Clayton County has new social host ordinance

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Clayton County has a new social host ordinance that proponents hope will further deter adults from allowing underage alcohol and drug use at social gatherings.

The measure, approved by the Clayton County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 6, builds on a state law that’s been enacted since 2014.

“The state law applies to youth under the age of 18 and is alcohol-specific,” explained Merry French, program director of Substance Abuse Services of Clayton County (SASCC). The county ordinance expanded that to include “anyone under the age of 21 and also includes controlled substances.”

The ordinance aims to prohibit the consumption of alcoholic beverages and/or controlled substances by people under the legal age of 21 at gatherings where the adult who owns or controls the property knowingly permits the behavior.

A “social host” is anyone who aids, allows, entertains, organizes, supervises, controls or permits an event, gathering or party. This includes people who own, rent, lease or are generally in charge of a premises where the party takes place.

French said SASCC began pushing for a local social host law in 2011. Even after the state legislation passed, the organization advocated for an ordinance that was more detailed and county-specific. The move is not uncommon. Dozens of other Iowa municipalities and counties—including neighboring Dubuque, Delaware and Allamakee counties—have their own local laws.

“We know youth are not only using alcohol,” French said. “There’s been more vaping of marijuana recently, and opioids are also huge. We want to hold people accountable for allowing alcohol use and controlled substances.”

The MFL MarMac group Students Opposed to Drugs and Alcohol (SODA) has worked hard to inform both students and parents of social host laws. 

“A lot of parents don’t realize they can get in a lot of trouble for providing alcohol,” said member Riley Moreland.

Unfortunately, said French, some parents don’t care.

“Some think of it as a right of passage,” she quipped.

SODA President Brittney Kober agreed.

“A lot of the times, parents don’t care what kids are doing because they did it when they were younger,” she stated.

SODA members said it’s not always parents, though, who provide underage youth with alcohol and controlled substances. It’s also younger adults.

“Most teenagers have friends who are 21 or older,” said Mya Nelson. 

With the federal minimum age to buy tobacco and popular vaping products upped to 21, Moreland said it will only get worse.

“You’re not hitting up an 18 year old for a JUUL, but now you’re hitting up a 21 year old who can provide you with alcohol and nicotine,” she said. “It puts you in a worse situation. You have younger kids partying with older kids, and that can be not good. It probably will start happening more.”

The Clayton County ordinance establishes penalties for people who have reason to know about or allow underage drinking or drug use. The first offense is a $500 civil penalty. Second and successive offenses increase to $750. Social hosts can also be ordered to pay the costs of emergency service response to the party.

“That allows for reimbursement to law enforcement or EMS if there was damage done or a controlled substance that required extra personnel to be utilized,” French explained.

Primary enforcement will be by the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department, but that is not exclusive. The ordinance will apply throughout Clayton County unless a municipality has enacted its own similar ordinance.

French said some adults fear they will be targeted by the new ordinance. That’s why, when crafting the details, SASCC felt it was important to include an affirmative defense if certain actions have been taken to prevent underage alcohol use on the individual’s property. That includes controlling underage access to alcohol and supervising parties. Property owners are also asked to notify law enforcement of underage possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages and/or controlled substances and allow law enforcement to enter the premises for the purpose of stopping the activities.

The ordinance’s primary role, added French, is to serve as a preventative tool.

“We want adults to be clear about the effects of their decisions, to know this is not acceptable,” she said. “You could be putting youth at risk and yourself.”

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