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The futile fight against underage drinking

July 4, 2011

Last week, the Walpole Police Department announced that they had busted an underage drinking party in West Walpole, netting dozens of teens from Walpole and surrounding communities (Full Disclosure: I have relations with a number of the individuals who were involved). (See Walpole Times article.)

The incident, coupled with a recent sting that caught seven local restaurants selling alcohol to minors, is being considered by town officials a victory in the local police and health department’s ongoing joint crusade against underage drinking.

Perhaps the kids caught attending the out-of-control party in West Walpole will learn their lesson and abstain from alcohol until they are 21. Perhaps, also, pigs will fly and Michael Berry will actually be a real fiscal conservative. But I doubt any of these will occur.

Underage drinking is not an “epidemic,” as some officials have labeled it. It is a fact. It will not end simply because police bust parties. The same kids will return to go to the same parties, no matter how many times you summons them to court. I am almost certain many of the students involved in this party will not let this bust stop them from continuing to consume alcohol.

In the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey taken by 375 students, or about 34% of the Walpole High School student body, 51.8% of students surveyed said they have consumed alcohol on one or more days of their life. A staggering 14.7% of students who took the survey, or 55 students, said they had consumed alcohol on 40 or more days of their life. It is clear that students do drink, and many do it on a regular basis.

During the same year the survey was taken, the number of fatal motor vehicle accidents in Walpole was three, according to the police department’s own statistics. Only one of those, on July 3, 2009, involved a driver consuming alcohol, and the driver in question in that particular accident was well over the age of 21. Only five percent of traffic violations in Walpole during 2009 were for drivers operating under the influence of alcohol. That is lower than the number of marked lanes violations during that year.

When the drinking age was raised to 21 nationwide between 1984 and 1987, the stated intent was to cut down on drunk driving. Statistics indicate the higher age has indeed succeeded in this purpose, as alcohol-related deaths among teen drivers have seen a significant decline since 1982, while alcohol-related deaths in general have also plunged since the early 1980s. The Walpole statistics seem to back this up.

As the aforementioned data seems to indicate, in almost every instance, kids who attend parties in Walpole, which occur regularly and at locations in all areas of town, do the responsible thing and do not drive home drunk. Some stay over night at the home the party has been held at. Others have “family contracts” where they will call their parents, no questions asked, to get rides home. The kids are taking the initiative to not drive home after a night of drinking, which is exactly what raising the drinking age was intended to accomplish.

While the Police Department was so carefully strategizing as to how to bust this West Walpole party, carefully positioning officers throughout the neighborhood to catch fleeing teens, was the rest of Walpole put at risk by the apparent need for a large concentration of officers in one area of town for one particular purpose that did not present an immediate danger to the public at large?

The stated public safety aspect of this bust was that there was a potential that one of the students would stumble out of the house drunk and jump in a car. But the statistics indicate Walpole kids, and American teens as a whole, are already just not doing that.

So I ask: What exactly was accomplished from this bust?

We would all like to believe the kids have learned their lesson. But I know, and we all know, that is not the truth. Will the kids in question be drinking alcohol again soon? Yes, and some already have. Will they be doing it in college where alcohol is even more readily available? Yes, and Walpole Police won’t be able to do anything about it. Have the kids learned a lesson? Of course not.

Teenagers are drinking and partying in Walpole all the time. Most Walpole residents may not know that, which is good. When the kids start to become obnoxious and affect others and drive drunk, then it becomes a community problem. But I think it is a misuse of resources for the Walpole Police to relentlessly pursue teens for drinking around town. The kids are not endangering the public from what I can gather.

As soon as police wind down their current aggressive initiative against underage drinking, the parties and the underage drinking will just start right back up in full force. I say let them start back up as long as no one gets into a car drunk and no one is injured or killed. In any case, what choice do we have? Of course the parties will start back up!

As a conservative, I generally do not trust government and want government mostly out of my life and mostly out of my wallet (in case it is not obvious from previous blog posts.) When a teenager consumes alcohol in a private home and does not affect others by driving drunk or otherwise stumbling onto the street intoxicated, I think it should remain a private matter. I do not want the Police Department deploying my tax dollars to provide the manpower to bust a teenage drinking party as long as the teens stay in the house and do not trash the neighborhood or kill anyone.

The purview of teenage drinking parties should fall under the parents, not the police department. Many of the teenagers who attend parties throughout town are doing so, yes unfortunately, with the consent of their parents. In fact, parents knowing about and allowing their students to have parties either at their homes or attend them at friends’ homes is more common than one might believe.

And yes, I do believe the drinking age should be lowered to 18 and I believe in a few more decades it will be. But that is a topic for another blog post.

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