Pubdate: Sat, 02 Sep 2006
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: Front Page
Copyright: 2006 The New York Times Company
Author: Timothy Egan
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)
Bookmark: (Students - United States)


CODY, Wyo. -- Barely five people per square mile live on the high, 
wind-raked ground of Wyoming; the entire state is a small town with 
long streets, as they say. The open space means room to roam and a 
sense of frontier freedom.

It also means that on any given night, an unusually high percentage 
of young people here are drinking alcohol until they vomit, pass out 
or do something that lands them in jail or nearly gets them killed.

"Had a kid, drunk, flipped his car going 80 miles an hour, and that 
killed him; and another kid, drunk, smashed his boat up against the 
rock just a couple months ago, killing two; and then there was this 
beating after a kegger -- they clubbed this kid to death," said Scott 
Steward, the sheriff here in Park County, recounting casualties that 
followed long nights of hard drinking by high school students.

A federal government survey recently confirmed what residents of 
Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas already knew: people there drink to 
excess, at very early ages, well above the national average.

The survey, conducted over three years by the federal Substance Abuse 
and Mental Health Services Administration, said south-central Wyoming 
led the nation with the highest rate of alcohol abuse by people age 
12 and older. In Albany and Carbon counties, more than 30 percent of 
people under age 20 binge drink -- 50 percent above the national average.

In examining behavior in 340 regions of the country, the survey found 
that 7 of the top 10 areas for under-age binge drinking -- defined as 
five or more drinks at a time -- were in Wyoming, Montana and North 
and South Dakota.

At the other end of the scale, some of the lowest areas for under-age 
binge drinking were in the nation's most densely packed cities -- 
parts of Washington, D.C., Detroit and Los Angeles. An earlier 
federal study found that rural youths ages 12 and 13 were twice as 
likely as urban youths to abuse alcohol.

With methamphetamine ravaging small towns, Wyoming and other rural 
states have also been fighting a persistent drug problem.

And while it may be a mystery to some why the least-populated part of 
the country leads the nation in the percentage of young people 
drinking to excess, it is no surprise to many people in Wyoming or 
Montana. Teenagers, police officers and counselors offer the same 
reason: the boredom of the big empty.

"After living in the city, it's obvious to me that kids just get 
bored here," said Karen Grimm, who moved here from Seattle 10 years 
ago. "There is this feeling of isolation, especially in the wintertime."

Ms. Grimm's daughter, Risa, a freshman at Cody High School, estimated 
that about half the students at her school regularly drank alcohol.

Friday nights in Cody can mean football and a movie, but after 11 
o'clock, with nothing else to do, teenagers say they head to 
somebody's ranch or into the mountains toward Yellowstone National 
Park to drink.

"I think so many kids drink because the state is barren, desolate and 
boring to some people, and there is not really anything to do," said 
Isaiah Spigner, a recent high school graduate from Cheyenne who is 
headed for the University of Wyoming.

But geography alone does not fully explain why there is such a 
drinking problem among young people.

"We're a frontier culture, and people say, 'I work hard and I'll be 
damned if I'm not going to have a beer or two on the way home,' " 
said Rosie Buzzas, a Montana state legislator who also oversees 
alcohol counseling services in the western part of the state. 
"There's a church, a school, and 10 bars in every town."

It has never been hard for young people to get alcohol in Montana, 
Ms. Buzzas said, in part because many parents think it is a rite of 
passage for children to drink.

"There are plenty of adults who tell me, 'What's the big deal? Kids 
just have to learn to drink,' " she said. Not long ago, three 
children, ages 9, 11 and 12, died of alcohol poisoning in an isolated 
town in Montana, but the deaths did little to change attitudes, she said.

"Something like that has a sobering effect, but it doesn't last," Ms. 
Buzzas said. "Kids aren't listening to what we say; they're watching 
what we do."

This year, Montana made it an offense to drink while driving, one of 
the last states to do so. But there was heavy opposition.

Wyoming still allows passengers in a vehicle to drink, as long as the 
driver is not holding the container. A bill that would have made that 
illegal was defeated. A minor in possession of alcohol can be fined, 
but will typically not lose a driver's license for a first offense.

At the nightly rodeo in Cody, beer signs are ubiquitous, and on the 
town's main commercial strip, a giant beer banner welcomes tourists.

Some say a legacy of forcing children to grow up early in the empty 
West may contribute to the problem. From 1854 to 1929, about 200,000 
orphan children arrived by train from the East and were offered to 
families for adoption. The orphan trains, as they were called, left a 
psychic print, some counselors and historians say.

"The idea that life is harsh and you learn it at an early age is part 
of our history," said Ralph Boerner, who counsels alcoholics of all 
ages in Butte, Mont.

"I asked everyone in my group the other night when they started 
drinking," Mr. Boerner said. "The latest was 15. The earliest was age 5."

Binge drinking, he said, is a way for young people to prove 
themselves in the West.

"You get validation by saying, 'Boy, did I get hammered,' " Mr. Boerner said.

Here in Park County, where the sheriff has four deputies to patrol an 
area much larger than Connecticut, parents can be as much a problem 
as their children, Sheriff Steward said.

"We'll bust a party where every kid is drinking, call the parents, 
and they're mad at us for getting them out of bed," he said.

The recent surveys show that girls, starting in middle school, are 
much more likely to drink than earlier studies found. In part, some 
say, that is because of flavored drinks that hide the taste of 
alcohol, so-called alcopops.

"People who want to get wasted but don't like the taste of beer, 
they're drinking something like Mike's Hard Lemonade," said Sienna 
White, a sophomore at Cody High School who says she does not drink.

Sienna estimated that half the students at her school drank. "Living 
in a cowboy town," she said, "it's really hard to find a party 
without drinking."

But Sienna and other students are part of a program at the school 
where students pledge not to drink or take drugs. The program has had 
a fair amount of success drawing athletes and cheerleaders, offering 
positive role models, school officials say.

Sheriff Steward, however, is skeptical. Like other adults who now 
preach against what they once practiced, the sheriff remembers his 
own high school days of beer.

"Obviously we've all been there," said Sheriff Steward, who went to 
Cody High School 20 years ago, and said 60 to 65 percent of his 
fellow students drank. "The problem, then and now, was that there was 
nothing to do in Cody after a certain time." 
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