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(Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)
(Ben Nelms For The Globe and Mail)

LIQUOR

Mission intoxicated: Former teenage liquor agent proud of role fighting underage drinking Add to ...

A former agent in a government program that sends teenagers to try to buy alcohol in B.C.’s private and public liquor retailers says the tactics, which critics have labelled entrapment, are worthwhile if they help save lives.

Until now, paid operatives in the Minors as Agents Program have not given interviews to the media about their experiences. However, the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch made Jane available for a freewheeling account of her adventures in liquor-law enforcement on condition that she not be named.

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Now a 20-year-old University of British Columbia student intent on becoming a teacher, Jane (a pseudonym) was deployed for 23 months, until she was 19 – old enough to buy alcohol legally in the province.

The drill was always the same. The trio of adults and the agent would park near the establishment.

“I would go in first and probably about 15 to 20 seconds later, the enforcement officers would come in and they would always have their eyes on me – just to keep everything safe. [The adult inspectors] would be in one section of the store and I would be over in another. I’d select whatever type of alcohol I chose that day and I would go up to the counter. If they asked for ID, I would say, ‘Oh. I left it in the car.’ Which [was] true. We would keep the ID in the car. Then I would leave and the handlers would come out right after.”

But if they sold her the product, Jane would pay and leave.

“When we got back to the car, I would give my handlers the evidence – the alcohol – and we would sit down and write [a] report.”

The program was launched in 2011. Now, about 20 to 30 agents a year, ages 16 to 18, are trained and deployed. Shadowed by adult liquor inspectors, the teens try to buy alcohol at private or public liquor stores, pubs, wine stores and rural general stores across B.C. Operations that do sell liquor to the MAP agents face minimum fines of $7,500 or the suspension of their licences for up to 15 days.

To some, the one-of-a-kind operation in Canada is entrapment, and harshly punishes retailers after a simple mistake. But the branch rejects that interpretation, arguing its strategy can help prevent the harms associated with underage drinking, from violence and sexual assault to unwanted pregnancy and traffic accidents.

“To go in there and go ‘Gotcha’ is a bit offside,” says Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association. “Everybody knows that a good operator – and that’s 99 per cent of the industry – know their responsibility with liquor, and they’re diligent about that. Occasionally, something is going to go wrong. To set them up for failure like that is a bit wrong.”

Douglas Scott, the general manager of the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, says the tactics can’t be called entrapment. “Entrapment is when you induce somebody to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. Entrapment would be going in and saying, ‘I’ll pay you $100 for this flat of beer that’s only worth $40.’ We just present the youth as they are and we ask them to behave normally and if the person [sells to them], they would be doing it in the normal course of business.”

As the daughter of a retired police officer, and as a diligent big sister, Jane was always concerned about underage teenagers such as herself getting access to liquor through stores, bars or restaurants willing to sell to them. She was mindful of her father’s lectures in schools about the dangers alcohol and tobacco present to teenagers. “I definitely agreed with what he said. It can get kids into trouble,” says Jane, referring to his views about alcohol.

On the job, she did not dress up to look older. “They said, ‘We don’t want you to dress more in fancy clothes or that sort of thing.’ [They said] ‘Just kind of wear what you would wear if you were coming from school.’ I never changed my appearance or wore makeup. Nothing like that.”

Her father offered advice, especially when they went to a store. “He’d be like, ‘Take a look around,’ and afterwards I’d test myself and it would be, ‘What do you remember seeing?’ That sort of thing.” The exercise helped her learn to observe details, a skill she would use to prepare reports for her handlers.

And then she was on duty. It was a mission – “Keeping alcohol out of the hands of minors is really important” – with a good hourly wage for a teen. Jane earned $17 an hour, about $7 above the current minimum wage, for shifts of up to four hours. In 2012-13, MAP had a $15,415 budget to cover fees and expenses for agents.

Jane was never deployed in the small Lower Mainland community where she lived for fear she would be recognized. (For a similar reason, the licensing branch sends out-of-town agents to test small, rural communities.)

Asked whether she ever felt badly about the clerks who sold her liquor, Jane says she was always able to rationalize her feelings. “You do feel bad that someone is getting in trouble. But, at the same time, they’re breaking the law,” she says. She rejects the notion she was some sort of narc. “It’s enforcing the law. Unfortunately, they have to get a kid to do it, which might be surprising for some people.”

Before joining MAP, Jane worked in a 15-year-old Vancouver Coastal Health program that deploys minors to make sure retailers are not selling tobacco to people who are 19 or younger. Then her father suggested she try MAP.

The program followed an earlier version, where the branch sent “youthful-looking agents” to check for compliance among about 1,400 retailers in B.C. But because the agents were adults, there was no basis for enforcement action.

Jane went through training that included learning to take notes. The notes would be used as evidence in hearings if the establishments challenged the findings.

“They would see how you wrote and how you observed things and your personality,” she says. “One of the things they were very strict on was that honesty was 100 per cent of what we need to do. So if you’re ever asked your age, you say your age. If you’re ever asked, ‘Oh. You don’t look old enough,’ you say, ‘No, sorry. I am not old enough.’ Honesty was very enforced.”

Many of her friends knew about her work. “Probably 99 per cent of the time, my friends would ask me how they could get involved.”

Despite massive looming changes to liquor management in B.C. that will include the sale of some liquor in grocery stores, the program will carry on as in the past, Mr. Scott said.

But he said there may be one tactical adjustment – encouraging kids to act more like kids while on duty. For example, agents are now discouraged from wearing sunglasses because they might be seen as a disguise. But a lot of kids wear sunglasses. “If you were 17, going to buy a beer, you might consider wearing sunglasses,” he said. “It may be that we more realistically consider reflecting what the youth would do.”

In the summer, Jane worked as a cashier in a liquor store. She does not know whether a MAP agent ever visited. “A supervisor was always saying, ‘Check for ID,’” she says. “I would ID people even if they looked 30 or 40.” She likes to think MAP was the basis for that diligence. “You could definitely see the effectiveness of the program.”

Follow on Twitter: @ianabailey

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