. The University of Guelph’s campus alcohol recovery room and the University of Calgary’s post-alcohol support space solve the stigma issue and potentially save lives. CARR is a “six-bed space equipped with buckets that opened last year inside a campus residence building,” while PASS is “staffed by both volunteers and a registered nurse.”
A coupling of America’s safer, 21-and-over drinking laws and Canada’s more lenient enforcement could decrease avoidable underage drinking accidents and save the lives of young college students. As for the prevalence of fake IDs, it’s likely that an underground industry like this will continue to thrive, especially as new technology develops that further blurs the line between real and fake for alcohol-serving establishments. And their readiness proves dangerous, as it enables students to more easily engage in binge drinking. If something’s to be done, it’s to ensure young Americans are protected by the safest laws and they have the proper resources to reach out when someone pushes them too far.
Miles Stephenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.