Oregon bill seeks to curb underage drinking deaths

Oregon bill seeks to curb underage drinking deaths
Oregon Capitol (Steve Benham/KATU.com)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — An Oregon bill aimed at reducing underage drinking deaths moves a step closer to a vote Monday when a state House committee meets to work on the measure.

The law would provide limited amnesty for those younger than 21 who seek medical aid for themselves or others for drinking too much. It would give protection from an alcohol possession citation if the evidence came as a result of their seeking help.

Opponents say it would hamper efforts to combat underage drinking and could even encourage heavier drinking among teens.

Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, sponsored the bill. She said a minor-in-possession citation is about as serious as a speeding ticket, but that it seems like "a much bigger deal" to teens and young adults. She said fear of legal trouble for themselves or their friends can keep underage drinkers from seeking medical help that could prevent alcohol-related deaths.

Speaking on behalf of the Oregon Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Katy King told lawmakers at a House Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this week that alcohol poisoning can cause "loss of consciousness, low blood pressure and body temperature, coma, respiratory depression or death."

A North Dakota State University study in 2009 found that more than half of underage students surveyed had helped another student with alcohol poisoning symptoms but did not seek outside help. Of those who sought outside help, more than half went to a student or a parent. Only 7.5 percent went to a hospital or emergency room, and fewer than 2 percent sought help from the police.

Doherty's bill aims to encourage "kids to do the right thing" and call emergency medical services or law enforcement for timely medical help without fear of a citation stemming from that call, she said.

"The whole idea is to save lives," Doherty said.

The law is narrowly focused so that it only protects against the minor-in-possession citation, but not other offenses that could be related, such as drunken driving or providing alcohol to a minor. She said it is modeled on similar legislation passed in Washington last year.

David Amesbury, a Benton County deputy district attorney, said the Oregon District Attorneys Association was concerned that the bill would make it harder to attack the root problem by helping some heavy-drinking teens avoid the juvenile court system where they could be ordered into treatment programs. He said the organization also wanted some of the bill's language clarified, such as changing references to "alcohol poisoning," which is not defined in the bill.

Monday's work session will consider changes worked out in response to Amesbury's comments and could send the bill to the state House floor for a vote.

Similar laws have been enacted in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

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