Students and Alcohol Policy Group Debate Drinking Laws

By Judith Scherr
Friday February 23, 2007

There are laws on the books against underage drinking and loud parties, but they need more muscle, say advocates of two proposed ordinances that would crack down on adults who allow underage drinking and unruly parties on their premises. 

But students representing the Intra-Fraternity Council, the Associated Students of the University of California, the College Panhellenic Council and others say punishment is not the answer; in fact, it could discourage people from calling law enforcement when problems occur at private gatherings. Students can and do take responsibility through self-policing, they say. 

The City Council will hold a work session on the question on Feb. 27, 5 p.m., Old City Hall, 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. 

At issue are two draft city ordinances, both supported by BAPAC, the Berkeley Alcohol Policy Advocacy Coalition, Students for a Safer Southside and UC Berkeley officials. 

One is a “social host” ordinance, designed to target adults responsible for hosting a gathering where minors consume alcohol. The threat of a fine will cause them to better regulate their parties, according to Elizabeth Van Dyke, a non-student and coordinator for Students for a Safer Southside. The council approved the social host ordinance on the first reading at the City Council’s Jan. 30 meeting, but Mayor Tom Bates removed the second reading from the Feb. 13 agenda, something Councilmember Darryl Moore, who sponsored the ordinances, said was a surprise, unilateral move. 

The “second response” ordinance was passed in concept by the City Council Jan. 30, strengthening a law already in place. It targets the person responsible for hosting an unruly or loud gathering, causing the location to be posted with an official warning after the first citation by police. Subsequent citations over a period of 180 days would cause the party host to be fined at $750, for the second citation, $1,500 for the third and $2,500 for all subsequent citations. The proposed law increased the fines and levied them over the period of 180 days, rather than the current 60-day period.  

The ASUC and fraternity groups say the 180-day period is unfair, given the frequent moves that students make from one living situation to another. 

The social host ordinance would impose fines of $250 for the first offense and increase penalties for subsequent offenses each time police are called and find underage drinking on the premises.  

Citing the difficulty of determining who is hosting the party, Nikhil Bhagat, president of the UC Berkeley Intra-Fraternity Council said that his organization would prefer that the city not enact a social host ordinance at all. But as a compromise, the students are calling for the inclusion in the ordinance of the phrase “knowingly and willingly” to underscore that it is the intent of the social host to serve minors.  

But Lori Lott, secretary of BAPAC said adding these words to the ordinance would “make it unenforceable—you’d have to prove there was intention,” she said.  

In support of the ordinances, John Cummins, UC Berkeley associate chancellor, wrote in a Feb. 22 letter to the City Council: “Research shows that strong local ordinances, consistent enforcement, and clear community expectations are vital in lowering the incidents of binge and underage drinking and the host of social problems that accompany those behaviors.” 

Underscoring that UC Berkeley does not have a greater drinking problem than many other universities, the chancellor cites the results of a study by Dr. Robert Saltz of the Berkeley-based Prevention Research Center that says a November 2006 study shows that: 

• 30 percent of the time students said they “drank enough to be drunk,” when attending parties at off-campus houses or apartments (a higher rate than at Greek parties or at local bars and restaurants), and  

• when asked about problems encountered due to other students’ drinking 11 percent reported they were ‘insulted or humiliated,’ and 8 percent reported being ‘pushed hit or assaulted.’ 

“Given that there are over 23,000 undergraduates at Berkeley, even modest percentages translate to hundreds, if not thousands of students whose lives and academic work are being affected [by alcohol] just in one semester,” Saltz concludes. 

Those opposed to the ordinances do not dispute that drinking is a problem, but they argue it should be approached in a way that puts the onus on the students. “The truth is that it actually takes away the responsibility of the underage drinker and focuses on the ‘host’ of the party,” writes Raza Campus Facilitator Daniel Montes in a Daily Cal op-ed. 

Bhagat points to ways the Intra-fraternity Council has begun to take responsibility for monitoring gatherings. A group that has a social event must notify police, the fire department and neighbors and provide its own security for the event. Students bring their own alcohol—limited to beer and wine—to the event and identification is checked at the door. The fraternities provide monitors who go out and make sure parties are under control. If violations are found, violators go before a student judicial council.  

While much of the discussion has been around the UC Berkeley student population, BAPAC’s Lott points out that the ordinance also will help curb problems associated with alcohol in all areas of the city. 

The City Council is yet to discuss other efforts to reduce alcohol abuse put forward in a report by the city Health and Human Services Department.