White House to raise profile on drugs, youth violence Daylong conference today aims at mapping strategy

March 07, 1996|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In the face of reports of rising drug use by youths and the violence associated with it, the Clinton administration is moving to take a visible role with a White House-sponsored conference today on the problem.

In the first such meeting during his administration, President Clinton has called together nearly 300 people, including top administration officials, researchers, law enforcement officials and young people, for a daylong meeting on drug abuse and violence among adolescents.

The president has drawn criticism from some Republican leaders for not speaking out more on these issues. Drug-abuse counselors and those who work to prevent youth violence also say that the conference could energize the anti-drug movement.

"I think we all thought [Clinton] would have done more in the last couple of years," said Michael Gimbel, director of the bureau of substance abuse in the Baltimore County Health Department. "We need a wake-up call because drug use is back, and it's back with a vengeance."

The meeting, at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George's County, with satellite links to about 40 cities, is billed as a way to educate the public and enlist support for a "national private/public partnership to reduce adolescent drug use and violence."

The estimated number of 12- to 17-year-olds who use illegal drugs, after dropping from 3.2 million in 1985 to 1.3 million in 1992, rose to 2.1 million in 1994, according to the annual National Household Survey on Drug Abuse issued last year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And a Maryland Department of Education survey released in September showed increased drug use among the state's sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders. Mr. Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and, in his debut a day after his swearing in as drug policy director, retired Army Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, will address the conference today.

The meeting comes as some Republican leaders say Mr. Clinton has made too few high-profile efforts to combat drug use.

"We are not hearing from the highest levels of our government how dangerous drugs are," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa. "I'm elated that the president is having a one-day meeting. But he's got to have follow through."

Mr. Grassley suggested that the administration should be producing a "dramatic drumbeat" against drug use, with the president including an anti-drug message in every speech.

But Lee Brown, who said he suggested the conference months before stepping down as Mr. Clinton's drug policy director last year, defends the president's efforts and blames the news media for having taken the fight against drugs off their "radar screen."

Experts in the field say the conference could restore a sense of urgency to the fight a decade after the nation's leaders first announced a "War on Drugs."

"Things are not going to be cured on Friday because we have a conference on Thursday," said Steven Katkowsky, director of mental health and addictions in the Anne Arundel County Department of Health. "But when you have top-level leaders [addressing issues], it brings it to the attention of an awful lot of people. Anytime you can do that, that's beneficial."

And participants may produce results, said Debra Rabinowitz, deputy director of education and training for prevention in the department. Ms. Rabinowitz noted that the rise in after-school and mentorship programs in many areas is due in part to conferences where drug-abuse workers and community representatives shared ideas.

"It's not just fluff," she said. "We get these reports and we pay attention to this information."

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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