Booze In Mendo: Menace Or Cash Cow?
by Mark Scaramella, July 3, 2013
Marlon Cryer, whose wife directs the county's Department of Health and Human Services, was arrested last year for drunk driving. He was wearing this shirt at the time.
Cash cow, of course. And a sacred one, too.
The Board of Supervisors was not kindly disposed to Meredyth Reinhard’s presentation on Tuesday, June 18. An austere-looking woman whose spiel made her doubly reminiscent of Carrie Nation, Miss Reinhard, of the County's Public Health Department, spent about half an hour reading a powerpoint presentation aimed at informing Mendo’s booze-friendly leadership that there’s lots of drinking going on, much of it “excessive.” We also know that we have lots of places to buy liquor not including the many roadside wine boutiques, and we know that many underage people drink heavily.
According to Ms. Reinhard confirming statistics:
In 2010 there were 793 arrests for Driving Under the Influence (DUI) in Mendocino County.
In 2010 there were 46 arrests for underage drinking in Mendocino County.
Mendocino County has been consistently among the state's leaders over the past five years in collisions resulting in injuries or fatalities that are alcohol-related.
And, Mendocino County has had alarmingly higher rates of aggravated assaults linked to alcohol consumption given its population of less than a hundred thousand people.
“The evidence shows,” she said, “that a high density of alcohol outlets corresponds with a proportional increase in alcohol related violence, underage drinking, and driving after drinking. The number of alcohol outlets in Mendocino County per capita is over twice the average in the State of California.”
Ms. Reinhard suggested conditional use permits to regulate the number, location and “operational practices” of new alcohol outlets and to provide “responsible beverage service training” to bartenders, clerks and tasting rooms.
But associating the County’s drinking problem with the number of booze outlets in the County is a non-starter in a wine-dependent economy like Mendocino County's and, sure enough, Ms. Reinhard’s neo-temperance pitch prompted some ill-tempered griping from not just the Board of Supervisors, but Sheriff Allman too.
Allman wasted no time launching a perp-like interrogation.
“How much money were you provided for this survey?”
Reinhard: “The seed money that we received back in 2010 was $5,000. The money that has kept this project going for sustainability comes from the federal level down to the states. It's substance abuse prevention funding.”
Allman: “I'm sorry I didn't get my question answered.”
Reinhard, who seems to possess a rather daring sense of humor, responded as if talking to a child, emphasizing each word.
“Substance … abuse … prevention … funding.”
Allman: “So, that's…?”
Board Chair Dan Hamburg: “Mr. Sheriff, would you mind directing your comments to the Chair?”
Allman: “I'm sorry. I certainly have respect for Public Health. I certainly have respect for their employees. I certainly appreciate a good working relationship on many projects. However, this is not one. This isn't a project where law enforcement was contacted for our statistics or the number of enforcement actions we take. The number of arrests we make. We did have a meeting after the report was prepared. With all due respect to Public Health, and I apologize if I am offending anybody, but I am disappointed by this presentation....."
Allman went on to point out the statistical anomalies implicit in comparing vast Mendo with other rural counties, especially given Mendo's vast geography.
Then it was the Board’s turn to jump on Ms. Reinhard.
Supervisor John Pinches, apparently speaking from direct experience, “Your report here shows Trinity County has the highest density of alcohol outlets. You can drive in Trinity County for over two hours and not find a place to buy a sixpack of beer. So that's very skewed.”
The normally unflappable Supervisor Carre Brown seemed upset too.
“I personally would like to caution County staff about the release of such a survey prior to a presentation before this body. To me it shows a lack of respect for us and a lack of courtesy. My first indication of the results came in newspaper articles back in April [when the Public Health department first issued their press release on the outlet density study]. I had not read them yet. I didn't even know they were there until my telephone started ringing. People were very upset and not very happy about how that came out, how it was presented.”
Supervisor Brown's calls undoubtedly came from the County's wine lobby. It leaps into full alert at the slightest hint of regulating the roadside wine bars called tasting rooms which, of course, are magically considered “agriculture,” Ms. Brown's primary constituency.
Ms. Brown went on at length about how far you have to drive in Potter Valley find a commercial drink, concluding, “I think that the influence you have is best done by education — educate not regulate.”
Ukiah Emergency Room doctor and former County Public Health officer, Dr. Marvin Trotter, felt compelled to offer a few disjointed, wholly irrelevant but entertainingly grisly anecdotes about treating alcoholics.
“You can smell them before you go into the room,” said Trotter. “People vomiting blood and defecating blood have a very distinct odor. Fortunately I don't have a very good sense of smell. (O thank the goddesses for that, doctor.) When you have cirrhosis, you develop large varicose veins at the bottom of your esophagus next to your stomach that is under pressure. When they break open it's a lot of trouble. Our surgeons have a difficult time clipping them with small metal staples trying to stop the bleeding. I find it very hard to get a stomach pump tube down someone's throat when they are vomiting blood.”
Trotter, by now waist deep in gore, rattled on into a vague tale about a drop-fall Hopland drunk.
“It was raining very hard New Year's Eve. The ambulance could not get to the house directly because some of the roads were flooded in Hopland where she lived. When she finally arrived at the emergency room she no longer had a pulse and had flat lined. I stopped the code at that time. The gunshot wound to her left chest was small as were her two children. He said it was an accident while celebrating New Year's Eve. We call them pumpkins. The men look especially strange as if they were 10 months pregnant, orange with small breasts. At times you have to clean the skin very well between your right rib margin and your hip bone because any bacteria in the abdomen with all the fluids causes a fatal peritonitis. You numb the skin and then poke a hole through with a large needle about the size of a pencil and then hook that up to a vacuum bottle. I stop at ten bottles because I don't want to cause shock.”
The supervisors seemed nonplussed at these macabre revelations, not that the doctor seemed to notice the effect his remarks were having.
“Every shift I work in the emergency department has to do with alcohol. Alcohol, alcohol, alcohol. I rarely see problems with marijuana, cocaine or heroin. Methamphetamines, yes. Opiates, yes. They are all dwarfed by alcohol. I just came from a meeting of 17 physicians and nurse practitioners who ask you not to approve any more outlets. And talking to the charge nurse, he said today, More outlets? That's ridiculous. Why don't you make it cheaper also?”
Ms. Reinhard’s boss, Linda Helland, Prevention Supervisor, replying to Pinches and the Sheriff, said, “Nobody has said the word prohibition. What we are focusing on is excessive drinking, not moderate drinking. I want that to remain clear. I want to thank the Sheriff for all that he's done. His office has done a lot of great work on enforcing alcohol laws and we have worked together in several instances and the Sheriff has gotten grants to conduct compliance and I really laud those efforts.
"I'm sure Sheriff Allman will recall that we presented the initial findings from this report to the chiefs meeting in June of 2011 and did invite collaboration and participation at that time. So I hope that we can continue to work together. The sheriff's office and obviously other law enforcement does fabulous jobs at stopping and solving crime. But this is about going ahead of the game and stopping it before it starts. Regarding the statistics, they are not just based on Mendocino County. They are based on 20 similar counties, so it's not just looking at the arrest rates in Mendocino County, but it doing a correlation with alcoholic density and arrest rates and commissions for those areas across these 20 counties…"
Ms. Helland continued with her version of the stats, by which time it was long past obvious what little that could be done was being done to get our amok citizens to show some restraint. Anyway, berserk drinking and drugging is, at this point in our darkening history, an existential question having more to do with, “Why are so many people so unhappy that they drink and drug themselves into medical stupors?”
Supervisor Dan Gjerde had an idea based on his experience in Fort Bragg, at one time home to more bars per capital than any town in America and, in 1969, featured in an alarmed Life magazine story called, “A Town in Trouble” about the frightening preponderance of hard drug users at Fort Bragg High School.
“This is not about wineries, it's not about restaurants. This is about basically liquor stores. The concentration of those, not just in the rural areas but the concentration of them in the cities and the urbanized areas as well. This is an issue that involves both the county and cities in Mendocino County. I hope that this presentation goes to the cities besides going to the Board of Supervisors. A number of alcohol products that are marketed these days are geared towards children. They are not really marketed towards adults. So, why, knowing that, would we permit the sale of those types of alcohol to the children of Mendocino County? Clearly their intent is to get kids hooked on alcohol so they can make them into alcoholics as they grow into adulthood. It's pretty obvious that's what they're doing. We could simply just prohibit the sale of those types of products in Mendocino County. That seems like a simple issue that we could tackle. … I know for a fact that Harvest Market on the coast limited the sale of certain types of alcohol products because they knew it was causing a problem with transients and others who were causing problems in their town and their neighborhoods. I think we need to bring in some of the retailers into the discussion as well to see if they have some suggestions. Why should one retailer do the right thing knowing that their competitor across the street is selling a product that they just stopped selling and causing the problems in their neighborhoods?”
Supervisor John McCowen agreed there was a problem, but that the way to deal with it is not by restricting outlets but — wait for it… — more meetings! “What's undeniable is that we do have many people in our community who have an alcohol problem. We have a real problem with probably overexposure to youth of alcohol which by the statistics Mendocino County has significantly more alcohol use by young people, significantly more binge drinking that puts youth at risk for sexual assault, accidental death, a whole list of negative consequences. Mendocino County does seem to have a significantly elevated record of arrests for aggravated assault. I'm sure that a lot of that is alcohol related. So I do appreciate highlighting the issue. I second Supervisor Gjerde’s thoughts on having a collaborative process. I certainly heard the Sheriff say that he was interested in that as well. This is a community problem that does deserve serious attention.”
Supervisor Pinches said the Public Health Department should spend more time in grammar schools and less time worrying about booze outlets.
“Why isn't our Health Department putting more programs in our schools? I think we are really shy. That's something I have been advocating for years, more drug and alcohol programs in our grammar schools, not our high schools. I think we are real shy of that. I have requested that for years and there seems to be a reluctance. Why is there such a reluctance to let’s go after the problem? We know the only way it's going to be solved is through education. Education is what ultimately solves all of our problems, or at least works on them. So why is our Health Department so reluctant to put more of their budget into going after the group of people — when you get to be my age if you'd like to drink booze and whatnot it's a little bit too late. I don't think you're going to change my habits. But maybe we can affect to a better degree our kids in the grammar schools because frankly they are not really learning from their parents because of the statistics of a lot of people drinking. So we have to start young. Let's go upstream. I would encourage public health — this is budget time. Why don't we divert some of those dollars into studies and whatnot into something that's going to have an effect? That would be some drug and alcohol programs in our grammar schools.”
Linda Helland: “Number one, we would love more resources to go into the schools. That would be fantastic. We would really love that.”
Pinches: “I'm not talking about more resources, I'm talking about converting some of your existing millions of dollars you have into drug programs and so forth.”
Helland: “We are not treatment, we are prevention. So we have about $200,000 a year. With that, we do send about two and a half to three full-time people into the schools. We do have people in the schools. It's woefully inadequate indeed. I wish we had more. But we also need to look at the full spectrum of evidence-based best practices. As I said at the beginning studies have shown that the most cost effective strategies are pairing education with the enforcement — we call them environmental strategies which do involve reducing access. That has been found to be most effective.”
Pinches: “I'd like to have my question answered.”
Stacy Cryer, Director of Health and Human Services (whose husband, Marlon, was famously arrested last year for drunk driving while wearing a sweatshirt that read “Get me drunk and enjoy the show”) came to Ms. Helland’s assistance.
Cryer: “One of the problems, one of the biggest problems with funding that comes into Public Health, is that it is very siloed [sic], and you have to use it for a specific thing. So if we get a grant to collect specific data then that's what the money is for, to collect the data, nothing else. We have very little discretionary dollars that come in to the substance abuse program on the prevention side. We do use those dollars — at your request actually three or four years ago we started doing some private programs in the elementary primary level education program in schools and we have replicated that in a couple other schools and I think we are in a couple schools now, or three or four.”
Pinches: “How many elementary schools do you have in this county?”
Cryer: “I totally agree. You have to remember we used to get in the substance abuse program, we got about $700,000 worth of general fund five years ago. Today we get zero. The money going into substance abuse, although it's the primary problem causing a lot of federal dollars and statewide dollars across the state, there is not much funding coming into the problem. It's similar to mental health in that way. There's not a lot of funding that comes into substance abuse. We don't have very many discretionary dollars. Although we agree with you wholeheartedly on what could solve the problem, we don't have the money to put into every school. We do what we can. That's just a reality. I'm sorry for that. … You don't really do substance-abuse education at the primary level but you can do things like a esteem building and things like that.”
Pinches: “Why don't you do substance abuse?”
Cryer: “It's not found to be very effective to be quite honest with you.”
Pinches: “Well, I disagree with that.”
Cryer: “You go to third grade and under, you have to get to the root of the problem that begins to build all of that.”
Pinches: “I don't want to argue the point, but I disagree with that finding. … We have some real problems and it's showing up here. But I think attacking the amount of outlets we have is the wrong direction.”
Supervisor Dan Hamburg said sarcastically, “I think we are doing a great job of educating our kids that alcohol is wonderful. Turn on your television set, drive down the highway, it's all about drink, drink, drink. I totally agree with Supervisor Gjerde about these — it's like the tobacco industry. It's the same thing. Create addicts. And then you’ll take the money to the bank for decades to come. We are doing the same thing with alcohol that we use to do with tobacco. I enjoy wine and beer. I'm not a teetotaler by any means. I realize how important alcohol is to this County's economy. I do doubt whether the issue of outlet density is nearly as important as the culture. It's a drinking culture. That's not just Mendocino County with all our wineries. We are that a little more than some counties. Drive up Highway 101. What does the sign say? The first thing it says is wine! Well —duh! That's a big part of our economy and it's supported and our kids, as soon as they can read, they know. Or as soon as they can turn on the TV, they know. Watch a football game or a baseball game. It's not, Open your Bud. It's grab some Buds. When you sit down to watch a ballgame. It's not enough to have a beer. You have to grab some Buds. So the whole thing, trying to get a handle on this with the power of the corporate advertising machine is almost impossible in my view. I'm sorry to say that.”
No mention of pot addiction from Supervisor Stoner Dude, and pot is the substance that probably screws up more kids forever than alcohol, especially in Mendocino County.
Supervisor Hamburg wrapped up with some pure blah-blah.
“I would like to see more interdepartmental communication before these presentations come about because I don't think any of the board members like sitting up here and hearing departments argue with each other about whether an issue is important or not. So I just want to mention that.”
The Mendocino County economy is pegged to dope, booze, public employment, and lib-labs getting paid to sit around talking about all three. If dope is legalized and twenty dollar bottles of wine become unaffordable, Mendo will be down to lib-labs getting paid to delude each other.