When it comes to underage consumption of drugs and alcohol, Monroe County has some of the highest statistics in the state.
As the 2012 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey makes clear, Monroe youth are near the top of the heap in nearly every category and in use of all types of drugs.
Help is on the way, however, local nonprofit leaders say.
The Monroe County Coalition for a Safe and Drug Free Community recently received a $125,000 grant to bring anti-drug and alcohol programs to the Florida Keys.
It was the second consecutive year the coalition has been awarded funds by the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, which is administered by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
According to Executive Director Frank Sauer, the coalition is getting ready to expand its reach in hope of spreading the message about the personal and social costs of underage drinking and drug use.
"The first year of the grant was mainly putting together the resources to capture the proper data that we needed," Sauer said. "Year two is going to be more implementation. Three of us in the coalition have been through three one-week sessions at the National Coalition Academy, located in Iowa."
Sauer said, "Now, what we're looking for is cultural change. We need to get the word out that there is too much parental tolerance of underage drug use here, and that what we as a community are doing needs to change because it's not working. The numbers prove this."
Sauer, who recently retired from the Key West Police Department after 30 years of service, has been the coalition's director since the end of November. In the coming months, Sauer said he'd like to see his organization extend its reach through increased contact and partnerships with other like-minded groups.
"We hope to be working more with the Department of Health, Womankind, the Guidance/Care Center, the Key West Police Department, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, Human Service Associates, the Boys & Girls Club, the Department of Children and Families, and others," Sauer said. "We're constantly reaching out to partner with other organizations."
Sauer said, "In the past, we haven't been branded very much, and that's something else we're trying to change."
Along with his nine-member board of directors, and sector leaders up and down the Keys, Sauer plans to conduct more workshops, school discussions and identification card-check campaigns.
The coalition has had some success in getting vendors to stop selling candy-flavored tobacco and continues to sponsor the DUI patrols of both the Sheriff's Office and the Key West Police Department.
But mostly, Sauer said, the focus has to be spreading awareness of the problems associated with underage drinking.
"If a student comes to school hung over, how well are they going to be able to absorb what they're learning, and focus in class?" Sauer asked. "Not very well. These are the kinds of things we need to make clear to parents who tolerate, or even facilitate alcohol abuse amongst their kids. What we need is a cultural change."
Chris Tittel, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Monroe County, welcomed the grant funding.
"Our recently published almanac includes some very interesting figures on the use and consumption of alcohol and illegal substances," Tittel said. "As far as binge drinking, 4.9 percent of Monroe County middle schoolers, and 26.5 percent of high schoolers had engaged in binge drinking in the previous 30 days. The statewide averages were 4.7 and 16.4, respectively."
The health department defines binge drinking as four of more drinks for a woman, or five or more drinks for a man.
"Because we're more focused on population-based health these days, we're happy to partner with the Monroe County Coalition, and any other organization out there that wants to help improve these figures for our youth," Tittel said.
On the marijuana front, Tittel added, use by high school students in the county is almost 13 percent higher than the state average.
Coalition board member John Dick, who is also on the Monroe County School Board, said that although the coalition has suffered some "growing pains" in the form of budget cutbacks, but he sees the organization as a vital force in the fight against underage intoxication.
"The state cutbacks have taken their toll," Dick said. "But we have had success with bringing preventative literature to convenience stores, or gas stations, where they sell alcohol and tobacco, and for the most part they've been cooperative."
One thing is certain, Sauer said:
"We're not going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem. That's the position of the Office of National Drug Policy, and it's the position of the Monroe County Coalition. Policy needs to be worked on at the state level, to correct the situation we have today."
The Monroe County Coalition for a Safe and Drug Free Community meets at 3 p.m. on the third Tuesday of every month at the Florida Department of Children and Families, 1111 12th St., Suite 310.
For information, call 305-295-9300, or send an email to email@example.com.