HOULTON, Maine — Because they work to keep alcohol out of the hands of youth, officials at the Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition always are concerned when they hear about underage drinking.
But a recent report about a 14-year-old Aroostook County girl who consumed so much alcohol that her blood alcohol content registered at 0.32 percent has them ramping up efforts to better educate individuals about the dangers of teen drinking.
Claire Desrosiers, the coalition’s project director, didn’t want to reveal where the incident with the teen happened in order to protect her identity, but she said Thursday that two 18-year-olds bought and gave her and a friend the alcohol.
The 14-year-old consumed so much alcohol that she became incoherent and was unable to walk.
Desrosiers said the incident was discovered when someone called for help after seeing friends of the girl holding her up and dragging her down the street.
The teen received medical treatment and recovered, but Desrosiers said she was told a physician considered the case “very serious.”
“In the incident with the 14-year-old, both parents were unaware of what their children were doing,” she said.
The issue is troubling, she added, because a recent survey has revealed that the amount of alcohol being consumed by teens is underestimated.
According to a phone survey of Maine parents conducted last year by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse, 10.9 percent of Aroostook County parents believed their high school child consumed alcohol in the past 30 days. Less than 2 percent believed their child had engaged in binge drinking. Meanwhile, the results of a 2009 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey indicated that 34 percent of Aroostook teens had at least one alcoholic drink in the past 30 days, and 20 percent engaged in binge drinking.
Desrosiers said recent events and the aforementioned statistics are the reasons the coalition of more than 15 member agencies countywide is ramping up its educational efforts and its delivery of programs to curb underage drinking.
The group is doing more to publicize Maine’s drinking laws and what police departments are doing to enforce them. They also are creating a database that will archive the names of stores that pass and fail alcohol compliance checks conducted by local police departments.
“We really continue to stress that parental monitoring is crucial to preventing underage alcohol use,” she said. “We have been stressing that over and over again and will continue to do so. We also are always coming up with new initiatives and programs to get the message out and to reach teens to educate them about the dangers of underage drinking. Parental involvement goes a long way. We have a statistic that says that high school students who don’t believe they would be caught by their parents are three times as likely to drink alcohol.”
In some cases, she said, it is too easy for teens to get their hands on alcohol.
“As parents, we all want to trust our kids,” she said Thursday. “We want to think they are going to make the right decisions. But we have to remember that they are kids, and they are going to do dumb things. We have to check on them just like we would check on a younger child.”
Presque Isle Police Chief Naldo Gagnon agreed that it is sometimes too easy for youths to get alcohol. Gagnon said that the department recently charged a woman for supplying alcohol to her teenage son. He said police do not encounter many cases of local stores illegally selling alcohol to underage youth.
“We probably have a couple of those cases a year,” he said Thursday. “In a number of cases, the person who is buying for the underage drinker is someone who just turned 21 years old and is able to buy, and they are now a resource for friends who are close in age but still too young to drink. In other cases, it is a parent buying for the child, because the parent has substance abuse issues and they want to party with the kids.”
Since there is zero tolerance for underage drinking in Maine, individuals under 21 face alcohol charges if their blood alcohol content is above 0.00 percent.
In Maine, an individual convicted of illegal possession of alcohol faces a fine of between $200 and $400 for the first offense, $300 and $600 for the second offense and $600 for third or subsequent offenses.
A person guilty of furnishing liquor to a minor faces fines from $500 to $2,000 and-or a jail sentence from six to 12 months. If an injury or death occurs, the person responsible for furnishing the alcohol may be charged with a felony.
Late last month at Presque Isle High School, four students were suspended for 10 days and charged accordingly after they were found to have been under the influence of alcohol at the school. Two of the students were 15 years old and two were 14 years old. Their blood alcohol content levels ranged from 0.04 to 0.12, according to the Presque Isle Police Department.
Ten days later, Presque Isle police summoned Sean P. Muriel, 19, of Presque Isle on a charge of furnishing a place for minors to consume alcohol after investigators went to a party at his Oak Street residence. Two 17-year-old females, both of Presque Isle, also were charged with illegal possession of alcohol.
In Caribou, police Chief Mike Gahagan got a shock over the summer when the department conducted an alcohol compliance check on 12 local businesses where alcohol is served. An undercover buyer, who was too young to purchase alcohol, went into each store and tried to buy liquor. She had no ID, and if they asked for her birth date, she had to be honest.
Fifty percent of the businesses failed the test and sold the minor alcohol, according to the chief.
“I was just stunned,” he said. “It was unbelievable. We offer responsible beverage training to all of our businesses here, and we’ve done a lot of it over the years. It is the store’s responsibility to educate their employees, but this is something extra we offer. Despite all of the education we have done and all of the education that is out there, 50 percent of the stores we checked still failed.”
In those cases, he said, the cashiers were of varying ages. Some had no excuse for why they sold to a minor, while others denied they had done so.
Gahagan said he believes that businesses have grown lax about asking for identification over the years.
“It used to be that the state had liquor enforcement officers who did these compliance checks,” he said. “Now, local police have the training and the tools to do it, but there has been a lag time in some cases. If there were no police on the roads, everyone would speed, so I think that is sort of what is going on here.”
Gahagan said that the department again is stepping up its own education efforts.
“All these businesses have to do is card people,” he said Thursday. “It is the simplest thing in the world, and it doesn’t cost a thing. It would go a long way in combating this problem.”
For detailed tips and information about how to prevent underage drinking, contact ASAP Coalition at 521-2408 or Community Voices at 834-5540, ext. 2019, or visit www.mainparents.net.