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Drug Use by Younger Teen-Agers Appears to Rise,
Counter to Trend

Joseph B. Treaster
The New York Times
April 14, 1993

After years of declining drug use among high school students, researchers and rehabilitation specialists said yesterday that there are signs of an increase in marijuana, cocaine and LSD use among the youngest teenagers.

Researchers working under contract to the National Institute on Drug Abuse said a survey of 18,000 eighth graders at 160 public and private schools around the country showed that 7.2 percent of them acknowledged smoking marijuana last year, up 15 percent from the previous year.

In interviews around the country, rehabilitation specialists said they had been independently making similar findings. After a period of several years in which the number of adolescents seeking treatment dwindled, they said, a new surge in young clients has begun.

'All of a sudden, we've been seeing more adolescent cases," said Kevin McEneaney, the director of clinical services for Phoenix House, the nation's largest residential treatment organization with units in California, New York and New Jersey.

A Foreboding Vanguard?

The team of researchers, from the University of Michigan, said that 1.5 percent of the 13- and 14-year-olds indicated on questionnaires that they had used cocaine and that 2.5 percent said they had used LSD or other hallucinogens, an increase of about 30 percent in both catagories from the previous year.

"While the number of eighth-graders using drugs is not yet very large, the proportional changes are big, which means these young people may be in the vanguard of a reversal of previously improving conditions," said Dr. Lloyd D. Johnston, the principal investigator in the Michigan study. The study, begun in 1975, is the nation's oldest survey of drug use among teen-agers.

Janet Sterba-Daddona, the supervisor of an adolescent-treatment program run by Gaudenzia in Harrisburg, the largest rehabilitation organization in Pennsylvania, said that two years ago when her unit had 10 beds for treatment, new patients were forced to wait two to four weeks for admission. Now, she said, with the unit expanded to 15 beds, the wait is up to six weeks."

These latest findings are in contrast to the Federal Government's most recent statistics that have shown a general decline in drug use throughout the country but persistent concentrations of heavy cocaine in the inner cities as well as a rise in heroin use.

According to the latest statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1.9 million Americans acknowledged using cocaine in 1991 as against 5.8 million in 1985. The institute said that 9.7 million Americans used marijuana in 1991, as against 18 million in 1985.

Commenting on the Michigan survey, which was made public by her office, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna E. Shalala said, "We need to be sure that younger students are still learning the facts about drug and alcohol abuse."

Drug researchers in universities, at treatment centers and in law enforcement said they were concerned that the upturn in drug use among young teen-agers might be a harbinger of increased drug use throughout the country.

Even Worse Than Survey?

"These are disturbing developments," said Dr. Peter Reuter, the co-director of Drug Policy Research Center of the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif.

Thomas Cash, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Miami, one of the largest in the agency's system, said that drug use among adolescents was almost certainly rising at a faster rate than indicated by the Michigan study because it does not reflect the habits of school drop-outs who in the past have been much heavier drug users.

Even before the Michigan statistics were made public, many authorities on drug use criticized the budget that President Clinton presented to Congress last week for continuing to rely heavily on law enforcement at the expense of rehabilitation and education. In his budget, Mr. Clinton proposed to increase spending on education, community action and programs run by employers by $266 million, for a total of $1.79 billion. In addition, the critics said his failure to appoint a senior aide to develop a national drug policy was evidence of neglect.

Some drug authorities immediately seized on the new information to demand greater spending on anti-drug education.

"The rise in drug use among eighth-grade students signals that President Clinton better move on the drug front fast," said Sue Rusche, the executive director of National Families in Action, a drug-prevention organization based in Atlanta.

Peter B. Bensinger, a former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration who now runs a consulting organization that refers adults and adolescents to treatment centers, said far more was needed than what President Clinton had budgeted.

"The $266 million is roughly a dollar for every person in the country," Mr. Bensinger said. "He could have doubled the amount and still been short."

In his largest single increase in the budget, Mr. Clinton added $408 million to the criminal justice system, for a total of $5.78 billion.

In Fashion and Out
In the University of Michigan survey, more high school seniors acknowledged using marijuana in the last year -- 21.9 percent -- than did eighth graders. But unlike the younger students, the seniors' use of marijuana and other drugs has been on a downward trend for several years, with the exception of LSD use, which has been slowly climbing since 1985. Marijuana use among high school seniors has been declining since 1979, and cocaine use has been dropping since 1985.

The statistics on eighth graders have only been compiled for two years, in contrast to the 18-year history of data on high school seniors, and the reports from rehabilitation specialists are anecdotal. But Dr. Herbert D. Kleber, who severed as President George Bush's chief aide on rehabilitation and anti-drug education, said the new data should be regarded as a serious warning on national drug policy.

"If we don't keep up the pressure," he said, "the progress that has been made can easily diminish."

Indeed, some specialists said they believed the increased drug use resulted from a sense of complacency toward the problem that has spread as heavy drug use among the middle class appears to have diminished.

Dr. Johnston said anti-drug education should begin in kindergarten and continue through the senior year.

William Modzeleski, the director of drug planning at the Department of Education in Washington, said that most schools had some kind of anti-drug program but that their content and duration varied widely.

"The drug abuse issue has pretty much fallen off the screen," said Dr. Johnston, adding that he was convinced that anti-drug statements by political leaders and extensive newspaper and television coverage of drugs had been "instrumental in bringing about the kind of attitudinal and normative changes necessary to reduce drug use."

"So," he said, "their letting up on the issue may be contributing to some reversals."


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