A tragic alcohol fatality spurs a crackdown on the time-honored custom of birthday bingeing up north.
Jayme Halbritter for Newsweek
Pouring it on: Mixing drinks on the U of Minnesota campus
By T. Trent Gegax
June 6 issue - Throwing up in the men's room might not seem much of a birthday celebration. But for Gregg Rock, and a lot of newly legal drinkers, it's the price of turning 21. For Rock, it started with "pre-drinking" a bottle of Bacardi rum with college buddies last Wednesday before walking into a University of Minnesota tavern. It was midnight, the magic hour he became legal. On the bar rail there were soon "The Three Wise Men" (Jim Beam, Johnny Walker, Jack Daniels). The sound system played the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated." Rock pounded. Then his body rebelled. "Yes, I puked," said a visibly relieved Rock, a senior. "But I know my limit."
It's known as "power hour," the postmidnight drinking spree common on many campuses. Steve Johnson, a 20-year-old Minnesota student, says he's looking forward to spending his power hour in August like Rock did. "It's a rite of passage," he says, "like you got to show how much you can drink." But Johnson won't be powering up at a tavern the moment he turns 21. A stunning alcohol overdose during a "power hour" has triggered moves to end the custom in North Dakota and Minnesota.
This week Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is expected to sign a bill into law prohibiting bars from serving alcohol to 21-year-olds until 8 a.m. on their birthday. North Dakota passed the same law last month. The new legal tool is aimed at curbing binge drinking on college campuses. "We're on the verge of more kids' killing themselves," says Bob Pomplun, who conducts alcohol-safety classes for employees of bars in the Upper Midwest. "Young people don't know how to drink smartly, so we need to teach intelligent drinking."
Anne Buchanan thought she had talked through all the dangers with her son Jason Reinhardt, right up till the moment last August that he walked out the door for his power hour with friends at Minnesota State University at Moorhead. Jason said he knew how dangerous it was, but he also knew that his friends would watch out for him. "But they didn't know what to watch out for," Buchanan says. He died of acute alcohol poisoning in his sleep. Stunned by Jason's tragic passing, legislators in the northland moved quickly. Even the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association didn't object. "Whatever we can do to limit problems, we do," says Jim Farrell, the group's executive director, "regardless of whether it makes sense."