What started as a typical Saturday night for a Drake University student turned into a life-threatening nightmare when he drank so much of a potent liquor called Everclear that his blood-alcohol content hit .50, six times the legal limit of .08.
Nathan Erickson, a freshman pledge of Drake University's Phi Delta Theta fraternity, spent the evening of Nov. 7, 2009, drinking 151-proof Everclear at an unofficial frat house referred to as "The Carter." Early Sunday he was found passed out on the couch by Alexander Timm, a Phi Delta Theta resident, who was returning home from a night of bartending.
Erickson was taken to a Des Moines, Iowa, hospital where he made a full recovery, and was back in class a week later. Erickson's lawyer told me that though Erickson was not punished by Drake or charged with any crime, he now hopes to "put his head down, get back into his studies and be a normal student."
Usually, underage drinking violations are dealt with in a low-key manner by campus security at private colleges such as Drake. Students found to be in violation of alcohol laws might be given a paper to write and a meeting with the dean of students. But the events of this particular weekend of college partying have led to a state-wide discussion on what needs to be done to control underage binge-drinking, and specifically, whether Everclear should be made illegal in Iowa.
Since Erickson was still a pledge of the fraternity, the event was considered hazing. Soon after the incident, three Phi Delta Theta members were suspended, two were arrested and charged with serious misdemeanors, and the entire Drake chapter was suspended for four years. Now, further measures are being taken in an effort to crack down on the problem.
Everclear was made illegal in Iowa in its 190-proof form a few months ago, but is still readily available in its 151-proof form. The state is considering taking it off the shelf in all forms because so many young Iowans have had close calls with it. Iowa's Alcoholic Beverages Division Administrator Lynn Walding told me that many have been voicing opinions that there is no legitimate purpose for the beverage and that it is too difficult to consume responsibly. One unit of Everclear is comparable to drinking 14 beers.
"The danger is how quickly that can elevate someone to a state of intoxication," said Walding. "Someone who doesn't have experience with alcohol can quickly find themselves in a dangerous situation. If you drink half a bottle of Everclear, that can be lethal. What we are seeing, and what we have heard of, are young people, often underage, who don't have that familiarity with alcohol to know any better." Although many Iowans are adamant supporters of a ban, public opinion has been leaning two-to-one in favor of personal responsibility.
Those against the ban believe that consumers will just make the drive out of state to purchase the product. Some say it should not be made illegal because while it's sold as a drink ingredient, with a price of around $15, it offers a cheap alternative to sterilization materials for laboratories. One unidentified person commented to the Iowa ABD that being able to buy undenatured alcohol from local liquor stores is more convenient and cheaper than going to scientific supply houses, where the cost can be three to 10 times higher. Still others think it should not be banned because when mixed with other non-alcoholic beverages, it can provide for a one-of-a-kind taste.
I contacted Luxco, the maker of Everclear, and asked if a ban could mean cutbacks in their Iowa offices. The state manager declined to comment , other than to say that Luxco would send a representative to a public forum scheduled for Jan. 26 at Drake University, during which a commission from the IABD will discuss its thoughts.
Though the IABD will make the final decision as to the future of Everclear, the commission is also taking suggestions from the public at the Iowa ABD Web site
. Walding said that IABD members would be in touch with other states for advice about the potential ban as well, just as they spoke with Vermont administrators about their ban on 190-proof Everclear before enacting similar measures.
Check back later this month for The Cram's report from the Drake public forum.