ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Hancock County Underage Drinking Task Force has received a state grant that will allow it to continue its operations for the next two years.
The $14,489.39 grant from the Maine Office of Substance Abuse will fund the task force beginning Oct. 1, 2010, and running through Sept. 30, 2012.
The task force is a multijurisdictional team created in 2005 through a grant from the state Department of Health and Human Services to combat the problem of minors consuming alcohol. Since then, it has relied on grant funding to continue its operations.
“Frankly, we were sweating a little about whether we would have funding to continue,” said Deputy Chris Thornton of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, who heads the task force. “There’s no funding in the sheriff’s budget so we have to go out and compete to find funding to continue our enforcement activities.”
The grant will not fund any new enforcement activities, but will allow the officers to continue their “proactive” enforcement activities, Thornton said.
“Sustainability,” he said Monday. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. This grant will allow us to continue to do what we’ve been doing.”
The task force is composed of officers from law enforcement agencies throughout the county, and enhances the efforts of local departments. Although the initial focus of the task force was on parties where underage drinkers were consuming alcohol, in recent years it has expanded its efforts to retail compliance in an effort to en-sure that alcohol is not being sold to minors.
The task force also has worked with other agencies and institutions in the county in an effort to reduce underage drinking and the related problems linked to that behavior. It also has worked with on- and off-site retailers to provide Responsible Beverage Servers training for employers and employees who serve alcoholic bever-ages. That training is designed to familiarize employees with laws and regulations regarding alcohol sales and to reduce incidents of sales to underage drinkers.
In addition to the party patrol and compliance efforts, the task force also monitors parking lots in an effort to deal with what Thornton referred to as “social access” to alcohol by underage drinkers.
“One of the biggest problems now is social access,” he said. “If you know someone who is 21, they can go into a store and buy it and then transfer it [to a minor] out in the parking lot. So we watch the stores, and some of those transfers are just outright blatant.”
Thornton said he did not have any hard statistics to indicate whether the work of the task force was making a difference in underage drinking in Hancock County. He said, however, that one state study, the Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Usage Survey, included a positive indication. The survey is conducted among middle and high school students to quantify the use of alcohol, tobacco and other substances among that age group.
The latest MYDAUS survey, Thornton said, indicated that students are more likely to get caught drinking than their counterparts in the 2006 survey.
“If their perception is that they’re more likely to get caught,” he said, “that bodes well for us.”