Imagine this: It’s a Saturday night and some students are having a good time at a party. After the fifth cup of cheap vodka and fruit punch, one partier passes out in the bathroom. But no one calls an ambulance or takes the student to a hospital because partygoers are afraid they could get slammed with a minor in possession charge. It’s a sad truth that Michigan’s overzealous drinking laws have made this situation all too possible. Thankfully, a new proposal in the state legislature hopes to alleviate this problem, and the state legislature should speedily approve it. But what the problem of college drinking really calls for is a national conversation — one that the University administration should fully support.

Last week, state Sen. Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor) introduced a bill to the Michigan Senate to immunize underage drinkers from criminal charges if they seek assistance for an individual who is need of medical attention because of alcohol consumption. As the law stands right now, an individual under 21 years old with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher is considered a minor in possession. This standard applies even if an underage student is seeking medical aid for someone else in need. If given an MIP, a first-time offender can face a misdemeanor charge, fines of up to $400, a court appearance and possible probation.

Currently, underage drinkers have a disincentive to help out friends in need of medical attention because they could face MIPs. While laws are supposed to protect people and save lives, this policy encourages the exact opposite. Each year, alcohol-related incidents claim the lives of about 1,700 college students nationwide. Some of these deaths might have been prevented if these students had received the medical attention they deserved. Students shouldn’t be punished for trying to help individuals in need. With lives potentially at stake, the Michigan legislature should approve Brater’s bill and protect underage drinkers who do the right thing.

Despite the need for this change, Brater’s bill still won’t solve some of the other problems surrounding drinking laws. The extensive presence of binge drinking on college campuses demonstrates that drinking age laws are failing. The federal government needs to take a closer look at these laws and how effective they really are. And the U.S. Congress should start by heeding the call of the Amethyst Initiative, a proposal created in July of 2008 to urge Congress to re-examine the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Under this statute, states that failed to raise drinking ages to 21 or above face a 10-percent cut in federal highway funding, so the law effectively raised the drinking age from 18 to 21.

After witnessing accidents due to binge drinking, roughly 135 collegiate presidents have signed the proposal. University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman isn’t one of them — but she should be. A productive solution to binge-drinking and irresponsible alcohol consumption won’t come about without discussion. By refusing to sign onto the Amethyst Initiative, Coleman has missed an opportunity to open a dialogue that could only benefit students.

Stagnant alcohol policies have pushed underage drinking underground and put some college students’ lives at unnecessary risk. Michigan’s legislature needs to pass Brater’s bill to help prevent loss of life in this state. But binge drinking is a national problem, and Congress can’t continue to pretend that its failed policy is working. College students drink, and it’s time for government policies to recognize that fact.

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