No tab on Aspen partying
On Friday night in the Pitkin County communications center, two dispatchers each sit in front of six computer monitors, keeping track of police officers going about their nightly routines.
Although it’s a relatively quiet night in the dim room behind the Pitkin County Courthouse, some of the radio traffic they’re listening to comes out of Snowmass Village. The Chili Pepper and Brew Fest’s first night has wound down, but plenty of people who spent the afternoon and evening guzzling beer are becoming mobile.
The event’s organizers publicized the free buses that are available for festival-goers, but being realistic, Snowmass police still has one officer assigned to simply drive around that night on the prowl for suspected drunken drivers. At 11:59 p.m. he pulls over one person and makes an arrest for drinking and driving, and at 1:50 a.m. he assists another police officer with a second DUI arrest.
But not everyone who encounters the police is behind the wheel. One man, belligerent at a nightclub, is asked to leave by bartenders who then call the cops. Although the suspect has wised up enough to speak clearly to a police officer, after repeated questioning he suggests the cop just take him to jail. The man is arrested for disorderly conduct and brought to the Pitkin County Jail, where his attitude reappears, and he insults a jail deputy.
A Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus driver driving toward Aspen also calls in some tipsy passengers who were acting rowdy, yelling racial slurs and who left the bus from its emergency exits when the driver pulled over. Pitkin County deputies attempt to find the 10 or so intoxicated passengers near the North 40 subdivision and Colorado Mountain College. Unsuccessful, the deputies comment that these revelers will hopefully head home rather than into Aspen to continue their drinking.
Police put extra officers on the streets for notoriously big holidays in the valley like Halloween or St. Patrick’s Day, when they know more people will be celebrating with alcohol and drugs. But the dispatchers, who listen to it all, say it doesn’t take a holiday or a weekend for things to get busy.
“It can be busy any night of the week, all the time,” a dispatcher says. “They don’t just party on the weekends here.”
Busy nights because of special events are one thing, but there is another side to the partying in Pitkin County ” the cost to taxpayers to handle not only the occasional DUI, but also the abusers who end up in jail, in treatment centers or become familiar to dispatchers as “frequent fliers.”
It’s not exactly easy to put a dollar figure on how Pitkin County is affected by substance abuse each year. The full scope of money spent handling these problems extends into many segments of the community, from law enforcement and criminal justice to medical costs, treatment and incarceration.
And while rudimentary numbers can be conjured up for some of these impacts, experts consider costs like the impact of an employee’s substance abuse on a company’s performance incalculable.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the effects of alcohol and drugs costs the United States at least $375 billion each year. It’s a conservative figure, given factors like lost company earnings that can’t be tallied.
In Aspen, a similar study was performed at the Aspen Counseling Center in 2003. The center’s director, Jeff Kremer, said a professional evaluator looked at the cost-effectiveness of the center’s intensive chemical dependency outpatient program during that year.
The evaluator put some local numbers into a database and did research using the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, a federal agency, and determined that alcohol abuse costs Pitkin County $3,790,000 each year.
Kremer’s head is full of data collected over the past several years, including a study in 2000 that identified a geographic triangle in the state between Aspen, Vail and Grand Junction as most affected by substance abuse. More recently, the Colorado Department of Health and Human Services identified Colorado as first in cocaine use among the 50 states, fourth in illicit drug use, 10th in binge drinking and eighth in marijuana use.
At Aspen Valley Hospital in 2000, 586 emergency room admissions were for direct treatment of alcohol or drug use, he said, not including complications as a result of use. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that law enforcement’s No. 1 cause of arrest is related to alcohol and drugs, he said.
But parceling up the economic impacts for a solid look at what the community spends on substance abuse each year hasn’t been done.
“What we’re suggesting is that there’s a cost to the community in terms of substance abuse,” Kremer said. “But we’re better right now at identifying the degree of abuse versus all of the impacts.”
Aspen City Councilman J.E. DeVilbiss spent 26 years as Pitkin County’s district court judge for the 9th Judicial District, with a front row seat to people who devastated their lives with alcohol and/or drugs and wound up in criminal court. He estimates that significantly more than 50 percent of the people coming through his courtroom were substance abusers.
“My endeavor was to get people to see their situation realistically, and to weigh what it was that got them there, and weigh their drug and/or alcohol use or habit against the inconvenience it had caused,” he said.
DeVilbiss himself has been sober since July 5, 1981. Hitting rock bottom with his drinking made him acknowledge he had a problem with alcohol, and saved his life, he said. As a result, he spent much of his time on the bench encouraging people to be honest about their drug or alcohol problems.
Although there are other ways of coming to terms with substance abuse problems, like getting help within the Roaring Fork Valley’s strong recovering community, DeVilbiss said sometimes the costly court process is the only way people come to terms with their problems. And besides costing a lot of money, alcohol or drug addiction causes heartbreak, premature death, broken marriages and broken lives.
“Short of evangelism, I’ll do anything I can to save someone from a life of alcohol,” DeVilbiss said. “It’s a terrible fate, and drug addiction is the same.”
Pitkin County Jail Administrator Don Bird has worked at the jail for 20 years, and he said easily 80 percent of the people in custody at any time have some sort of substance abuse related to their charge.
“Substance abuse is definitely linked to the kind of behavior that lands people in jail,” he said. “We make this joke all the time ” if it wasn’t for drugs and alcohol, we’d be out of work.”
On average, going through the criminal court systems for a felony takes about three months, Bird said. And the cost of sheltering someone in the jail, according to his annual budget, is about $120 per day. But he agrees that the cost to the community isn’t easy to determine.
“When you see a car wreck, or someone coming in for the third time because they can’t [handle their addiction], or you go to a funeral [of someone with a long history of substance abuse], you see that cost,” he said. “It’s sad the way people waste their lives, and it’s sad to see the ripple effect it has on their family and children. But it’s hard to put that in terms of the cost of partying.”
Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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