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Missoula could do a better job of keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors: Underage drinkers can apparently buy alcohol in three out of five Missoula bars, says a group that studied the issue.

But change will not come by making anyone the alcohol villain, says the Missoula collaboration working on underage substance abuse.

Instead, say members of the Missoula Underage Substance Abuse Team (MUSAP), the problem requires a buy-in from people all over town: parents, schools, law enforcement, courts, counselors, health officials and alcohol vendors.

In many areas, that's already happened, said Jori Frakie, coordinator of the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth, the parent organization of MUSAP: prevention, intervention, treatment and aftercare, after-school programs.

But what Missoula needs is an environmental change. That means change in the weaknesses that allow kids to get alcohol. Those areas are getting alcohol from adults - at home, from parents, from older siblings and older friends - and commercial access, in which the youths themselves buy it.

"Sometimes they'll have adults buy it for them," Frakie said. "We have many anecdotal reports about this happening. We also know that parents are hosting underage drinking parties."

This fall, parents will start hearing a campaign called Parents Who Host Lose the Most. It will teach the public about legal liability and about the dangers of giving kids alcohol, Frakie said. Alcohol plays a role not just in car crashes but also in youth suicide, homicide, accidental deaths and fires.

MUSAP, which brings together professionals from education, treatment, law enforcement, justice, counseling and youth development, joined forces recently with the University of Montana Drug and Alcohol Advisory Committee and the Safe Kids/Safe Communities Coalition to take on the other side of the problem: kids' ability to walk into bars and stores and buy alcohol.

"This is where we realize that we really needed to enter into a community enterprise," Frakie said. "It's the community's problem. And really countering this will require a coalition."

The first move was Missoula's first alcohol purchase survey. The closest model in Missoula is the tobacco compliance checks that the state conducts. But the alcohol purchase survey did not use minors and did not carry the weight of law.

"We decided to take a less confrontational approach at first," Frakie said.

Ahead of the survey, MUSAP sent a letter to the alcohol sellers who would be surveyed, telling the dates of the survey and explaining how it would work.

On April 23 and 24, young-looking volunteers from UM who had recently turned 21 went out to 43 bars and 23 stores and gas stations in the Brooks Street, West Broadway, downtown and North Reserve Street areas. They asked to purchase alcohol and waited to be asked for identification.

In 26 of the bars and 10 of the stores, the staffs did not card the volunteers. That's 60.5 percent of bars and 43.5 percent of stores.

"We were trying to show what actually happens on a Wednesday or Thursday night when a young person tries to purchase alcohol," Frakie said. "Even with the warning, the majority of establishments did not card."

Missoula Police Capt. Marty Ludemann was not shocked by the results.

"We do a good job," he said. "But we need to do a better job."

"We've never gone out and done this type of survey before," he said. "It should be a real good tool for us."

Among the interesting nuances of the survey was the difference in carding rates by age and gender. One of six male clerks or servers carded; four of five women did.

And, "Young men, under 30, really had a hard time carding our young female volunteer," Frakie said.

"That's important information for retailers to know about the young men they hire. They should know that if a young woman is pretty or funny or would be a nice addition to the bar, it's still illegal, and they still have to card."

Also during the survey, every establishment where an owner or manager was present carded.

Most retailers want to do the right thing, said Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin.

"What it tells us is these business owners are serious about this," he said. "And I think they're serious for the right reasons. They really don't want to sell to kids."

The lapses often happen when inexperienced clerks or bartenders are working or when the staff is very busy.

"What that tells me is we need to focus more on training and work with these people," he said.

It's true that older bartenders tend to have less trouble carding, said Rhonda Maclay, manager of Harry David's Bar & Casino. It's also true that it requires acute vigilance to keep underage drinkers from succeeding.

Harry David's was one of three bars that passed the test of the survey and attended a liquor retailers' follow-up meeting with Chief of Police Bob Weaver, McMeekin and other MUSAP members. The other two were Charlie B's and the Bodega.

Harry David's triple cards on weekends, Maclay said. When the door man asks for identification, he tells patrons to keep their ID out because they'll be asked again.

"They're carded again by a cocktail waitress," Maclay said, "and then they might be carded again by a bartender."

"If you're 21, you're not going to have a problem with it," she said. "If you're not, you shouldn't be in here."

What's almost impossible to foil, she said, is fake IDs in this college town. The door man keeps illustrations of drivers' licenses from all 50 states, but phony ones are sometimes very hard to spot, especially in the dark. Often, when police walk through, an underage drinker will dump the phony ID and show his real, underage ID rather than get caught with a fake one. Then it's his word against the bar's.

At the follow-up meeting April 30, law enforcement officials stressed to alcohol retailers that they want to work with them as partners against the problem. Tactics will not be sneaky or undercover.

"We're going to say, 'We're going to give you a hand,' " said Ludemann of the police department. " 'But you're going to have to help us here.' "

"These bars are family-owned businesses just like every other business in town," he said. "We're not out to drive them into poverty. But we've got to stop this Montana drink-'til-you-drop."

The police and sheriff's departments will have an increased presence in bars all over town. They will walk through more often, and they will follow up on complaints of service to minors. Violations will bring personal talks with establishment owners.

"We're going to give them an opportunity on a first-time basis to handle it as a personnel issue," McMeekin said.

The second or third time will probably bring a ticket.

Citations go to the server of alcohol. That's often a shocker to participants in Loni Hutchison's alcohol server classes, she said.

"People are always so surprised," said Hutchison, coordinator of the Safe Kids/Safe Communities Coalition and a teacher of the classes for years in Missoula. "They think it's the owner or the liquor license holder. They don't know they have liability. … These people are taking on an enormous responsibility."

The city and county do not have jurisdiction over liquor licenses; that's the Department of Revenue. In order for Revenue to investigate a liquor retailer for selling to minors, the business must have drawn three convictions of a bartender or server in two years.

Law enforcement writes very few of those tickets to servers. The city attorney's office has seen one or two in the last year and a half, said deputy city attorney Andrew Scott. One case is pending. But the office expects to see more as law enforcement officers write more.

"They will be following up on complaints," Scott said. "We have several bars that have huge reputations for serving underage."

County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg said his office gets virtually no such cases. If it does, and there's sufficient evidence, they'll be prosecuted.

"I think the problem is pretty significant in some bars," he said. "It takes more than walk-throughs, apparently, because walk-throughs aren't getting the job done."

Law enforcement also expects to write more tickets for minor in possession of alcohol. The city attorney's office already sees a number of those, Scott said.

"When the police do a walk-through, we can get 15 tickets in a night," he said.

Most plead guilty, but there are about five or six MIP trials a week, he said.

Meanwhile, MUSAP volunteers will continue to do alcohol purchase surveys every one to two months on different days.

"They can just expect that this will be a regular part of Missoula life from here on," Frakie said.

For now, MUSAP is not releasing the names of businesses that failed to card in an effort to be collaborative. After three times, that position may be reversed.

She is quick to praise those that did well. Among stores, all three Holiday stores and both Town Pumps surveyed asked for ID.

MUSAP does want the effort to be taken seriously.

"No matter who we talk to, there's a lot of finger-pointing," she said. "Underage drinking is a serious problem in Missoula. It's kind of taken as a rite of passage and not taken seriously, even though it's costing us lives and dollars."

"It's an age-old problem in this community," said McMeekin. "The house parties, the keggers, the drinking under the bridge."

"I think the survey was productive," he said. "It's a good step in the right direction, and we're going to follow through."

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or gmerriam@missoulian.com.

If you're interested

If you are interested in free server, clerk and manager training for bars and convenience stores, call Lonie Hutchison at 523-2880. The training takes three to five hours.

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