About six weeks ago, sheriff's deputies descended on a Frenchtown home to bust a party. They found a gaggle of high school kids boozing it up. Thirteen were ticketed for being minors in possession of alcohol; six were under 18. They reportedly had blood-alcohol contents ranging from 0.02 to 0.082.
But the real focus of the search warrant was Angela Merritt, the 38-year-old mom who hosted the party. She was charged with endangering the welfare of children. The Sheriff's Department made clear that her arrest was intended to send a message—that it will not tolerate enablers of underage drinking.
Nor will Missoula City Council. Earlier this week it adopted a "social host" ordinance, spearheaded by Dave Strohmaier, a councilman with a nanny streak (more on that on page 9). He sought mandatory jail time, among other things, for those responsible for unlawful drinking at parties.
Let us throw a twist of lemon into city council's harsh cocktail. Is it so bad, what Merritt did? The debate—which, by the way, likely isn't over, because council botched the voting process Monday night—evoked memories of our own experimental high school days. It was common to gather at a certain friend's house on weekend nights, give our car keys to his mom, and drink a whole lot of bad beer. Sometimes we overdid it. Sometimes we puked on the couch and, in our hungover haze, had to scrub the cushion and turn it over before our friend's parents noticed. But we never drove drunk, never found ourselves retreating to the woods with a bottle swiped from the liquor cabinet. We had the supervision of someone who recognized that it's better to learn your limits now than, say, at your first college kegger. Looking back, we're thankful she had that perspective.
We'll stop short of condoning what Merritt and our friend's mom did. We understand that underage drinking may only hasten alcoholism. But there's at least a modicum of value in, in Merritt's words, "only providing a safe place for the students to party." They're going to anyway.
Fortunately, city council appears to be pushing back Strohmaier's heavy hand. It lowered the "social host" ordinance's fine, applied it only to hosting minors 18 and under, and struck mandatory jail time. The changes seem to acknowledge that while Merritt was charged with endangering the welfare of children, she could have meant to do just the opposite.