Party atmosphere has downside in Vail Valley |

Party atmosphere has downside in Vail Valley

Lauren Glendenning
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –The drinking and drug culture in Vail Valley, Colorado fueled by lifestyles that mimic permanent vacations – lifestyles that get destructive and throw curveballs onto the valley’s happy surface.

The resort and tourist economies in the Vail Valley mean there are tons of people working in the hospitality industry, working odd hours and catering to people who are in town for a week to party and recreate. The difference is those people go back to wherever they came from; back to reality.

For those of us here, reality continues to be distorted, said April Wilson, a counselor at the Samaritan Counseling Center in Edwards.

“So much of this town focuses on the unwinding, the having fun,” Wilson said. “We’re surrounded by people vacationing and having fun – it skews our perception that that’s how the world lives all the time.”

The acceptance of the party lifestyle, or at least the abundance of it, keeps the valley heavily medicated.

The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office has arrested 67 people for possessing or distributing hard drugs through July 1 this year. The Sheriff’s Office issued 115 marijuana tickets in the same time period and had 14 felony marijuana arrests, meaning people were either growing it, selling it or had more than eight ounces of it, said Mike McWilliam, a detective with the Sheriff’s Office.

The Sheriff’s Office drug detectives have noticed that cocaine prices in the valley have dropped about 50 percent in the last 12 years and the quality is still good. That tells detectives there’s plenty to go around, McWilliam said.

The consequences from drugs and alcohol extend far beyond legal troubles, and it usually takes much more than just legal troubles to get through to people, Wilson said. Wilson, who counsels inmates at the Eagle County Jail once a week, said she’s amazed at how many repeat offenders there are in the county.

She also said that about 98 percent of people in the Eagle County Jail committed crimes directly related to drugs or alcohol.

Stacey Horn, a clinical social worker who worked as an alcohol evaluator for Eagle County Probation until recently, said she did 30 to 50 alcohol evaluations a month as a probation officer. She said about 65 percent to 75 percent of all the domestic violence cases she saw involved alcohol or drugs.

Economic downturns inevitably affect people, Horn said. People are looking for that temporary escape, which too often comes in the form of alcohol or drugs.

What they don’t realize is that family members pay a price, too. Parents who use substances might think they’re doing a good job hiding it from their children, but they’re not, Horn said.

“Kids are really aware of what (their parents) are doing,” she said. “Kids know that mom’s hungover.”

The younger somebody starts drinking or using drugs, the more likely they are to develop a problem later in life, Wilson said. Many of the inmates she works with started using drugs or alcohol when they were as young as seven and eight years old.

It’s the parents who set the examples and lead the way, she said.

“Parents have to be really careful with how they present alcohol in their family,” Wilson said. “Do you show your family you can have a good time without alcohol present – you act as a role model every day and you don’t even realize it.”

The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office gave out 55 minor-in-possession tickets in the first six months of the year to underage drinkers, McWilliam said.

Eagle County teenagers are drinking and using drugs more than the national average, according to the 2007-08 Colorado Healthy Kids Survey, put on by the Eagle River Youth Coalition.

Drinking and drugs puts kids at higher risks for things like suicide, depression and risky sexual behavior, according to the report.

Wilson said she can’t believe how many parents don’t consider drinking or marijuana use a big deal. Parents often tell police officers they don’t see why it’s “such a big deal” that their kid is getting in trouble for pot or underage drinking, she said.

Horn remembers a teenager she was working with who came in for a breath test at 3 p.m. one afternoon, right after he left school for the day – his breath was way over the blood alcohol limit.

“There’s a huge substance abuse problem with teenagers here,” Horn said.

There’s an obvious move to fight the problem at both of the county’s major high schools, Battle Mountain High and Eagle Valley High. Eagle Valley High School has an active group of students in the Devils Against Drinking and Drugs club, who sign contracts promising to stay clean, said Brooke Skjonsby, Eagle County Schools spokeswoman.

Battle Mountain High School is going into its second year with a substance abuse policy that allows the school to randomly test any student involved with sports or school-sponsored clubs and groups. A second offense can get a student expelled from school.

“I think it’s something that every school district probably has to deal with on some level,” Skjonsby said. “Our community is slightly unique in that we live in a resort atmosphere.”

People using alcohol or drugs are usually doing it to cover up something else that’s wrong in life, Wilson said. Unless people recognize that deeper problem, getting help is tough, she said.

“One of the biggest hallmarks of it is denial,” Wilson said. “It’s always easier to see it in somebody else before you see it in yourself.”

For the people who are just riding the wave of the party and vacation lifestyle in the valley, they have deeper issues, too, she said.

It’s hard to form close and meaningful relationships in the valley, and drinking or using drugs is one way to share a common interest with acquaintances who come and go.

The only thing local social workers, counselors and police can do is try to teach people about the consequences. There’s Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings throughout the valley – so many that you could attend several a day, every day, Wilson said.

Groups like the Eagle River Youth Coalition work with local schools on education programs, but it’s the parents who can do the most for the youngsters in the valley, Wilson said.

Anyone who gets arrested for a DUI ends up in state-mandated education classes, although many end up getting in trouble for the same reasons again, according to repeat offender statistics in Colorado.

Whatever the source of help ends up being, Wilson said the first step is getting over the denial that there’s a problem. Then, look for help.

“When you go out to dinner and your food bill is $20 and your alcohol bill is $60, you need to take a look at that,” Wilson said. “If you think you have a problem, go see somebody because the earlier you intervene, the better.”

Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or

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