At least 20 teenagers have been charged with stealing spirits from Thurston County grocery stores, but that tally doesn't include charges of minors in possession, which can be leveled when a teen has alcohol on them, but hasn't left the store. The tally also doesn't include people who are between 18 and 20 years old, The Olympian reported Sunday.
"Obviously our focus is on kids not having access to unlawful substances. We don't think stores are taking any steps to minimize the access that juveniles have to alcohol, primarily, through theft," said juvenile prosecutor Wayne Graham.
The voter-approved Initiative 1183 privatized liquor, making spirits available to buy at grocery stores around the state.
Authorities say they've also seen more reports of alcohol use at schools
Retailers asked by The Olympian about the problem of liquor thefts by minors either did not respond or said they were working on ways to minimize shoplifting.
As for the size of the problem, the Washington State Organized Retail Crime Alliance indicated about $18,000 to $20,000 in liquor thefts - by adults as well as by minors - took place from mid-September to the end of October, according to the state Liquor Control Board's enforcement and education chief, Justin Nordhorn.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs recently sent a letter to the Liquor Control Board, asking it to require retailers to keep track of and report liquor thefts.
"We're only catching a small percent of what's happening," Graham said. "We are not getting all of the alcohol-related incidents referred for criminal charges."
Local police, youth advocates and school officials agreed with Graham's criticisms.
"We have noted an increase in alcohol-related reports by the schools, and this has become a proliferating problem that needs to be addressed," said Tumwater police detective Jen Kolb.
The number of alcohol-related incidents routed to the juvenile prosecutor's office has gone up in the three largest Thurston County school districts - North Thurston, Olympia and Tumwater - since liquor privatization, Graham said.
But school officials in Tumwater and Olympia said they had not noticed a marked increase in alcohol-related incidents involving students since June 1.
In an email to The Olympian, Safeway public affairs director Sara Osborne said the company is working on the problem of minors stealing from its store near North Thurston High School.
School officials and police have said they are concerned that the store's liquor is sold in the same aisle as soft drinks and energy drinks where students congregate.
Joel Benoliel, senior vice president of Costco, the Kirkland-based chain that helped bankroll the initiative that took alcohol out of state control, said the argument that more teens will have access to liquor because of privatization is "specious."
"Teenagers have always had access to alcohol," he said, pointing out that about 30 states allow grocery stores and retailers to sell spirits.
Though even one teen stealing liquor is too many, the number of youths doing it because of privatization is "statistically insignificant," Benoliel said.
Benoliel said he believes opponents of privatization are making an issue of liquor shoplifting by teens because they want to try to repeal the new law.
"You have people who are sore losers and are trying to make a political point," he said.