WASHINGTON -- Teen-agers are increasingly just saying no to illicit drugs, but a growing number of people in their parents' generation are using cocaine, an annual federal survey of drug use indicated yesterday.
The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that cocaine use has increased among Americans 35 or older as it has continued to decline among those 12 to 17.
Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan called the trend of continued and increasing cocaine use among baby boomers "complex" and a reflection of "the aging of an earlier high-use generation," people who began taking drugs years ago "and have continued."
The report "dramatically points out one of the sad lessons of the drug war: Once you start to use drugs, it's very hard to get off and stay off," said Bob Martinez, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
From 1990 to 1991, the number of current users of cocaine, including crack, nearly tripled for those 35 or older and rose slightly for those 25 to 34. The number dropped a little in the 12-17 and 18-24 age groups.
It was the first time since 1985 that the total number of cocaine users had risen.
President Bush, who hailed last year's sharp drop in drug use amid considerable hoopla, let his Cabinet members explain this year's less optimistic report.
The new statistics "indicate that we are not turning the corner on the drug problem, as the administration has been saying for the last year," said Representative Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics and Drug Abuse.
But Dr. Sullivan and Mr. Martinez said at a news conference that the overall trend in drug use still points downward.
The survey indicated that the number of current drug users -- people who had used any illegal substance in the previous month -- dropped to 12.6 million in 1991, down from 12.9 million last year and 14.5 million in 1988. The survey wasn't taken in 1989.
"It is useful to remember that less than 1 percent of the U.S. population now uses cocaine," Mr. Martinez said. That is less than half the percentage in the peak year, 1985.
The declining use among teen-agers "means we're shutting down the pipeline into drug addiction" and foreshadows a favorable trend as the youths grow older, said Mr. Martinez, a former Republican governor of Florida.
But the officials conceded that they were troubled by the increase in cocaine use by those 35 or older.
"These would seem to be a group of individuals gradually moving through the population," Mr. Martinez said, possibly including "former drug users who are relapsing."
Administration drug programs are not reaching those cocaine users, Mr. Rangel said.
"Whether it's old users or new users, we don't have policies in place to adequately address the problem, particularly among those hard-core drug abusers that Governor Martinez admits are hardest to attack," he said.
"As drug use goes down, it becomes harder to make progress, because what is left is those who are most resistant to anti-drug messages," Mr. Martinez said. "Progress against hard-core users becomes more difficult."
He said new programs are being developed to concentrate on aging cocaine users and that those initiatives will be presented with his agency's annual report to the president and Congress next month.