Substance-Abuse Policies

November 30, 2008

Over the summer, President Richard H. Brodhead found himself in the middle of a minor controversy when he, along with more than 100 other college and university presidents and chancellors, signed on to the Amethyst Initiative, a movement calling for fresh debate on the national minimum drinking age.

The initiative, started by John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College, does not call outright for lowering the minimum drinking age, but instead argues that the prevalence of binge drinking and other harmful behaviors on college campuses indicates that the current system of restrictions isn't working. Its website calls on lawmakers to "weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use."

The initiative faced immediate criticism from many groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the American Medical Association, and the National Transportation Safety Board.

Tom Szigethy, who was hired this summer to serve as an associate dean and the first director of the university's Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Center, acknowledges that the question of how best to deal with drinking on campus—and in society—is complex, and that there may not be a perfect answer.

"We want to put [substance-abuse] prevention topics out there," says Szigethy, who spent four years overseeing the University of Connecticut's substance-abuse prevention programs before coming to Duke. "But there are always people who are going to say, 'Why? Students shouldn't be drinking at all because the law is twenty-one.' "

Szigethy has met with groups of students, parents, faculty members, and administrators about the perspectives on drinking and substance abuse. "A lot of different constituencies are talking about a lack of clarity," he says. "They say that they are hearing different messages at different times from different people." Over the next several months, he plans to put together an advisory committee for the center that consists of members of all these constituencies and work with them to develop a coherent policy.