Our View: Questions linger about social host ordinance
June 6, 2010
Steamboat Springs — A little more than one year ago, the Steamboat Springs City Council adopted a social host ordinance intended to be another tool for our community to combat underage drinking. Thirteen months later, the ordinance has resulted in 13 citations stemming from six parties. Steamboat Springs police officials said all along that the ordinance would not net a large number of violators, but it always was clear that its target was adults — parents, in particular — who knowingly allowed underage drinking parties in their homes or on their properties.
So when the police provided a one-year update on the ordinance to the City Council last week, the fact there were 13 citations issued since May 2009 should not have come as a surprise. But it's disappointing that all citations were handed out to 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who were caught hosting parties with alcohol in their leased residences. No parents — the clear intent of the social host ordinance — were among those cited.
It's hard not to look back and wonder whether the ordinance is accomplishing its goal — one that this Editorial Board vehemently supported.
The social host ordinance differs from other laws, such as contributing to the delinquency of a minor, because it focuses on the adults who provide a space for the underage drinking to occur, as opposed to those who provide the alcohol that is consumed. Law enforcement agencies often have a difficult time determining who supplied the alcohol to minors, but it's usually not tough to determine who owns or leases the property where the drinking occurred.
Steamboat Springs police Capt. Joel Rae says it's a good sign that police have yet to come across a party for which a parent could have been cited under the social host ordinance. We agree.
Rae also says the fact the 13 violators plus the 64 underage partygoers who were issued minor in possession of alcohol tickets associated with those parties have had to undergo alcohol awareness classes and, in some cases, perform community service hours, also is a positive. Again, we agree. But we also know that the social host ordinance was supported by many of our human service organizations because there was a clear alcohol problem for youths — including children as young as 12 — and parents who seemed to turn a blind eye, or worse, enable such behavior.
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Survey after survey demonstrates that underage drinking and drug use in our community is a problem. Last year's crime statistics from the Police Department back it up. Steamboat Springs police issued a total of 261 MIP tickets in 2009, nearly 90 more than in 2008.
We're supportive of the department's efforts to cut down on underage drinking, particularly because we know the harm drinking can cause not only to developing brains, but also because of the related crimes such as sexual assault that sometimes accompany underage binge drinking.
Rae says his department takes a zero-tolerance approach to underage alcohol consumption.
"We firmly believe in our philosophy that it's just not OK for someone under 21 to drink," he said last week.
That's an opposite approach from the one employed by Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall, who said last week that he wants his deputies to use discretion in their handling of such incidents.
Wall questions the value of putting teens "in the system" for something as commonplace as celebrating their rite of passage from high school with a couple of beers. Issuing them an MIP ticket, he said, could cost them scholarship money, as well as other repercussions that he thinks might not fit the crime.
"I think zero tolerance is a mistake," Wall said Friday. "Does that mean you turn your back on everything? No, it doesn't."
Instead, Wall, who also thinks underage drinking in Routt County is a concern, said the answer is in education and better parenting.
And education and better parenting are at the heart of the social host ordinance. Rae thinks the community education campaigns that accompanied the council's passage of the ordinance have made an impact. We'd like to think that's true, but we're not convinced that the lack of social host ordinance violations for local parents means those parent-supported parties aren't taking place.
Worse, we worry that the social host ordinance has been just another tool to bust parties with college-age young adults. If that's all it's achieved, then the ordinance will fail to meet the expectations of those who worked so hard to get it passed.