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Column: Things sure have changed — for the better

I was 16 years old the first time I consumed alcohol in the presence of an adult. Around that same time, I began asking strangers outside the King Kullen in Wading River to purchase beer for me. I can’t recall a single time I went home empty-handed.

That was 1995 and, boy, have things changed since then.

The social host law, first approved in 2007, makes it illegal for anyone over age 18 who owns or rents a home to “knowingly allow the consumption of alcohol or alcoholic beverages by any minor” on the premises.

The law also punishes any homeowner or tenant who fails to take corrective action after learning that alcohol is being consumed by minors there.

A bill approved last year strengthened the law by raising the penalty from a violation to a misdemeanor, enabling law enforcement to make an arrest based on eyewitness statements.

The law has been in the news the past two months due to a pair of arrests in Southold Town involving minors who were allegedly consuming alcohol at large house parties. In each instance, an adult was charged with violating the social host law.

Thinking back to my own youth, I’d venture to guess about half of my close friends’ parents could have been charged with such a crime during my high school and college years. While most of our house parties were held when parents were away, it wasn’t uncommon for us to drink beer in smaller groups out on the back deck or in the basement of someone’s home while their folks watched TV inside. On occasion, parents might even join us.

While I’m sure they’ll cringe at the thought of me mentioning this in the hometown paper, my own parents were certainly guilty of turning a blind eye to occasional underage drinking. The rationale, if I can speak for them, was that they’d rather we drink at home than drink elsewhere and get into a car.

While I can see the logic in that mentality, parents who think that way today are risking a lot.

There’s a part of me, however, that also feels a crackdown on underage alcohol sales has contributed to the spread of opioid abuse among teens. We touched upon that in an editorial published in this newspaper last July.

“While it’s difficult to imagine anyone arguing that a social host law is anything but well-intentioned, it should be noted that in the decade since the county has begun cracking down on the service and sale of alcohol to minors, the use of opioids among teens and young adults has been on the rise,” we wrote. “As alcohol has become harder for underage consumers to get their hands on, prescription pills and heroin have become easier to obtain.”

Well over 6 feet tall by my 16th birthday, I was often the friend who would buy alcohol or approach adults for help buying it. Some of our friends would wait behind the store, while I’d seek out someone who looked like they might not mind buying beer for a bunch of teens — most of the time it would be a young man in his early 20s. We’d usually buy 12-packs of Meisterbrau in those early years, as we were less concerned with rich flavor and more focused on the $3.99 price tag.

“Hey man, I left my ID at home,” I’d say. “I actually just turned 21, but the guy at the register doesn’t believe me. Would you mind picking it up for me?”

Most of the time people would say no, but we’d wait it out until we hit pay dirt. When rejected, we’d complain.

“What? Did this guy not drink when he was a teen?” I’d say. “When I’m 21, I’ll buy for any kid that asks me.”

Then I turned 21 and started telling every underage kid to back off. I can proudly say, I’ve never purchased alcohol for a minor.

When my own children — an infant and a toddler today — get to high school, I will gladly buy them plenty of 12-packs. Every one of them will say “seltzer” on the packaging.

And if I see their friends consuming alcohol in my presence it won’t take a neighbor calling the police to put an end to it. I’ll dial the number myself.

It just doesn’t matter how we grew up or the logic we used back in the day. There’s simply no excuse for anyone to allow underage teens to drink in their homes today. The ignorance ship set sail a long time ago.

I’m sure the teenage version of me would be disappointed in all this, but that guy didn’t know what he was talking about anyway.

The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected]