AUBURN – Too often, teenagers treat underage drinking as if it’s a sign of growing up.

“Our biggest challenge within the community is to change the perception that underage drinking is some sort of rite of passage,” said Officer Robert Ullrich, the new alcohol investigator for Androscoggin County.

Attacking that perception, cracking down on teens who drink and adults who supply alcohol, will be the biggest part of his job.

“That’s going to a big challenge, and we’ll need to work very hard with community leaders to change that,” Ullrich said Thursday.

He introduced an anti-underage drinking program alongside police chiefs from Lewiston and Auburn, Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins and officials from Healthy Androscoggin.

Ullrich, a Lewiston officer, will lead details and programs aimed at cutting back on underage consumption of alcohol throughout the county.

Police have been planning the cooperative effort since February, but it’s been coming since 2003, when the state closed the Liquor Enforcement Bureau. Overnight, state officials stopped meeting with bar owners and managers concerning liquor laws, especially those concerning underage drinking.

“That burden was put on the municipalities because someone had to pick it up, but no funding shifted,” Ullrich said. That meant there was little cities and towns could do.

Bars have really gone unchecked for four years, Ullrich said. “There was nobody going out at night and checking unless the local police were doing a special detail.”

His job fills the state’s old role.

“Now I’m the contact person for all bars or licensees in Androscoggin County, if they have questions about the rules or enforcement,” he said.

Pushing back

Underage drinking is the main target, said Healthy Androscoggin’s Christine Letcher.

Excessive alcohol was blamed for the death of 18-year-old Adam Beggs in an Auburn apartment last month. Another man, 23-year-old Larando Sweeting, of Lewiston, was charged with furnishing the alcohol to Beggs. And in Greene, police are investigating the alcohol poisoning of a 17-year-old last week. That teen reportedly passed out after drinking a fifth of whiskey.

A 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of four western states performed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control showed hard liquors, such as whiskey, were the most popular drinks among high school binge drinkers. Liquor companies appear to target young drinkers with sweet, fruity malt drinks or “alcopops,” Letcher said.

With Ullrich’s help, police can push back.

“When youth expect there is going to be more enforcement, they think twice about drinking,” Letcher said.

Ullrich agreed. Enforcement will be a big part of the effort. He’ll lead details aimed at convenience store parking lots, where police will watch for adults buying alcohol for teens. He’ll work with minor volunteers who will attempt to buy alcohol from local establishments. And he’ll work with local police agencies to create party patrols of officers looking for celebrations featuring underage drinking.

Ullrich’s position is being paid for through a Healthy Androscoggin grant secured through the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Sheriff’s Department, and Lewiston, Auburn and Lisbon police will share other costs, including fuel for Ullrich’s vehicle.

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