As one of the largest universities in the Midwest, Iowa has a deeply rooted party culture. The Iowa City Police administered 533 public intoxication citations in 2017, and in a spring 2018 survey 5% the of students reported using cocaine. To gain deeper insight on these and other related issues, I sat down with JD Noble – the General Manager of Sanctuary Pub on Gilbert Street in Iowa City.
Noble said his predecessor allowed employees to drink on the job, and that was one of the first changes he made upon taking over. He recalled, “I said, ‘No, nobody can drink.’ And people lost their jobs over it.”
Noble had a friend who was killed by a drunk driver, so the change was driven in part by safety concerns. He’s also serious about legal liability, emphasizing that cooks need to be completely sober when handling sharp cutlery and operating ovens. He pointed out that if he allowed them to drink and they were injured on the job, they could sue him for abetting an unsafe workplace. Servers and bartenders also must be stone cold sober to properly judge when to cut off tipsy patrons.
Noble believes America’s legal drinking age of 21 is worth reconsidering. “I think, realistically if you want to drink after you’re 18 years old you have so many avenues for ya know, acquiring alcohol,” he said. He then pointed to a liquor store across the street from Sanctuary Pub called City Liquor – where he frequently sees customers come out and hand alcohol to young people waiting outside. Noble added, “You just need one person with an ID and that’s all it takes to have access to alcohol.”
Iowa City law forbids bar guests under the age of 21 after 10 p.m. The penalty is a $465 fine. Noble is not opposed to this system because it deters underage drinkers during peak hours, but believes the city’s policy is primarily motivated by revenue. “If they really wanted to help students out, they would provide them with more alternative things to do and they would do more to educate them about alcohol,” Noble said. He also lamented the sexual harassment and assault that occurs in the party culture. He said that when two people are intoxicated, consent often becomes a gray area.
Caleb Barnett expressed similar concerns about the Iowa City’s 10 p.m. ordinance. Barnett is a 19-year-old sophomore I met in the Engineering Building. He called it a “stupid” rule.
“I’ve had friends who have just gone out, not even had any drinks, and got a charge for the being at a bar under 21. Which, I feel like they need to lessen the penalty because I think his ticket was like 465 bucks,” Barnett said, accurately. He added that another young man who was with Barnett’s friend was given the same $465 citation, and an additional Minor in Possession charge because he was holding a beer. Barnett said the MIP charge was over $300.
Alexia Potter, who is also a University of Iowa student, said the 10 p.m. rule created somewhat unrealistic expectations for students. “It makes sense because you try not to encourage underage drinking… I think it’s a hard rule because if you’re hanging out with your friends and like half of you guys are of age and half of you are under-age you’re not just gonna wanna leave.”
Another student, Madelyn DeWitt, also had mixed feelings about the ordinance. When asked about it, she said, “[Underage] people are going in anyway, so I think it’s a little silly but I think it has a reason.”
Needless to say, the legal drinking age and Iowa City’s bar curfew ordinance are complex issues with significant implications with significant ramifications for students, business owners, and law enforcement.