OLYMPIA — Cmdr. Steve Rittereiser said his University of Washington Police Department officers are familiar with the scene: a late-night party where someone under 21 drinks way too much and passes out.
Less-intoxicated students mill around or try to revive the drinker. If the situation is bad enough, someone might call for help. But most partygoers flee before the ambulance arrives.
Those who stick around are reluctant to answer questions.
“They’re afraid they’re going to get in trouble just by being there,” Rittereiser said. “And it makes it hard to figure out what happened.”
Legislation in Olympia aims to encourage underage partyers to seek help more quickly in cases of binge drinking and possible alcohol poisoning.
If House Bill 1404 is enacted, minors suffering from alcohol poisoning would not be prosecuted for minor-in-possession charges if they need medical attention. Minors helping alcohol-poisoning victims also would be exempt from prosecution.
“This doesn’t excuse you from any other liability, and you won’t be excused from anything if you don’t call 911,” said Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, who sponsored the bill. “The message of this bill is not ‘please go binge drink.’?”
The bill is modeled after a state law protecting from prosecution people seeking medical attention for drug overdoses. The 2010 law, nicknamed the “911 good Samaritan” law, was passed almost unanimously by the Senate and by a healthy majority in the House. Liias is confident his bill will be successful, too.
Rittereiser said the legislation could be especially helpful on college campuses where alcohol poisoning in minors is underreported. Underage drinkers who fear punishment from police or university officials are reluctant to seek help.
Alcohol poisoning “is not unusual in the age group we’re dealing with, because there’s obviously a lot of binge drinking, for one reason or another,” Rittereiser said. “When we see these things, our first priority is safety so we’re getting the medical folks involved right away.”
Because of privacy laws, university officials are unable to track the number of students with alcohol poisoning, but Seattle medical experts see a large number of alcohol-poisoning cases each year. According to the Drug Abuse Warning Network, more than 2,100 underage drinkers were hospitalized in 2010.
Steve Hansen, assistant chief of the Washington State University Police Department, said his officers have had similar experiences. Students don’t report the issue, and police usually discover alcohol poisoning while investigating other alcohol-related incidents, such as assaults and loud parties.
But some local organizations worry that the bill will normalize underage drinking, leading to an increase in alcohol poisoning.
Amy Ezzo, spokeswoman for the Washington chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said legislators should focus on ensuring minors don’t drink at all. She argued that decreasing the number of underage drinkers is the best means of preventing alcohol-related deaths in minors.
“Our message is pretty strong,” Ezzo said. “The drinking age is 21, and you shouldn’t drink before then.”