By Lori Foley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, September 22, 2005
I ran into an acquaintance a few days after he had been cited as a minor in possession of alcohol by the Tucson Police Department. With obvious regret in his voice, he showed me the police citation, laughing just like a true penitent, and announced, "I'm gonna hang this up."
Apparently, there's no connection between the desired and actual effects of the programs implemented in Pima County to discourage underage drinking. But, in response to recent studies on the issue, county officials are looking to change all that.
The Tucson/Pima County Commission on Addiction Treatment and Prevention set a goal about a year ago of cutting underage drinking in Pima County by 50 percent over the next two years.
It's a lofty ambition - and an important one, considering the trouble that this county is in.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administration, the average age nationally at which teens are beginning to drink is 13, whereas Pima teens are beginning at 12.2. A study published by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission reports that the rate of alcohol use for an eighth-grader here is a stunning 41.6 percent, compared with the national rate of 21.5 percent.
These statistics point to a disturbing truth: Pima County has a huge problem with underage drinking. Kids - young kids - are drinking and often engaging in destructive behaviors because of it. This is undeniably harmful behavior and we owe it to our community to support the county's attempts to curb it.
But if you're drinking at 20, you're breaking the same law as a 14-year-old. Whether or not you agree with the drinking age, if you're consuming alcohol and not yet 21, you may feel the effects of the county's invigorated stance against underage drinkers.
And even if you're of legal drinking age, the new efforts may affect you. A tax on alcoholic beverages has been proposed that will raise money to combat underage drinking with every drink sold, whether in a restaurant, grocery store or bar.
It comes down to this: If ever, under any circumstances, you consume alcoholic beverages, you're a part of the county's plan; the new, stricter enforcement of laws will target you, or you'll be funding it. So, what our county officials think - and do - about underage drinking needs to matter to you.
If Pima County really wants to cut the number of underage drinkers in half, it needs to seek out new and effective deterrents, rather than throwing more money at the same programs that have not yet proved effective.
The current attempts to curb MIPs at the university level have not been a major benefit for any of the players. Law-enforcement methods for citing the university community have aggravated and alienated students, causing students' frequent devolutions into petty name-calling that do nothing to help either side.
It's not only the methods of citation that are problematic. In an admittedly unscientific poll conducted for the purposes this column, I asked several students who had gone though diversion classes (the most common consequence of a first-offence MIP charge) if they found the program to be an effective deterrent from future underage use of alcohol.
The answer was a resounding "no." One respondent really summed up everyone's sentiments when he told me: "It was one of the largest wastes of time of my life, and I saw 'I, Robot.'" Yikes.
If the purpose of the diversion program is just to force students to give up their time as a consequence for what they've done, there are more socially constructive options. Why not have students volunteer, particularly for non-profits such as rehabilitation centers, where they could see the damaging effects that can arise from alcohol abuse?
At any rate, punishing students with the equivalent of driving school for underage drinking is not going to convince them that possessing alcohol as a minor is any more important than getting a traffic ticket. If county officials really want to see a change in the rate of minors drinking, they need to revitalize programs to make them relevant, applicable and age-tailored - especially if they're doing it with our money and in our communities.
Hate it or love it, we're inextricably linked as a university campus to the county's efforts to change underage drinking habits. Let's make sure it gets done right.
Lori Foley is a senior majoring in English and French. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.