Group hoping to curb underage alcohol, drug use

December 13, 2013

By Neil Pierson

New: Dec. 13, 12:00 p.m.

When it comes to the reasons why Sammamish teenagers are using and abusing drugs and alcohol at a high rate, Nichole Kurz points to many factors.

Last March, Kurz helped form the IDEA Project, which stands for Impaired Driving Education and Action. The organization has mobilized civic leaders, school officials, health and human service agents, students and parents into increased conversation – and action – about underage drug and alcohol usage in the community.

Maybe the most startling statistic that helped the project along is that 40 percent of DUI arrests in Sammamish over the last three years have involved people under 21. In many other King County jurisdictions, the underage arrest rate is 10-12 percent.

“I think the culture on the plateau is a little bit different than other areas of the state,” Kurz said.

When it comes to accessing alcohol and marijuana, Sammamish teens don’t seem to have many obstacles, Kurz said. There are numerous reasons why: A high percentage of working parents who often aren’t at home, a large number of older siblings who attend college in the area and can provide, and the close proximity of three high schools within city limits.

The IDEA Project focused exclusively on marijuana Dec. 2 when it co-hosted a forum at Sammamish City Hall. The event drew parents and students from Eastside Catholic School and Eastlake and Skyline high schools, and student representatives from each of the schools formed a panel that answered audience questions, said Sgt. Tony Garza of the Sammamish Police Department.

“I think it was really informative,” Garza said. “It gave the parents the opportunity to ask the teenage panel questions, and get answers that they wouldn’t necessarily get from their own kids or kids they know.”

With the passage of Initiative 502 last year, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana has been decriminalized, and the state is in the process of licensing growing, distribution and retail centers.

However, like alcohol, use or possession of marijuana remains illegal for people under 21.

“The feeling that we’ve been getting from people is that now that it’s legal, it’s not as big of a deal in some capacity,” Kurz said.

At the forum, Police Chief Nate Elledge and a counselor from Lakeside-Milam Recovery Centers spoke about the legal ramifications of the new pot law.

The IDEA Project – along with substance education groups like Drug Free Community Coalition and the Issaquah Community Network – have been targeting ways to reduce teen consumption levels and DUI cases.

Sammamish police have resource officers at Eastlake and Skyline, Garza said, and they work in conjunction with school officials to deal with drug and alcohol cases. Arrests are rare, he said, and police are usually involved only when administrators and families can’t work things out.

“Sometimes it’s best handled at the parent-teacher level,” Garza said.

Kurz, an Eastlake graduate, said high-school sporting events have long been a source of problems. Garza said the schools hire off-duty police officers for security and traffic control during football games, and they’ve been able to curtail drinking at tailgate parties, although adults are usually the ones caught.

Garza said teenagers comprise about 36 percent of the city’s population, a much higher rate than surrounding cities. Statistically, that alone will lead to higher DUI arrest rates.

“A lot of folks say it’s due to the affluence of the community, and maybe there’s not as much to do here for kids,” he added.

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