Study plans to follow drug use of state's youthful offenders

February 03, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

A study of youths arrested and brought to a Laurel detention center found something sad but not surprising: significant levels of drug use.

Nine percent of the boys and 6 percent of the girls brought to the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children's Center were found to have used cocaine in the previous 72 hours, urine tests showed.

By contrast, a national survey of high school seniors, conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 1990, found 1.9 percent reporting cocaine use in the previous 30 days.

Dr. Eric D. Wish, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, found that 17 percent of the boys and 10 percent of the girls tested positive for some drug.

Dr. Wish and researcher Thomas A. Gray studied 263 juvenile offenders, most of them Baltimore residents between the ages of 14 and 16, brought to the Waxter center for a variety of crimes from mid-September to mid-December of last year.

The study, the first of its kind in Maryland, was designed to set a benchmark for levels of drug abuse among youthful offenders. The levels were significant, Dr. Wish said, but about equal to those found among children and teen-agers arrested in most other major cities.

Every three months, Dr. Wish said, a new sample of young detainees will be interviewed and tested to monitor changes in levels of drug use. This summer, he said, a similar program will begin in Baltimore for adult offenders.

Among the 175 boys, 9 percent tested positive for cocaine, 8 percent for marijuana and less than 1 percent for opiates, including heroin.

Among the 88 girls, 6 percent tested positive for cocaine, 3 percent for marijuana and 3 percent for opiates. One percent tested positive for PCP.

Dr. Wish said his findings support other studies showing that while drug use has fallen among middle-class high school students, it remains stubbornly high among inner-city kids, especially those in trouble with the law.

"I'm concerned that with the drop in middle-class drug use, the drug-abuse problem is starting to be back-burnered," Dr. Wish said. "There is a continuing drug abuse problem among disadvantaged, inner-city populations . . . that politicians tend to forget or ignore."

The study found that most of the offenders -- 84 percent of the boys and 71 percent of the girls -- were still enrolled in school.

"What this means is that school-based prevention and intervention programs really can reach these high-risk youth," Dr. Wish said.

"We need programs for these kids both before and after the arrest."

The researchers staged voluntary, anonymous interviews followed up by urine tests.

In similar studies, where academics conducted interviews, juveniles were found to significantly understate their drug use.

"We thought by having medical staff ask questions that more of the youths would be truthful," Dr. Wish said.

That didn't happen. None of the boys and only 1 percent of the girls told interviewers they had used cocaine in the previous 72 hours.

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