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8th Graders' Use of Drugs on the Rise, Survey Finds

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While drug use among high school seniors has been gradually declining over the past decade, more 8th graders are experimenting with illicit drugs, according to a national study released last week.

In the annual National High School Senior Survey on Drug Abuse, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, three University of Michigan researchers surveyed nearly 50,000 8th, 10th and 12th graders on their use of 13 illegal substances including L.S.D., marijuana, crack cocaine, cocaine, and heroin. The students were also quizzed on their use of alcohol and cigarettes.

In questionnaires distributed to students at 420 public and private schools in 48 states, the students were asked about the conditions and frequency of their drug use, the availability of certain drugs, and whether they considered certain drugs to be dangerous.

Among the graduating class of 1992, 40.7 percent said they had used an illegal drug at least once in their lifetime, which represented a dramatic drop from 44.1 percent the previous year.

The survey also reported a decline in marijuana use among seniors from 23.9 percent in 1992 to 21.9 percent in 1991. Tenth-grade levels remained stable over all.

But use of the hallucinogen L.S.D. among high school seniors rose to 5.6 percent last year, up from 5.2 percent in 1991, representing the highest level in seven years.

But 8th graders reported increases in nearly every category from 1991 to 1992: cocaine use increased from 2.3 percent to 2.9 percent; marijuana use jumped from 10.2 percent to 11.2 percent; and use of L.S.D. rose from 2.7 percent to 3.2 percent.

Because the researchers have only been collecting data on 8th graders since 1991, they cautioned that more information is needed before long-term assessments of that population can be made.

But they also warned that the new data represent "the newest wave'' of adolescents who may foreshadow a reversal in the decline of drug use in this country.

Changing Attitudes

Attitudes about drug use have changed as well, the report says. In 1992, 8th graders were "significantly less likely'' than those in 1991 to see cocaine and crack cocaine as dangerous.

For example, in 1992, 89.6 percent of 8th graders said they "disapprove'' of people who try cocaine once or twice, compared with 91.2 percent who registered their disapproval the previous year.

This shift in tolerance levels may explain the increased use of these illegal substances by 13- and 14-year-olds, the researchers said.

In another "troubling'' finding, high school seniors were less likely to see experimentation with illicit substances as hazardous.

Lloyd Johnston, a social psychologist and the principal investigator in the study, charged that public complacency about the drug issue, lack of media attention, and government inaction are to blame for the resurgence in drug use among young teenagers.

"The drug-abuse issue has pretty much fallen off the map in this country,'' Mr. Johnston said.

In the past, he said, the media and politicians "have been instrumental in bringing about the attitudinal changes necessary to reduce drug use, so their letting up on the issue may well lead to some reversals.''

The study, which has been issued every year since 1975, has long been considered a gauge of the federal government's progress in combating illegal drug use nationally.

Its publication has precipitated calls for the Clinton Administration to appoint a "drug czar'' and give drug policy a higher priority.

Responding to the report in a statement issued last week, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala praised the "continued improvement'' among high school seniors but said "we need to be sure that younger students are still learning the facts about drug and alcohol abuse.''

"The findings this year present an early-warning signal that we shouldn't be taking for granted improvements in the drug situation,'' Mr. Johnston said. "If we let up, it's going to come back at us.''

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