Grappling with who’s ultimately responsible, Laguna Beach’s City Council unanimously agreed Tuesday to proceed with a social host ordinance that would make it illegal for adults to serve alcohol to teenagers other than their own. City staff was directed to draft such a measure and present it at a later date. If enacted, Laguna will be the fourth city in the county to do so, following Mission Viejo, Laguna Hills and Irvine.
Laguna’s police Chief Paul Workman said the proposed ordinance will not single out parents who are hosting teenage parties, but puts the onus on anyone 18 or older who is “in control of a residence” and providing alcohol to underage guests. Workman acknowledged that such a measure is not the end-all for curbing underage drinking in Laguna Beach but a tool to assist police in curtailing the problem.
“It’s a greater problem than parents who are hosting a party,” explained Workman.
Several council members expressed concern over potential ramifications at private parties where teenagers are permitted to drink. Council members Verna Rollinger and Toni Iseman asked for options that would provide exceptions for homecoming parties, particularly for U.S. soldiers, rather than a broad-sweeping crackdown.
Other residents who opposed underage drinking felt the ordinance curtailed freedom and failed to put responsibility where it belonged. Approximately 20 people spoke on the proposed ordinance with several from local schools and the school board.
“I urge that minors take responsibility for their own actions,” commented Schuyler Vanderveen, a junior at Laguna Beach High School. “High school students aren’t going to parties unaware of the dangers of drugs and alcohol. We’ve been educated about the long-term effects of alcohol on our livers and the lethal effects of overdoses and we’ve learned of the soul-crushing oppression that is addiction.”
Vanderveen said his peers understand the risks they’re taking. “We’ve had it beaten into our skulls before we reach double-digits by programs like DARE,” he said. “Placing the blame for our mistakes on parents who may not know a party is occurring inside their homes is not the answer.”
Workman said the ordinance would not allow police to target unaware or away parents and “hunt them down.” Council member Elizabeth Pearson added: “This is called a social host ordinance for a reason. It’s about the adults. It’s about penalizing the adults who are providing the alcohol.”
Robert Winoker, director of the emergency departments at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo and in Laguna Beach, sees the proposed ordinance as a wake-up call. “I don’t see this as a personal freedom issue. I see this as parents stepping up to the plate and accepting responsibility for what’s going on in our community of underage drinking taking place in their absence,” he said.
“We see the effects every day at Mission Hospital of drinking, underage and overage, and many deaths. Approximately 25 to 40 percent of our trauma patients are alcohol related accidents. It’s about preventing deaths. It’s about preventing kids from getting into cars and driving and ending up in our hospitals in our trauma unit and dead. If we were ahead on this program, this would be on the decline, not on the rise.”
Options suggested for the ordinance include a six-month period to inform residents about the penalties, and then a warning, followed by escalating fines as well as making the ordinance apply only to incidents involving teenagers under 18 years old. “Behavior modification is what we’re after,” said Rollinger.
Iseman said a video of an intoxicated woman she encountered at a recent concert would provide a silent cure. “I would just take 15 minutes of photographing her and her behavior and show the class without a comment, then ask students: ‘What do you think about that?’ Let people see what happens when they get beyond stupid. That is part of this education.” Iseman said she hopes the ordinance opens up community dialog about underage drinking and related health risks.
Local high school students had mixed opinions. Macklin Thornton, who described himself as a champion for freedom, said he finds it “despicable” for adults who want to look cool to provide alcohol at teen parties. “These parents only cheapen and tarnish my hope of a new culture,” he said. He added that prohibiting a behavior can trigger the opposite effect. “When the government restricts a group of people, those people will fight back.”
But Ellie Sharf, a sophomore, said most teenagers are confused about alcohol. “Statistics say that children who start drinking at an early age, their brain is 10 percent smaller than kids who don’t drink and wouldn’t drink until their brain is fully developed,” she said. “You can’t reach your full potential if you’re partaking in this.”
Town elder Bruce Hopping, supporter of the arts and youth programs, avid waterman and 62-year resident, also weighed in on the problem. “If you imprint respect for the human body, you will not abuse it nor will you abuse other persons nor will you abuse the environment and the creatures therein,” he commented. “That will extend to good citizenship and respect for the laws.
“We have more people in jail than any other nation in the world, mostly for abusing drug laws. That hasn’t stopped the war on drugs; we import more cocaine than any other nation in the world. We should imprint our youngsters with a sense of self-esteem. The reason why the Olympians 2,500 years ago ran their games without clothes is because they had respect for all of the body. Don’t put another law on the line. Develop self-respect and you won’t abuse the law.”