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Surprise, Surprise, 18-year-olds Are Adults

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

An Assembly committee saved California from some national embarrassment last week when they reminded a grandstanding legislator that, yes, 18-year-olds really are adults in this country.

Now if only someone could pass that message on to Washington.

It was Modesto Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen who decided that a case in the national headlines was just the thing to give her her five minutes of fame.

When James Hooker, a 41-year-old teacher at Enochs High School in Modesto left his wife and kids to move in with an 18-year-old student, the story had Jerry Springer written all over it. But since Hooker quit his job and insisted the girl was18 before there was any sexual relationship, there really wasn’t a thing police, the school board or her parents could do about it.

That’s where Olsen came in. At a Capitol news conference featuring the teenager’s mother, she announced that she was introducing AB 1861, which would bar teachers from beginning a sexual relationship with any student, regardless of age.

Now taking a stand against purported perverts is never going to be politically unpopular and saving innocent schoolchildren from heavy-breathing seducers is always good for a minute or two on the nightly news and a bunch of radio interviews, so there was really no downside for Olsen.

Problem is, as some members of the Assembly Public Safety Commission recognized, an 18-year-old is an adult with the same right to make stupid choices as a 41-year-old does, regardless of the perv factor. So Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, Holly Mitchell of Culver City and Gil Cedillo of Los Angeles voted to kill the bill, as the GOP members of the committee took a walk.

But despite Olsen’s own lust for publicity, she’s got a lot of company with her feeling that 18-year-olds really aren’t ready to shoulder the burdens of adulthood. The federal government agrees with her, at least when it comes to buying a drink.

Since President Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, states were required to set 21 as the legal drinking age or lose a chunk of their federal highway funds. The bill had passed both the House and the Senate on a voice vote.

The bill came after some 30 states lowered the drinking age to 18 in the wake of 1971’s 26th Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote.

The idea was that while 18-year-olds weren’t mature enough to drink, young people received a magical gift at age 21, allowing them to drink safely and responsibly, not to mention massively.

Of course, with the age of majority now 18 across the nation, that means teenagers can marry, sign contracts, enlist in the Army, work with heavy machinery and appear on “Girls Gone Wild” videos. Not to mention vote, which can be more dangerous than any of those others.

In California, 18-year-olds can go to the racetrack, play the lottery, buy cigarettes and sign on to porn sites. But they can’t drink, go to a card club or play at most Indian casinos.

Of course if you’re 14-years-old, the state has the right to try you as an adult in criminal court.

Now if you talked with most legislators, here and in Washington, they’d probably tell you that while setting the drinking age at 21 is ridiculous, it would be political suicide to take on Mothers Against Drunk Driving, conservative groups and child advocates.

But consistency is, or should be, a virtue, even for countries. If someone is an adult at 18, he or she should be a complete adult at 18, with all the privileges and responsibilities. And that includes the right to drink, gamble and engage in all the general stupidity that adults enjoy well into their golden years.

It’s a matter of trust, really. Either we trust 18-year-olds to do the best they can to make the right choices in their lives, or we don’t. And if we don’t, what about 21-year-olds? Or 25-year-olds? Or 50-year-olds?

Politicians continually complain that it’s impossible to get young people involved in politics. Well, what about taking a chance on an issue that directly involved those young people and seeing what happens?

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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