Md. teen drug use declines slightly

But too many ignore anti-abuse lessons, state officials worry

March 23, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Drug, alcohol and tobacco use among Maryland teen-agers has declined slightly, but state officials say the statistics released yesterday show too many students are ignoring drug education lessons.

"We continue to be disturbed that drug use is so high," said Milt McKenna, a state specialist in Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities who oversees the biennial survey of sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders across Maryland.

As in the rest of the nation, the percentage of Maryland high school seniors who reported drinking alcohol in the 30 days before taking the survey has declined in the past decade, down from 60.2 percent in 1988 to 48.4 percent in 1998, the most recent survey.

But marijuana and cigarette use among Maryland 12th-graders -- though lower than it was two years ago -- is higher than in 1988, which also mirrors statistics nationwide.

"Maryland is not unique in this increase, nor are we unique in the decreases," McKenna told the state board yesterday.

Binge-drinking among Maryland high school seniors also remains high, with more than a third reporting that they have had five or more drinks on one occasion in the month before taking the survey. Almost a third of seniors reported having driven a car at least once after having one to four drinks.

The Maryland Adolescent Survey was given to almost 37,000 students in 323 schools across the state in December 1998, with more than 60 percent responding. It asked students about their use of such drugs as cigarettes, alcohol, LSD, marijuana, crack, Ritalin and steroids, as well as their knowledge of those drugs, the availability of them and their views on safety in their schools.

The survey calls for a random sample of students to fill out surveys in schools -- a process that state officials said may not be the most accurate way to track drug use.

Tracking trends

Nevertheless, even small shifts in the numbers can indicate trends in drug and alcohol abuse, local and state educators said.

"This provides the data that local school systems and drug agencies can use in targeting strategies that are helpful," said Lynn E. Linde, state branch chief of student services and alternative programs.

In the early 1990s, the percentage of students in Carroll County who reported abusing heroin more than doubled, to slightly more than 2 percent in a 1994 survey, said Joanne Hayes, Carroll's coordinator of safe and drug-free schools. But it wasn't until almost four years later, after several high school students died of heroin overdoses, that the county began a major campaign to combat heroin abuse.

"We missed the trend that was clearly spelled out for us in 1992 and 1994," Hayes said. "If we had caught it, perhaps we would have been a jump ahead."

Among Maryland's younger pupils, alcohol use also remains high, with 17 percent of Maryland sixth-graders reporting having tried alcohol and 9.1 percent of them acknowledging having drunk it in the 30 days before the survey.

Middle school critical

The survey indicates that middle school remains a critical period. Regular use of alcohol, marijuana and tobacco increases dramatically from sixth grade to eighth grade, according to the survey.

Even though many students demonstrate having a great deal of knowledge about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, such knowledge seems to have only a moderate effect on use. But the survey did show a dramatic difference between those students who perceive their friends and parents approve of substance abuse and those students who perceive their friends and parents don't approve.

"Not surprisingly, parents and friends of users approve of use at a much higher rate than the parents and friends of nonusers," McKenna said. "This shows the importance of peers and role models."

State officials said the survey suggests that a statewide effort to enforce laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors may be having an effect. The percentage of 12th-grade smokers who purchased their cigarettes in stores has decreased more than 15 percentage points since 1996.

When Frederick County school officials learned in 1996 that their school system posted the third-highest rate of cigarette use in the state, they immediately began efforts to increase education and enforcement.

The county's tobacco curriculum was changed. Prosectors who had been giving brochures on the dangers of smoking to teen-agers who received tobacco citations began requiring the offenders to enroll in monthly education seminars from the county Health Department.

"Almost half of our 12th-graders were smoking, and that was obviously way, way too high," said Lynn R. Widdowson, who until recently was Frederick's drug-free schools facilitator. "In two years, we got a 9.2 percent drop."

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