Drug use by teens again on the rise

February 01, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Last year, when a national research team released a report that detected a slight increase in drug use by the United States' youngest teen-agers, it could have been a passing blip on the statistical chart.

But the same study group has just released a new annual adolescent drug use survey, and last year's research oddity has become this year's ominous trend: In 1993, for the first time in more than a decade, drug use among junior and senior high school students has been rising rather than falling.

While the increases remain relatively small, the findings by the University of Michigan researchers provoked three Cabinet members to warn yesterday that, from the classroom to the television screen, the United States has to start saying no again, more loudly than it has in the past few years.

Study director Lloyd Johnston said he sensed that the drug problem "fell off the radar screen about two years ago" as the country became distracted by other issues.

Now, said Lee P. Brown, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, "We must have the support of every element of our society if we are not to allow another generation of youth to be captured by illicit drugs."

Beneath the statistical increases in drug use lay several other disturbing findings:

* Mr. Johnston said he saw echoes of the drug epidemic of the 1970s in the fact that eighth-graders in the survey were increasing their use of "the drugs that began the epidemic -- marijuana, LSD and amphetamines."

* At the same time, the 12th-graders in the study showed a declining level of fear about the harmful consequences of drug use. The only substance those teen-agers seemed more wary of in 1993 than the year before was tobacco -- and slightly fewer of them said they were smoking than 12th-graders did the year before.

* Significantly, black students did not show the same increased levels of substance abuse as white and Hispanic students in their age groups; on average, they were less likely to use any controlled substance. Mr. Johnston and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala both offered the same theory about why: Many black children have had direct encounters with the worst effects of drug abuse, particularly in the inner cities.

As Ms. Shalala said, "They've climbed over drug dealers. . . . And lives have been destroyed -- people in their families. They, more than any other group of young Americans, know what the consequences are of drug use."

Seeing that all young people understand the effects of drug abuse is the goal of a variety of proposed administration programs. Mr. Brown said that when the federal anti-drug budget for next year was unveiled in a few days, it would show significant increases aimed at prevention and education.

Likewise, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said he would ask for an increase in federal funds to help local schools combat drugs and violence.

The officials called the Michigan study an early warning, because the problem it describes is nothing like the adolescent drug problem the country faced 15 years ago.

In 1979, for instance, 54 percent of 12th-graders told the researchers they had used an illicit drug in the previous year.

In 1993, only 31 percent of high school seniors said that, but that was up from 27 percent the year before, which was the lowest result since the survey began in 1975.

While that was a sizable one-year jump, what most occupied the attention of the researchers and Cabinet members were the results among very young teen-agers, eighth-graders, 13 and 14 years old.

While they showed no increase in their use of hard drugs -- and the proportion using heroin, cocaine and crack were only 2 percent to 3 percent -- they showed significant increases in use of "beginner" drugs such as marijuana and inhalants.

About one in seven reported using marijuana, one in five used inhalants, and their rates of use were up 1 to 2 percentage points from the year before.

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