Washington recently became the 13th state to enact an alcohol-amnesty bill that allows minors to call 911 for medical emergencies without being charged or prosecuted for minor-in-possession.A few legislators expressed concern about this measure because, as state Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick was quoted in a Seattle Times story: "Minor consumption of alcohol is illegal. Now we're going to excuse it and give them a license to do this? I'm not understanding why we would do that."
Klippert's opposition is understandable, but we refer him to the last sentence in the report for House Bill 1404: "Preserving life trumps an MIP charge."
Another rational explanation comes from bill sponsor state Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds: "We want young people to know that, when they call 911, the only thing that's going to come is help. Not trouble."
We agree. The first priority in a medical emergency is saving lives and preventing further injuries. If removing the fear of criminal prosecution will allow more 911 calls to be made — and there's ample reason to believe that will be the case — then that's a good thing.
Legislators, for the most part, agreed and showed strong bipartisan support for the alcohol-amnesty bill. It passed 72-24 in the House, where Republicans Paul Harris and Brandon Vick were the only "no" votes from the three main legislative districts serving Clark County. And it passed 44-3 in the Senate, with all three local state senators voting in favor of the measure.
To be sure, under-age drinking is a severe problem, nationally and in Washington. About 50,000 people in the United States suffer from alcohol poisonings each year, and many of those cases are college students. The Seattle Times story reported statistics from the Drug Abuse Warning Network: More than 2,100 underage drinkers in Washington state were hospitalized in 2010.
Other, more recent factors exacerbate this problem. Privatization of alcohol sales and distribution in Washington have made liquor more available. And at one point during the recent legislative session, at least eight bills were presented seeking to expand alcohol sales to such venues as farmers markets, wedding boutiques, theaters, day spas and senior centers.
If Washingtonians are going to grant alcohol a broader presence in our everyday lives, then it only makes good sense to simultaneously empower young people to fully handle medical emergencies related to alcohol. That's what the alcohol-amnesty bill does. It's why Gov. Jay Inslee signed the measure last week. It's why six other states are considering or advancing similar measures. And it's why HB 1404 drew compelling support from such groups as the state Liquor Control Board, the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention, and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. It's also noteworthy that the measure drew no opposing testimony at a House hearing.
A medical emergency is no time to be debating whether or not legal problems will unfold. The 911 caller must feel free to seek help.