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Sharp Drop Seen in Student Cocaine Abuse

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Cocaine use among high-school seniors has declined significantly for the first time in more than 10 years, but the use of alcohol and cigarettes continues unabated, according to an annual survey released last week.

The survey, the 13th by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, found that use of most illicit drugs by young people is on a downward trend.

The cooling of the "unhealthy romance between many of America's young people and illicit drugs" reflects a change in attitude, said Lloyd D. Johnston, director of the federally funded survey. More young people are beginning to heed warnings about the dangers of drug use, he said.

"We have come only part way down from a very high mountain, and to a considerable degree that is true of the drug problem in general," Mr. Johnston said.

Sudden Attitude Change

The survey of 16,000 seniors in about 130 public and private high schools nationwide found that the proportion of students who said there was "great risk" in using cocaine only "once or twice" jumped from 34 percent in 1986 to 48 percent in 1987. Researchers were sur4prised by the shift, because attitudes about cocaine use had remained steady for the previous eight years.

Mr. Johnston cited the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaigns and the cocaine-related deaths of the University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias and Don Rogers, a player for the Cleveland Browns football team, with increasing the awareness of students about the dangers of cocaine.

"It is indeed a shame that the deaths of many talented young people took place before the danger of cocaine use was widely believed by our youth," Otis R. Bowen, Secretary of Health and Human Services, said last week. The department's National Institute on Drug Abuse sponsors the annual survey, called "Monitoring the Future."

The survey found that the proportion of students who said they were current users of cocaine decreased by about one-third, from 6.2 percent in 1986, to 4.3 percent in 1987.

The proportion of seniors who said they had used cocaine at least once in the past year dropped by one-fifth, from 12.7 percent to 10.3 percent.

In previous years of the survey, cocaine use had increased or remained steady, in spite of a long-term decline in the use of other illegal drugs, researchers said.

In a survey following 10,000 high-school graduates from the classes of 1975 through 1986, researchers found that the number of young adults age 19-29 who reported using cocaine in the past year declined substantially--from 20 percent to 16 percent.

Among a national sample of 1,100 college students, cocaine use dropped from 17 percent to 14 percent.

'Crack' Use Moderating

The use of "crack," an inexpensive, smokeable form of cocaine, appears to have leveled out from the "epidemic" of 1986, Mr. Johnston said. However, preliminary data suggest that crack use is not dropping as quickly as regular cocaine use.

The survey found that 5.6 percent of the seniors said they had tried crack, and 4 percent had tried the drug in the past year.

While the survey is representative of about 80 percent of the estimated 3 million Americans who are of high-school-senior age, it does not reach the nearly 20 percent who have dropped out of school, Mr. Johnston said.

Drug use--and specifically the use of crack--may be 50 percent greater among high-school dropouts, the researcher said.

In addition, the survey found that crack is gradually spreading from urban schools to rural areas. Last year, researchers say, crack was used by at least some students in 75 percent of the schools in the sample. In 1986, the proportion was 50 percent.

Since 1978, high-school seniors have continued to use less marijuana and hashish, and use of the drugs declined to its lowest point since the survey began.

Daily marijuana use fell from 10.7 percent in 1978 to 3.3 percent in 1987, the survey found. The proportion of seniors who said they had used marijuana during the past year dropped from 39 percent in 1986 to 36 percent last year.

Cigarettes, Alcohol Abused

Mr. Johnston and his university colleagues, Jerald G. Bachman and Patrick M. O'Malley, said they were particularly disturbed by the continued high levels of cigarette smoking and alcohol use among young people.

Nearly one-fifth of high-school seniors are daily smokers, and more convert from occasional to regular smoking in the years following high school, Mr. Johnston said.

"Cigarette smoking, the substance-abusing behavior that will take the lives of more of these young people than all of the others combined, has not dropped since 1984," Mr. Johnston said.

"If it took their lives quickly, there'd be more of a public outcry, but since it takes 30 to 40 years, it doesn't get much attention," he said in an interview last week.

The survey found no decline in the amount of alcohol use for the past three years. Nearly 40 percent of high-school seniors reported at least one occasion of heavy drinking--defined as five or more drinks in a row--in the two weeks prior to taking the survey. Most seniors have tried alcohol, the survey found, and about 5 percent are daily drinkers.

The survey also found that:

57 percent of the class of 1987 had tried an illicit drug at least once, and more than one-third had tried a drug other than marijuana.

42 percent of the seniors reported using an illicit drug during the past year, the lowest level since the survey began in 1975.

One of every six or seven high-school seniors has tried cocaine, and 1 in 18 has tried crack.

Four out of 10 young adults under age 30 have tried cocaine, and 1 in 15 has tried crack.

Eighty-seven percent of the class of 1987 disapprove of trying cocaine, 7 percent above last year's level; 97 percent disapprove of regular cocaine use.

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