In “The Sound of Music,” a group of nuns sings its way through a dilemma with a high-strung novice. “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria,” asks a series of questions designed to find ways to control her, while preserving the spirited qualities they admire.

Our nation could sing a similar song as it seeks ways to deal alcohol’s harmful effects. Even as our nation bemoans every casualty of drunkenness, it fights to have almost unfettered access to the drug that causes it.

Working on the premise that alcohol is only dangerous if it is misused (individually) and mismanaged (societally), every level of government helps control alcohol advertising, distribution, taxation, sales and consumption. Municipalities, counties, states and the federal government have set up a patchwork of laws and policies regarding alcohol.

They must protect the citizenry from burdensome laws, on the one hand, while dealing with inevitable social consequences, on the other. Even the 18th and 21st Amendments to the U.S. Constitution tried to get a handle on this controversial drug.

In the attempt to set up thoughtful limits on the use of alcohol, governing agencies entered a process similar in many ways to that of an alcoholic attempting to set boundaries. The nation went from a time of few limits, to prohibition, to the current set of ever-evolving laws.

Like the alcoholic, the rules regarding the use of alcohol became more complicated and even convoluted.  Exceptions to the rule became the rule.
For example, many laws pertain to the a product’s alcohol content and how the product is packaged. The chemical composition of the alcohol contained in all alcoholic beverages is the same. However, the laws concerning availability and visibility of a product are determined by such defining terms as, beer, wine, distilled spirits, malt, ice, mixed, and whether it is sold as a six-pack, by the drink or in a keg.

Location and time are determining factors in the availability of alcohol. Although there are a handful of counties that are “dry,” most counties find themselves in varying degrees of “dryness.” A town may have one set of rules, while the county has another.

Certain types of beverages may be sold at any time, while others are limited. For example, in some locations beer may not be sold on Sunday, or liquor on Election Day, and “happy hours” may be illegal.  Depending on the ballpark, alcohol may not be sold after the seventh inning.

Age is also a major issue in policies pertaining to alcohol availability. By granting significant funding only to those states that establish a 21-year-old minimum drinking age, the federal government has been able to bring every state in line with this policy. Even though there is one minimum age, however, there are vast differences in the way individual authorities enforce minimum age requirements.

Although great strides are being taken, there is little in federal policy bringing states together on such issues as fake IDs, server training, compliance checks, keg registration, advertising restrictions near schools, and many other tools designed to put teeth in minimum age requirements.

All of these age-related complexities are the most evident on college campuses and their surrounding communities. Here, the dividing line of legal drinking age segregates an otherwise very interactive population.

The chaotic nature of existing alcohol policy is currently worsened by the exponential rise in Internet alcohol sales. Although the 21st Amendment Enforcement Act strengthens each state’s right to enforce local laws concerning the availability of alcohol, the advent of Internet sales is squashing even the illusion of local control.

How do we solve the problems associated with alcohol? Every tragic result of misuse must rattle those who seek more accessibility. Every alcohol-limiting policy must give pause to those who would erode civil liberties. The insanely complex web of confusing and conflicting attempts at controlling alcohol defies a simple solution. Nonetheless, sober deliberation must prevail.

Steve Sumerel is director of the department of family life and substance abuse, of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina‘s Council on Christian Life and Public Affairs.

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