Joyce Marie Taylor
Executive Director Grace McDonald and President Jeramie Cheshire (Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Drug Task Force deputy) from the Hamilton County Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention Coalition presented an overview of the Coalition’s role in the community at the April 9 meeting of the White Springs Town Council.
White Springs Mayor Helen Miller said, “We’ve had some discussions previously at the town council meetings about the role of the Coalition, the strategies they use and the programs underway.”
Miller asked that McDonald and Cheshire help the council to better understand the role of the Coalition in their community.
A recent incident at the White Springs Mud Bog on CR 135 in White Springs is what prompted the discussions and the Coalition’s presentation. Councilman Richard Marshall said a concerned citizen contacted the town regarding a roadblock at the mud bog by law enforcement officers.
Cheshire explained that the sheriff’s office had been tipped off there was underage drinking going on at the event and that he was present at the two checkpoints that day.
Hamilton County Sheriff Harrell Reid said a concerned grandparent had alerted his office about the underage drinking. Since the Constitution designates the sheriff as the chief law enforcement officer of the county, Reid said, the sheriff’s office has the right to investigate complaints anywhere within the county.
“The operators of the mud bog want to do what’s right,” said Reid. “They were concerned about the presence of juveniles there.”
In McDonald’s presentation, she explained they address issues relating to drug, alcohol and tobacco use among the youth in the county, and their objective is to protect the young people and keep them safe and healthy, as well as try to prevent an increase in substance abuse. Some recent concerns in White Springs, she said, are underage drinking, binge drinking and the increased use of alcohol in the community.
McDonald showed the council the results of last year’s Florida’s Youth Substance Abuse Survey. About 400 Hamilton County students in grades 6-12 participated in the survey.
“We found that 21.6 percent of our youth self-reported that they have been using alcohol in the last 30 days, even though it’s illegal for minors, anyone under 21, to have alcohol,” said McDonald. “It seems to be the most commonly used drug among Hamilton County students, as well as the whole community.”
The trend over the last few years from 2002-12, McDonald said, has remained high in alcohol binge drinking, although, it has come down some.
“So you see we’re still struggling with binge drinking,” McDonald said. “Alcohol seems to be the prevalent drug of choice among our teenagers and the prevalent choice of most adults, also.”
Additionally, driving under the influence and alcohol related accidents and deaths continue to be a problem, she added.
“The cost is enormous,” she said. “When you look at the stats going back, it just blows you away.”
McDonald said research has shown that the younger a person starts drinking, the more it can lead to brain damage and the ability to learn, as well as stifling their potential.
“The younger a person starts drinking, the more chance there is of them becoming an addict,” McDonald went on. “Alcohol is an addiction and is very painful to overcome.”
A brochure McDonald gave to the council members reiterated many of her points. It stated that young people are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of alcohol and they face many risks. Those risks include binge drinking that can lead to fatal alcohol poisoning, drunk driving, sexual assault, unprotected sex that can lead to sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, as well as suicide, since alcohol can deepen negative feelings.
There are laws on the books about underage drinking, McDonald said, and they are about to get stiffer, especially for adults who host open parties where juveniles are present, whether or not they provide the alcohol. They will be held accountable and can be arrested and sent to jail. This applies to house parties, as well as open outdoor parties or events, she added.
“This new legislation has passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate during this legislative session,” said McDonald. “It is to be effective in October. It clearly places the same responsibility on anyone hosting parties where minors are attending in open areas with the knowledge of the owner, on the owner, the same as house parties in a home or building.”
At parties where juveniles are present and alcohol is served, McDonald stressed that the host of the party must take precautions to be certain the youth don’t have access to alcoholic beverages.
“As a Coalition, we have been very supportive of law enforcement in our county as they have worked hard to try to control these issues,” McDonald said.
She referenced recent ordinances for bottle clubs that have been stringently enforced by local law enforcement in Hamilton County, which she said has helped tremendously in keeping drunk drivers off the roads.
Cheshire briefly outlined the role of the Drug Task Force and how the different law enforcement agencies in the county work together. With the formation of the task force and the Coalition, they now have many more officers involved in combatting underage drinking and substance abuse through education and prevention, as well as increased patrols and enforcement.