Drugs and kids National report: When more children say they're trying drugs, parents need to wake up.

March 10, 1997

"THE DRUG PROBLEM in America is parents, not politics." So said retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, President Clinton's drug policy director, following the release of a national report that showed an upturn in elementary school-age students' use of illegal drugs.

He's right. Children in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades are increasingly admiring the drug culture. This is not the traditional teen urge to rebel that kicks in a little later. These are pre-adolescents, often from middle- and upper-class households, who apparently need more support, attention and direction.

Children, like grown-ups, shape opinions from their environment. Anti-drug programs at school, which begin before kids know their alphabet, are counterbalanced by peer pressure and drug glamorization in cinema and song. It is easier for bad factors to outweigh the good when parents are ambivalent. Indeed, the number of kids reporting that they have talked to their parents about drugs dropped 10 percent since 1993, a bigger decline than in their talks with teachers, friends or siblings.

Elementary schoolers who said they tried drugs in 1996 doubled compared to 1995 in the study by Partnership for a Drug-Free America; that statistic drew the headlines last week. But also intriguing were the conflicting responses of children, reflecting their internal struggle with temptation.

For instance, fewer students than before thought that "people on drugs act stupid." Yet more children opined that "it's OK to be the only one in a group who doesn't use drugs." Fewer students said a "person who would sell or give you drugs isn't your friend." Yet perceptions of the problems caused by cocaine, marijuana and inhalant abuse remain high.

Kids know this is risky behavior. But they must be made to understand that the risks are unacceptable. Eventually, nearly all of them will arrive at that conclusion. The point is to make an impression before they've learned this lesson the hard way.

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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