A dangerous rite of passage

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN and TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2007 - 4:13 PM

Reaching legal drinking age is a milestone for many young people. But wild 'I'm an adult now' partying can lead to serious trouble - or death.

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Scott Smith holds a couple of beers while hanging out with some buddies in The Library in Dinkytown Thursday night.

First up on Nikki Schneider's 21st-birthday celebration was a bomb pop -- a shot made with lemon vodka, raspberry liqueur and blue curacao. Then a "get messed-up shot." Then a vodka concoction called a lemon drop.

Like many newly legal drinkers, Schneider was celebrating the occasion by gulping down a potent lineup of shots and cocktails. "Before, you're kind of restricted," said Schneider, who was out with friends at the Dinkytowner Cafe on a midweek night this month before a heavier night of partying the next weekend. "I'm an adult now."

Two years ago, Minnesota became only the second state to outlaw the midnight-to-closing birthday celebrations, dubbed the "power hour," to discourage dangerous drinking binges. Yet the tradition of alcohol-soaked 21st birthday bashes continues unabated around the state. Last month, a former Minnesota State University Mankato nursing student, Amanda Jax, drank herself to death while celebrating her 21st birthday.

Jax's death has helped bring a renewed focus on this enduring but dangerous rite of passage. Around the state, university administrators, bartenders and parents are grasping for ways to ensure 21-year-olds make it through their birthdays unharmed.

"Twenty-one-year-olds think they're invincible and they can do crazy things and get away with it," said Ed Ehlinger, director of the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Service. "The 21st birthday is probably the riskiest time. More kids get in trouble on that day than any other day of their 21st year."They are now legal and there is a lot of pressure to celebrate this big event. They intellectually know that alcohol can kill you, but they don't internalize it and they do respond to the peer pressure."

Peer pressure that usually comes in small glasses filled with liquor.

The big night

The tradition is part celebration, part hazing. A group of friends takes the birthday kid to a bar. Every time he or she turns around, someone's buying a shot.

An undergraduate at St. John's when he turned 21, Scott Specken did a tour of five bars in St. Joseph. Among other drinks, he swallowed a double shot of microwaved tequila, a double shot of gin and a prairie fire -- a drink that mixes tequila and Tabasco sauce.

"Pretty much the goal of everybody is to get you as drunk as possible," said Specken, now 22. "It's their one night when they can buy you the crappiest, dirtiest drink that they can think of."

A 2006 study at Virginia Tech University found that the average male consumes 13 drinks on his 21st birthday, and the average woman, seven and a half.

The survey also showed that 32 percent of men and 26 percent of women drank so much on their 21st birthdays that they vomited. A third of all students experienced a blackout on their birthday and 30 percent consumed enough drinks to give them an estimated blood alcohol level of 0.28 or higher, putting them at risk for alcohol poisoning.

Jax, a resident of Mayer, Minn., who planned to study nursing, had a blood alcohol level of nearly 0.46 when she died in a Mankato apartment after a night of heavy drinking at a bar. Authorities in Mankato are considering criminal or civil charges in the case.

University of Minnesota Prof. Toben Nelson has studied drinking by college students for the past decade, both here and at Harvard.

"It's cheaper to binge drink than it is to go to a first-run movie in many college towns," Nelson said. "It's cheap, highly social entertainment and there's an industry around supplying alcohol to college students."

Amber Rice, now 24, regrets what happened on her 21st birthday. She started that day by tailgating before a Vikings game and doesn't really remember how it ended.

"I woke up the next morning in somebody else's house, had no idea where I was," Rice said. "My girlfriend didn't know where she was. My girlfriend and I still have no idea how we got there."

Recently, Rice went out for her younger sister's 21st birthday. She described her sister's night as fun but not crazy.

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