Understanding Cortland County’s Social Host Law—and how it deters underage drinking

Editor’s Note: The following article is Part 3 in a five-part series exploring issues of drug and alcohol addiction in Cortland County as part of National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.


CORTLAND, N.Y. – In May, the Cortland County Legislature passed a Social Host Ordinance, essentially making it a violation for an adult to knowingly allow a minor to consume alcohol on their property.

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While the law is meant to deter underage drinking, there are some misconceptions about whom the law targets and what penalties take effect if someone is charged with violating the ordinance.

To help us better understand the purpose of the law, we spoke with Joann Wickman, a member of Cortland Area Communities That Care, who helped get the ordinance passed at the county level.

What does the law do?

A Social Host Law makes it a violation for a person 16 years of age or older to allow alcohol to be served to people under the age of 21 on their property.

The penalty carries a fine of up to $250 and the possibility of up to 15 days in jail. For repeat offenders, the fine increases to $500.

Advocates for the law have said one of the goals of the legislation is to change the culture of underage drinking and to hold adults responsible for enabling such behavior.

“It’s an attempt to use the law to encourage people to be more careful with how much alcohol is consumed,” Wickman says. “Regardless of all the publicity heroin and opiates get, alcohol is still the most damaging drug in terms of human and financial cost.”

Closing a loophole

Advocates have also said that social host legislation closes a loophole in state law that has allowed adults to skate the consequences of providing minors a place to consume alcohol.

Under state law, an adult who serves alcohol to minors can be held liable. However, if a minor refuses to give the name of the adult who supplied them with alcohol, police have no grounds for charging the adult.

Advocates say social host legislation closes this loophole.

“Social host law says, if there’s a party with kids at my house, I am responsible for what goes on within my premises,” Wickman says. “If there’s a party in my house, I’d have to be deaf not to know it.”

Is it being used effectively?

As of January 2015, at least 17 counties in New York State have passed social host laws, placing a renewed focus on deterring underage drinking.

Prior to Cortland County legislators passing social host legislation, the city of Cortland and the village of Homer passed their own ordinances.

In some instances, the Cortland Police Department has charged certain individuals with violating the law for allowing college students to drink underage at house parties.

Wickman says public health advocates underwent careful planning before drafting legislation.

“We spent a lot of time discussing it and deciding how we’d go about getting it accomplished,” Wickman says. “It took awhile, but we just wanted to make sure we knew how people felt it about it, and that we were doing it well and not trying to pass a law that was irrational. We tried to be careful in our reasoning.”


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