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Program targets drinking by youths; Plainclothes officers to work liquor store counters, check IDs


People suspected of underage alcohol purchases might be carded in Carroll County -- even after the sale.

After providing identification, they might be handed a business card reading: "Your ID has been verified by a law enforcement officer."

That supposed liquor store clerk handing out the card will be a plainclothes police officer working with the store's owner and staff in a new countywide initiative, Reducing the Availability of Alcohol to Minors (RAAM).

Anyone handing the officer posing as a clerk an improper ID will quickly begin to face the consequences.

The program, begun in Ocean City in 1995, also trains store owners and staff to spot false identification and those buying liquor for people younger than age 21.

At the county office building yesterday, political and law enforcement leaders pledged their support, as the program was outlined by Bonnie Bosley, director of the project for Junction Inc.

Bosley said the work by Peter G. Samios, a local store owner and president of the Maryland Liquor Stores Association, was invaluable in recruiting 50 owners and staff representing 24 county establishments who attended a training session Tuesday.

"We are a big part of the problem and we hope to be a big part of the solution," Samios said. "We want to be good citizens and follow the laws -- we just need a little help in doing so."

The state provided a $27,500 grant for the program, and the Carroll County commissioners added $9,000. The program will include poster-sized signs and at least one billboard.

Molly Mitchell, representing the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention's program to combat underage drinking, said every county has been asked to develop a project.

Since its inception, Bosley said, RAAM has been adopted by Queen Anne's and Baltimore counties.

According to a report by Ocean City Police Department, the program grew rapidly as the department's relationship with retailers changed from "somewhat adversarial" to a partnership with clear goals. A review found 450 alcohol citations during summer 1995 -- and an average of 3,000 each summer since 1996.

"Parents cannot address this problem alone, and just educating young people is not enough," Mitchell said. "We have to bring everybody together -- parents, law enforcement, retailers, youth -- to look at all different angles of the problem."

In some counties, police don't know what to do or don't have the forms to cite juveniles, Mitchell said, "so they just tell them to pour it out and send them home. We're really kind of at ground zero. For so long, we laughed at it as a rite of passage: 'So long as they don't have car keys, let them have fun.' "

Many don't realize that the legal blood-alcohol level for those younger than age 21 is "basically zero" -- 0.02, or about enough to cover a dose of cough medicine, Mitchell said.

Many parents of minors caught drinking and driving don't know that they can ask the Motor Vehicle Administration to take their children's licenses away -- as Talbot County parents have done to fight the problem there.

In addition to charges, fines and paying lawyers to fight driving charges, Carroll State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes said minors who try to use a false identification could be fined, jailed and lose their licenses.

Adults providing alcohol to minors could be sentenced to three years in jail and fined $2,500, he said, and parents can be held responsible for damage by their children up to $10,000 -- plus possible civil lawsuits by injured parties.

The risk of lifelong addiction to alcohol is four times greater for those who begin drinking before age 14, compared with those who wait until age 21, Mitchell said. Alcohol is a factor in 60 percent of date rapes, she said.

Bosley said figures from a 1998 survey of adolescents in Carroll showed 53 percent of seniors had consumed wine or beer within the past 30 days, and 45 percent had consumed hard liquor.

Underage drinking leads not only to fatalities and serious injuries in car accidents, but to a majority of rapes, and sexually transmitted diseases, depression and suicides, she said. Alcohol also is a so-called gateway drug to use of other harmful drugs.

"Thank you to Junction, for taking the lead on this," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

Lt. Terry Katz, commander of the Maryland State Police barracks at Westminster, said parents who wonder, "What's all the hubbub about kids drinking? We did it and we turned out OK," should consider whether they want to perpetuate "this one stupid habit" in their children.

"The most abused drug in this county by juveniles is alcohol," Katz said, and most young people are binge drinkers -- having five or more drinks -- making them more prone to traffic accidents. Alcohol also fuels much of the county's vandalism.

Keith Benfer, a Westminster police officer, began his initiative against underage drinking in June, working with city restaurant and store owners, said Chief Roger Joneckis, whose interest was heightened in September when two minors were hospitalized from alcohol.

Then, Joneckis said, "Lo and behold, Bonnie calls -- the answer to my prayers."

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