Sobering up on teen drinking?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2005, 12:00am

It was 2am after graduation night, and Emily, 18, was barely conscious in the basement of a Vancouver home. She'd been drinking vodka coolers until collapsing. Half a dozen of her teenage friends were in various stages of inebriation after a night of binge drinking - beer, vodka, tequila. Three security guards were at the front of the house, making sure the party-goers didn't wander off into the night. A squad of sober adults - 'chaperones' - was on hand until 4am to drive them safely home at the party's end.

This scene was the culmination of a 'dry grad' evening I witnessed - a surreal urban spring ritual marking the end of secondary school for tens of thousands of Canadian teens. The dry part comes earlier in the evening, at the formal dinner with parents, where everyone is dressed in expensive ball gowns and tuxedos, where the drinks of choice are ginger ale and Coke. The adults don't even get a glass of wine, lest a few errant drops should spill onto young lips. Fathers dance with daughters; there are speeches, plates of chicken and beef, toasts to teachers, and plenty of nostalgia.

But shortly before midnight, it all changes. One by one, the stretch limousines arrive. Rented for hundreds of dollars, their job is to whisk the graduates away to the optional 'wet' part - parties at private homes. There, teenagers are free to drink what they want, in whatever quantities they can consume. Adults are nearby, but out of sight. In the party I saw, the evening became a messy bacchanal, with some teens competing over who could 'binge' the most.

Even though the province's legal drinking age is 19, police don't interfere. The parties are in private homes, and the teens are supervised. The minders say the worst thing that can happen is a hangover. The philosophy is a practical one: 'Teenagers will drink, whether we like it or not. Better they should do it under controlled conditions.'

Of course, it's not that simple. Because some would argue that the message of the dry grad is a negative and distinctly North American one: instead of teaching teens alcohol can be a normal part of a young person's social life - a glass of champagne at graduation, for example - the ritual suggests something more sinister. It says alcohol is OK, as long as you consume it furtively, after hours, in a closed group. If you throw up, or pass out, that's also okay. We will carry you home.

At one school in British Columbia last year, a local author donated 200 signed copies of her new book as a gift to the graduating class. The book was entitled Food and Drink in History. But the principal refused to distribute it to students, because the book contained recipes that called for cooking with wine. And that, he insisted, would be inappropriate in the new dry grad culture.