Having grown up in East Lansing, I am relatively familiar with the infamous “MIP.” But it wasn’t until I came to the University that I actually saw it in action. That’s not to say that every time I go out at night, I see cops writing tickets to hapless undergraduates. The vast majority of University students who choose to drink manage to do so without legal repercussions. But there is a palpable presence of students at the University unlucky enough to have been charged with the unlawful possession of alcohol.

When I googled “minor in possession,” a link to the University Housing website was the fourth result on the list. Of all the colleges and universities that must deal with similar alcohol-related issues, it’s curious that our university apparently has the most to say on the matter. That may simply be a condition of its location in Michigan, though. On just the first page of returns for the same search, three links pertain to the MIP policies in Michigan alone. In addition, “Minor in Possession Michigan” is one of the related searches suggested at the bottom of the page, while there is no such suggestion for any other state.

At first, I thought that these must only be the returns for people physically in Michigan, and that Google, in all its omniscience, must have been tuning the search more finely to my needs. So I called a friend in New York to run the same search. Our results were identical.

Why all this interest in the way our lowly state punishes minors who drink? It turns out that Michigan is known for having the strictest minor in possession laws in the nation. Since 2004, blood alcohol content has been used in Michigan in defining “possession,” in addition to physically holding or storing alcohol. Moreover, the law enables the court to issue jail time to a minor caught twice in possession of alcohol.

All that seems a pretty excessive punishment for actions that aren’t inherently amoral. Most Americans are in favor of the current drinking age, according to a recent survey by the Gallup Organization. But only a select few would argue that there’s anything truly unconscionable about having a drink. It’s strange that the punishment for drinking is so harsh.

A better alternative would be something similar to Missouri’s policies. Missouri law allows parents to distribute alcohol to their children within reason. More importantly, Missouri is one of 20 states that restrict only the sale of alcohol to minors, not the consumption. And while the MIP misdemeanor can be expunged after a few years in Michigan, Missouri law allows the charge to be entirely erased if individuals have no other charges against them.

The possibility of expunging the MIP charge at all shows that Michigan is at least somewhat pragmatic about this issue. The practice of giving first offenders somewhat of a break is reasonable. But the current system in Michigan is flawed.

If a freshman gets carried away during Welcome Week and winds up with alcohol poisoning, his friends are faced with a disincentive to take him to the hospital. If they were to dial 911, it would mean getting their friend (and possibly themselves) into trouble. In the unfortunate but quite possible instance that such an individual were not to have good — or even decent — friends, the MIP law would actually hurt the minor. In fact, there was a recent initiative in Michigan to protect minors in this position, but the state legislature failed to understand its importance and did not pass it.

Whether or not drinking laws are sensible or if it’s ethical to let an 18-year-old die in Afghanistan without the right even to drink a beer is an issue for another column. The fact is there is currently a law prohibiting those younger than 21 years of age from consuming alcohol and as such there must be some sort of punishment for violating that law. Otherwise, the law may as well not exist. This may be true, but the current policies take it too far, and in doing so, they hurt the very people they are trying to protect.

Matthew Green can be reached at greenmat@umich.edu.

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