Marin youth alcohol use declines, survey says

Although Marin County ranks near the top for alcohol abuse among youths and adults, new data provided by the biannual California Healthy Kids study “shows that Marin’s teen drinking rates are slowly trending down.”

The finding cheered those who combat juvenile alcohol use, including the Joint Prevention Coalition, a Marin advocacy association involving police, educators, parents, youth, government and nonprofit agencies.

“It’s encouraging,” said Sue Ragen of Mill Valley, coordinator of Mill Valley Aware, a member of the coalition.

“There has been a lot of work addressing this problem in the community,” she said. “We’re on the right track.”

Sparkie Spaeth, deputy county health director, was not surprised by results showing progress in Marin’s war on youth drug abuse.

“The downward trend in alcohol and drug use by our youth validates the strategies we’ve pursued over the past decade,” she said, crediting increased parental engagement and recognition of the problem as key.

Parents “are concerned about use and are discussing their values and setting rules at home,” Spaeth said, adding that while more must be done, the situation points to the success of “efforts and resources we’ve put together” over the years to fight abuse.

Still, the data underscored what many already know: Many kids drink alcoholic beverages and smoke pot, with 41 percent of 11th-graders reporting alcohol use within the past month, and 31 percent using marijuana.

“We have an alcohol abuse problem in Marin,” said Supervisor Katie Rice, president of the county board. “To me a slight trending down means we might be making some progress, but we have a long way to go towards addressing an issue that is having a severe impact on our youth and community.”

The California Healthy Kids survey indicated that 59 percent of 11th-graders and 80 percent of ninth-graders said they did not use alcohol within the past month, and reflected varying age-group dips since 2009 in youth drinking, binge drinking and marijuana use.

The survey involved 5,126 Marin students, including 1,786 seventh-graders, 1,783 ninth-graders, and 1,372 11th-graders, as well as 185 alternative school students.

The survey said about 5 percent of seventh-graders reported using alcohol within the past 30 days, down from 14 percent, while 20 percent of ninth-graders used alcohol during the period, down from 25 percent. Some 41 percent of eleventh-graders reported alcohol use within the past 30 days, down from 48 percent. Binge drinking incidents among youth dropped as well.

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Marijuana use within the past 30 days was reported by 3 percent of seventh-graders, down from 6 percent; 16 percent of ninth-graders, down from 20 percent; and 31 percent of eleventh-graders, down from 36 percent.

Anna Lebedeff, a Terra Linda High School graduate who coordinates a county program that combats alcohol use by San Rafael youths, said that while some found the data surprising, the survey confirms her observation that alcohol is not as prevalent in the social life of teens as it used to be.

“I can see a change in the way youth are dealing with alcohol,” she said.

Kristen Law, the county’s substance abuse prevention coordinator, said the results raised a few eyebrows after years of data showing teen drug abuse on the rise. Analysts are studying the survey to find out why alcohol and drug use is trending downward.

“We are seeing more knowledge and community awareness of this issue,” Law said, adding that enforcement and fines imposed under social host legislation also are having an effect.

A poll of 1,570 Marin high school parents conducted by the coalition showed that most parents talk to their kids about drug use and forbid alcohol and drug use by youths in their homes. The “parent norm survey” also indicated many parents who enforce rules at home believe other parents are more permissive. Many expressed uncertainty about what social host laws require in their locales.

Social host ordinances in Marin hold parents liable for fines and other penalties when youths party with alcohol at home, even when the parents are away or otherwise unaware of the situation. Social host ordinances must be consistently enforced to be effective, said Central Marin police Chief Todd Cusimano.

“We are actively monitoring parties and enforcing the ordinance in our communities,” Cusimano said, adding that with prom and graduation season right around the corner, enforcement of social host laws will provide “an effective way to keep our youth safe.”

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