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No Answers to Rising Teen Drug Use;
Democrats, Republicans Point Finger of Blame at Each Other

Charles Walston
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution

September 19, 1996

Twenty years ago, Sue Rusche was shocked to learn that kids in her Druid Hills neighborhood were smoking marijuana. Concerned for her own children, who were 7 and 8 at the time, Rusche helped start the anti-drug group National Families in Action.

Today, Rusche knows a lot more about drugs than she did back then. But she admits she was startled once again when more teenagers began using drugs.

"It took me two or three years to accept the turnaround that began in 1992," said Rusche, now a national leader in the drug-prevention movement. "I kept thinking it was a blip. After all these years of work, I couldn't believe we hadn't fixed it."

Nationally, politicians have seized upon the numbers, with Democrats and Republicans rushing to blame each other for the upward trend. Democrats pointed out that the GOP-controlled Congress had cut funding for drug-prevention programs, while Republicans countered President Clinton had failed to take a hard line against the supply of drugs.

Intractable problem

Even the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) got into the act, issuing a statement that said the drug study "confirms that marijuana prohibition does not effectively deter marijuana use."

Amid all the sound and fury, two things were certain:

First, almost everybody, including NORML, says adolescents shouldn't use drugs. Second, nobody really knows how to stop them.

Studies cannot break down how many local teenagers are regular drug users, but they suggest how widespread it may be.

Throughout the 1980s, as drug-prevention efforts intensified, use among teenagers steadily declined. In 1978, 10.7 percent of high school seniors reported smoking pot every day, but the number had dropped to 1.9 percent in 1992.

Then drugs came back, with marijuana leading the way - just as it did in the 1960s.

Preliminary results of a 1995 government survey, leaked to the media last month, showed 8.2 percent of juveniles in the 12-to-17 age group smoke marijuana every month. That is double the rate of three years ago, although it's still only half as high as 1979, when over 16 percent of youths were regular pot smokers.
Cocaine use by teens is also up, although still well below its peak levels of the early 1980s, and LSD is more popular than ever among the 12- to-17 set. Rusche wants to change the trend before teen drug use reaches 1979 levels.

Drug-prevention programs have been politically popular since the "Just Say No" campaign in the 1980s, but Congress cut prevention funds last year.

"They are paying lip service to it," Rusche said.

Last year's federal budget cut shut down 112 drug-prevention programs in 42 states, but Rusche's group maintained its $ 500,000-a-year grant to run a five-year program in Techwood Homes and Bankhead Homes. Federal funds also go to a pilot program at Usher Middle School in Atlanta, targeting 50 high-risk kids and their parents, at a cost of $ 400,000 a year.

The House of Representatives last year also tried to cut funding for school-based prevention programs, such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), from $ 465 million to $ 200 million. After the standoff with President Clinton, who had sought an increase to $ 500 million, the program was restored to its previous funding level.

Drug education

DARE, in which police teach sixth-graders, is reaching more kids than ever. About 83 percent of the 47 million children in public schools this year will be exposed to some form of drug education.

Yet, even while drug education has spread, so has drug use among the young. A 1994 analysis commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and published in the American Journal of Public Health, found the DARE program had no measurable effect on students' drug use.

Officials of DARE questioned the validity of that study, but they also changed their curriculum to improve its effectiveness.

Attempts to dry up the nation's drug supply also seem to have a limited impact on the number of users.

U.S. marijuana seizures by the armed forces, the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police have doubled over the last five years - from 227 metric tons in 1990 to 456 tons in 1995. Yet marijuana remains plentiful and cheap, with ounces selling for as little as $ 50 in Atlanta.

Combating cocaine now costs the United States about $ 13 billion a year in public and private funds, according to a 1994 study by the Rand think tank. The study examined the most cost-effective ways to reduce the amount of cocaine being consumed, though not necessarily the number of people doing the consumption.

The study concluded to reduce cocaine consumption by 1 percent, an additional $ 34 million should be spent treating addicts. The same reduction would take $ 246 million in additional domestic law enforcement, or $ 783 million more to eradicate drugs in their source countries.

Despite the high cost of law enforcement, Rand concluded it is important as a way of pressuring users to seek treatment, and it does reduce consumption by driving up street prices. The study didn't consider drug-prevention measures because there wasn't enough scientific data about their effectiveness.

There is one matter on which even Sue Rusche and NORML agree.

Social attitudes toward drug use have softened in the last few years, they say, and the portrayal of drugs in music, movies and television has grown more sympathetic.


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