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Law aims for youth drinking, hits everyone

In the most tragic way possible, the December alcohol-poisoning death of Foothill High School student Shelby Lyn Allen fostered intense local discussion of underage drinking and its consequences.

And on Tuesday, in a move they argue would prevent another such senseless death, advocates will ask the Shasta County Board of Supervisors to pass a “Social Host Responsibility Ordinance” that aims to crack down on youth drinking.

If this new legal tool would build a healthier generation, supporting it would an easy call. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see the connection.

In the name of fighting underage alcohol use, the ordinance would levy civil fines against the hosts of rowdy parties – or their parents or even, potentially, their landlords.

Fining the parents of teenagers who threw a raucous party, with or without permission, while their elders were away for the weekend would be an incentive to keep closer tabs, to be sure.

Yet the fines would also apply even if nobody under 21 was even on the same block, let alone drinking illegally.

Indeed, the ordinance’s language against “loud or unruly gatherings” is so broad it could as easily apply to teetotaling Mormon elders overenthusiastically celebrating a Brigham Young University football victory as it could to teenage binge drinkers.

On the other hand, it’s not even clear that it would apply to a case like Shelby Allen’s. Her late-night drinking binge was catastrophic, but it was also quiet enough not to wake even her friend’s sleeping parents – let alone draw a Sheriff’s Office response and a county fine.

We’re not advocating more and louder parties. People have the right to peacefully enjoy their homes without their neighbors’ alcohol-fueled noise disturbing their evenings. The law already includes methods – nuisance and noise ordinances, primarily – that help the police keep a lid on parties’ volume.

If existing laws couldn’t handle the job, if ours were a kegger-happy college town like Chico, something tougher might be worth talking about. The social host ordinance’s new fines on property owners – a potentially heavy burden, though the county’s draft is careful to provide ample warnings for landlords and others who only inadvertently “host” parties – might even be a good path to follow.

But a crackdown on rowdy parties is not the stated goal of this ordinance. It aims to reduce underage drinking.

This is a noble endeavor and a serious one for the north state. According to one recent anonymous survey at high schools, 27 percent of Shasta County 11th-graders reported binge drinking in the previous month – a rate 6 percentage points higher than the California average. Steering our young people away from alcohol and toward healthier habits is one of the best things we could do for them.

District Attorney Jerry Benito said crafting an ordinance more narrowly would quickly make it ineffective. Maybe he’s right, but that looks like a sign that this law is simply far too crude a tool for the job at hand.

Let’s sensibly teach kids about the dangers of alcohol abuse. Let’s give them every reasonable opportunity to have fun without a hangover. Let’s throw the book at adults who irresponsibly give alcohol to young people, as the law already allows.

But let’s also ensure that new laws hit their targets – and think carefully before passing an ordinance that could slap nearly anyone in the county with an expensive fine just because it’s for the children.

source: Redding Record Searchlight

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