Lessons about drug use

February 03, 1994

There are some useful lessons in the announcement this week that drug usage has taken an alarming upturn among young people during the past year, as measured by a respected, long-term study conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

The upward direction in drug use during the past two years indicates a reversal of an encouraging downward trend that began more than a decade ago. In 1979, for instance, 54 percent of 12th graders told the researchers they had used an illicit drug in the previous year. By 1993, that figure had fallen to 31 percent. However, that level represented an increase from 27 percent the year before, which was the lowest result since the survey began in 1975.

More troubling were the results among eighth graders, 13 and 14 years old, who showed significant increases in their use of "beginner" drugs such as marijuana and inhalants.

Young people are like the rest of us; their behavior can be influenced by the culture, whether in positive ways or negative. The decline in drug use over the past several years correlates almost eerily with heightened publicity about drug dangers -- such as the death of Len Bias, the Maryland basketball star who overdosed on cocaine in 1986.

Now many people are attributing the recent rise in usage to a slack-off in attention to drugs, both in the press and on a national agenda crowded with health care reform, crime and a host of other domestic concerns.

Lloyd Johnston, who directs the Michigan study, said the drug problem "fell off the radar screen about two years ago." To his credit, President Clinton seems to be taking this lesson to heart; he dispatched three high cabinet-level officials to a press conference discussing the results.

Drug use will never be "solved." Even if this new trend is reversed, there will continue to be a significant number of Americans who are in trouble with drugs and need treatment. Public officials bear responsibility for failing to provide adequate funds for treatment programs that have proven their worth.

In the late '60s and '70s, Americans dramatically changed their attitudes toward illicit drugs, gradually adjusting to a tolerance level that would have scandalized the nation only a few years earlier. Anti-drug education efforts have succeeded in restoring some of the stigma any healthy society should attach to drug abuse. But as the latest research shows, that work needs to be unrelenting. Just as any house requires periodic maintenance, good habits also need constant encouragement.

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