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Rates of Teenage Drug Use Shifting Downward

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Washington--Although America's teenagers have moderated their use of illicit drugs in the past few years, they continue to display the highest level of drug abuse among young people anywhere in the industrialized world, federal officials told a Senate subcommittee on alcoholism and drug abuse last week.

Dr. William Mayer, director of the federal Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration, told the subcommittee that the most recent findings of an annual survey of high-school seniors indicate that fewer students in the class of 1981 used marijuana, PCP ("angel dust"), tranquilizers, or nitrite inhalants ("poppers" or "snappers") than was true in the several previous senior classes studied.

Regular cigarette smoking among last year's seniors was also down, while the use of barbiturates, LSD, heroin, and narcotics other than heroin remained steady, Dr. Mayer said. The only drugs showing appreciable increases in popularity were stimulants, such as amphetamines ("speed"), and methaqualone ("ludes" or "Quaaludes"), which is classified as a sedative-hypnotic.

Cocaine use, which rose sharply in popularity among high-school seniors between 1976 and 1979, remained fairly stable through last year.

Highest Level of Drug Abuse

"Even though this report shows signs of progress, our optimism must be tempered by the finding that our young people still display the highest level of drug abuse anywhere in the developed world," Dr. Mayer cautioned. "Much work remains to be done."

Carlton Turner, a senior White House policy adviser, told subcommittee members that most of the work Dr. Mayer referred to would be handled by volunteer groups and the business community, not by the federal government.

Mr. Turner said fighting drug abuse among young people remained a high priority within the Reagan Administration, but added that "the federal government will not dictate to communities what must be done to prevent drug abuse among children."

Federal Role

He pointed to First Lady Nancy Reagan's highly publicized visits to several state and local drug-rehabilitation clinics in the past few weeks as a good example of the appropriate federal role in such activities.

"A federally promoted campaign does not necessarily mean a federally funded campaign," he said. Private organizations and the business community "have demonstrated that they can do the job just as well as government can, and their involvement has the added benefit of enhancing their images among the public," he added. Mr. Turner said that today there are more than 3,000 parent groups in the country "dedicated to constraining the growth of the youth drug culture that has grown so rapidly during the last 15 years."

The strength of this grassroots movement, he said, helps advance the notion that "effec-tive social programs can grow in the absence of government interference."

Not all the news contained in the student drug-use survey, which is conducted annually by researchers at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, was heartening, the federal officials admitted.

According to the survey, 66 percent of the 17,000 students questioned admitted to some illicit use of a drug, a figure that the researchers called a "conservatively low" estimate.

Lloyd Johnston, one of the survey's primary researchers, added in the report that although the number of students reporting daily use of marijuana dropped from 11 percent in 1978 to 7 percent last year, the latter figure still means that one in every 14 seniors uses marijuana daily.

"Since many of these students are also daily cigarette smokers, they are subject to whatever the combined health risks of these two substances may be," Mr. Johnston said.

Survey Findings

The student drug-use survey also indicated that:

Since 1977, the proportion of seniors smoking half a pack of cigarettes or more per day has dropped by almost one-third (from 19.4 percent to 13.5 percent in 1981).

The proportion of students who have at least tried marijuana has declined from 51 percent in 1979 to 46 percent in 1981. Furthermore, users today do not report getting as high, or staying high as long, as did users a few years ago.

In two years, the percentage of students who have used the hallucinogenic PCP at least once in the past year has dropped by more than one-half, from 7 percent in 1979 to 3.2 percent in 1981.

Reported experimentation, "at least once," with the hypnotic methaqualone grew from 8 percent in 1978 to 11 percent in 1981.

Almost 32 percent of all 1981 seniors indicated having at least tried amphetamines, and 16 percent said they have used the drug in the past month.

All measures of alcohol abuse remained virtually unchanged. Those reporting daily use remained constant at 6 percent; the same percentage of seniors as in 1979--41 percent--reported indulging in occasional binge drinking (defined as taking five or more drinks in a row at least once within the last two weeks).

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