By MATT WALTERS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Legislators are looking to provide a safety-net for underage drinkers who need medical attention.
Their bill would allow a person under 21 to seek help without the risk of criminal penalties if they become dangerously intoxicated.
The goal is to make sure they get the help necessary should they drink too much, said its main sponsor, Rep. Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township.
“Kids will make the mistake of drinking. I just want to make sure they don’t make another, potentially fatal one,” Forlini said.
But a Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police official cautioned that the measure could be abused by underage drinkers trying to avoid criminal charges.
According to Forlini, people who are over-intoxicated but underage tend to avoid medical treatment for fear of being charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol.
“I’m not for underage drinking, but if a person needs help, they shouldn’t be deterred from seeking it,” Forlini said. “Right now, I can’t imagine a kid willingly going to the police if they’ve been drinking.”
He said that the bill would allow dangerously intoxicated people or their friends to contact police or emergency medical services without being punished.
“A lot of times, when a kid is drunk to the point that they need help, they can’t seek it for themselves. That’s why I would also like to see amnesty for the friend who initiates contact with police or EMS,” Forlini said.
However, he said the “good Samaritan” clause wouldn’t apply to drunken driving laws so violators could still be punished for getting behind the wheel.
“They need to contact help and have it come to them, not drive drunk to the hospital,” Forlini said.
Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, said he co-sponsored the proposal in hopes that it would convince more young people to seek treatment for alcohol-related problems.
“I don’t want to penalize young people for admitting that they have a problem,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt said that he prefers that money spent on arresting underage drinkers go towards rehabilitation instead of incarceration.
“A night in jail won’t solve a young person’s drinking problem. Treatment is always better,” Schmidt said.
However, Schmidt said that if a crime is more serious than underage drinking alone, punishment would be necessary.
“Seeking help is one thing, but if someone is driving drunk or doing something more serious, they should be penalized,” Schmidt said.
A 2008 survey by Michigan State University found that 24 percent of its students that were interviewed had experienced self-injury or health-threatening consequences due to drinking in the previous school year.
And 64 percent said they wouldn’t call 911 for an over-intoxicated friend who passes out.
Cornell University implemented a campus “medical amnesty protocol” in 2002 and reported that alcohol-related EMS calls increased by 22 percent during its first two years.
According to a report by the Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., more than 90 universities including Michigan Technical University, Kalamazoo College and Lake Superior State University have programs similar to Cornell’s.
Steve Marino, vice chair of external affairs for the Associated Students of Michigan State University, said the group has called for medical amnesty for more than two years.
“We started advocating it after we heard of its success at Cornell and other universities,” Marino said.
New Mexico is the only state with similar legislation in place, according to Marino.
Because alcohol impairs judgment, underage drinkers may not always make the right decisions when a friend is in trouble, he said.
“No one should ever fear calling the police if someone is in trouble. This legislation would help someone make the right decision,” Marino said. “We want to save lives and if this saves just one, it’s worth it.”
George Basar, Howell police chief and legislative chair of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said the bill is a good concept but abuse could be a problem.
“The bill is open-ended, and the unintended consequences need to be considered. If police arrive at a party with underage drinkers and they all claim to need medical attention, it could put the officers in a tough situation,” Basar said.
He said that if violators use the law just to get out of a citation, it could stretch police resources thinner than they already are, especially in college towns where a high proportion of the residents are under the drinking age.
“There could also be potential for drunk driving by kids thinking they may be exempt under this law,” Basar said, adding that it could be a serious public safety issue.
Basar said that in his experience, young people are willing to seek help for friends who drank too much.
According to Basar, being caught doesn’t always mean a conviction and fine because issuing a ticket is done at an officer’s discretion.
“I can’t speak for every police officer but in general, if we are approached by someone in need of help, we will get that person the attention they need before giving out any tickets,” Basar said.
Forlini’s bill is pending in the House Judiciary Committee. Other sponsors include Reps. Matt Lori, R-Constantine; Sharon Tyler, R-Niles; Matt Huuki, R-Atlantic Mine; Dave Agema, R-Grandville; Ray Franz, R-Onekama; Pete Lund, R-Shelby Township; Marilyn Lane, D-Fraser; Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga; Lesia Liss, D-Warren; and Harold Haugh, D-Roseville.
A similar bill is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Its sponsor is Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.