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Assault to begin on underage drinking

| September 7, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

A local substance abuse counselor is teaming up with police for a major assault on underage drinking in Lincoln County.

Ralph Stever and representatives from police departments in Libby, Troy and Eureka recently attended a national conference on the issue in Arizona. They've come back armed with strategies to fight what they consider a serious problem here.

"Everybody has to get on the same page to make it work," said Stever of Flathead Valley Chemical Dependency.

Parents and other community members must pitch in along with law enforcement and courts, he said. Stever calls community tolerance toward teenage drinking one of the biggest contributing factors.

"Parental attitudes about it are out of whack in Lincoln County," he said. "Fifty to 60 percent of Lincoln County kids get (alcohol) from a family member."

Tobacco use by youths under 18 years old also is being targeted. Libby Police Chief Clay Coker, who attended the Arizona workshop, said his office will begin making quarterly compliance checks of local businesses selling alcohol and tobacco.

Merchants will be told of the plan ahead of time, although the dates of random checks won't be announced. Local children ages 16 to 18 will be given money and will take their own identification into businesses, where they'll try to buy alcohol.

"We'll do all the vendors in the Libby city limits," Coker said. "Those that fail will get a citation that night. Those that don't sell to our undercover kids will get a letter from me saying 'congratulations.'"

Coker said some compliance checks have been conducted in cooperation with county law enforcement officers in the past, although never more than once a year.

"One thing we learned from the training is if you don't do it at least quarterly, it's pointless," Coker said.

He emphasized that those going undercover won't wear disguises or makeup.

"We're not trying to make kids look older or give them fake id's. There's not going to be anything tricky about it. We're not trying to deceive anybody."

After meeting with merchants and tavern owners, he said, the first in a series of checkups probably will be held in December. Tobacco checks also will be conducted.

Coker estimated alcohol is a common thread among crimes his officers investigate — up to 80 percent of the cases.

"Most assaults, most everything we deal with has some alcohol with it," the chief said.

National statistics show that cracking down on underage drinking and tobacco use will cut crime significantly. That was one of the biggest messages at the Arizona conference, Coker said.

"We'll really hit these two issues because tobacco and alcohol go hand in hand. They are legal products that are age-restricted. If we focus on those two we'll see a dramatic drop in our overall crime. I didn't realize it affected everything so much."

Counselor Stever said the age at which local kids are starting to drink has gotten younger over the years. Five years ago, 15 was a common age to begin, he said.

"Now 12 years old is the average age," Stever said. "Brain growth for a 12-year-old is at a pivotal point."

Not only do Lincoln County children have little fear of getting caught, he said, but more than 60 percent report having little trouble getting alcohol. That again points to community norms, Stever said.

Coker agrees, saying many parents almost turn a blind eye toward such traditions as the senior kegger.

"I've been chief here 10 years and deputy sheriff one year in the county," Coker said, "and, yes, we've had that mentality the last 10 years. People say 'Why aren't you out there getting meth freaks or banks robbers?' There is that mentality."

Besides citing underage drinkers, businesses that serve to minors also will be in trouble, Coker vowed.

"We're going to start dinging people," he said. "You can't serve people in a bar who are intoxicated. That's the law."

Another strategy encouraged at the national conference was tweaking city ordinances to provide stronger enforcement. Coker said he brought back some sample ordinances and may look at Libby code covering gathering of crowds and noise.

"We might look at our ordinances to see if there's something we can do," he said, adding that Libby code doesn't cover loud music coming from cars.

Eureka police officer Brenda Johnson, who also attended the Arizona conference, said community attitudes in her town are the same when it comes to teens and drinking.

"A lot of people think it's a rite of passage," she said. "But it's unhealthy, unsafe and illegal. We are going to hit the merchants (with compliance checks). It's not going to be any surprise."

She estimates that 90 percent of the arrests Eureka police have made in the last eight months involve alcohol use.

Youths in Eureka have recently organized a group called Students Against Destructive Decisions. It seeks to curb things such as bullying as well as alcohol and drug use.

"Youth empowerment is really what it is," Johnson said.

Stever pointed out that early drug use, as well as alcohol abuse, is common among those he treats.

"Ninety percent of the people I work with as addicts or alcoholics started using when they were very young," he said.

The drug scene is a different place these days, even in Troy and Libby, than it was decades ago, Stever said. Controlled substances are much more readily available to youngsters who want to experiment.

"Twenty years ago you couldn't get oxycontin or meth and pharmaceuticals at a party," he said.

That's why Stever touts the importance of offering positive activities. Two such programs being developed in Troy are a climbing wall at the elementary school, and a disc golf course on trails behind the visitor center.

"If we're going to hit them with this stick, then we have to have an alternative," Stever said.