Increase in Drug Use Raises Issue of Prevention
A new federal survey that says drug use among the nation's teenagers has doubled in the past few years has touched off a bitter election-year debate and left educators wondering what they've done wrong.
"We used to have a more coordinated program to help kids understand about drugs," said Armentha Russell, the assistant superintendent of the Wellston, Mo., school district on the outskirts of St. Louis.
But in the past few years, she said, staffing constraints and limited financial resources have left a void.
Use of illegal drugs by 12- to 17-year-olds has jumped 105 percent since 1992, according to the annual "National Household Survey on Drug Abuse," which was released last month.
During the same period, the total number of illicit-drug users in the United States--an estimated 12.6 million people--has not changed significantly.
In 1995, 10.9 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds reported using an illegal drug in the past month, up from 5.3 percent in 1992, the report says.
And teenagers are experimenting more with cocaine, hallucinogens such as LSD, and heroin, according to the survey of more than 17,000 people age 12 and older. The survey is conducted by a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The sobering statistics quickly turned into a political rallying point for Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole.
Mr. Dole, who has charged that President Clinton's anti-drug strategy is lackadaisical, seized on the survey, contending in campaign stops that "the president has been known not for his eloquence, but his silence" on teenage drug use.
Referring to the "just say no" theme of the Reagan administration's campaign against drug use in the 1980s, Mr. Dole said the Clinton administration has replaced that unambiguous message with "just say nothing."
Decline of the 1980s
But Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services, said the survey results reflect a trend that began before Mr. Clinton took office in January 1993.
After hitting record numbers in the late 1970s, drug use among teenagers declined during the 1980s. But, experts say, as of 1991, there was evidence of an upward shift.
A University of Michigan study found that in 1991 adolescent attitudes toward drug use began to change.
Fewer young people considered illegal drugs to be dangerous, according to the annual "Monitoring the Future" report, one of the most authoritative sources of information on young people's attitudes toward drug use.
'Dropping the Ball'
This change from teenagers' perception of drugs as harmful is the primary reason that more teenagers are experimenting with illegal drugs, said Rosalind Brannigan, the vice president of Drug Strategies, a Washington-based nonprofit group.
"Once kids start saying, 'I don't think drugs are going to harm me,' they start using more," she said.
Drug-policy experts also say that because drug use dipped in the late 1980s, today's adolescents are less likely to have been exposed to the damaging effects of drugs on their older friends and classmates.
Adolescents also may be using more drugs, the experts say, because their parents may have experimented with drugs when they were younger and do not feel comfortable delivering anti-drug messages.
Media images in movies, magazines, and popular music that glamorize drug use also have played a part in stoking young people's desire to sample illicit drugs, said Linda Dusenbury, a professor of public health at the Cornell University Medical College in New York City.
"We have dropped the ball," she said. "We were on to something when everyone saw drugs as the number-one problem, but now it's moved down as a priority."
Efforts in the Schools
Many education leaders acknowledge that schools have been overwhelmed by other social problems in recent years--primarily teenage pregnancy and youth violence--and say drug-abuse-prevention efforts may have suffered as a result.
"There's been a lack of focus," said Ms. Russell of the Wellston public schools. "During the last couple of years we haven't had the anti-drug message bombarded into the community."
Part of the problem with combating substance abuse through the schools has been the uncertain quality of drug-education curricula, Ms. Brannigan of Drug Strategies said.
Only six of the 47 national drug-prevention curricula earned an A on a report card the group issued in June.
In the most comprehensive evaluation of drug-education programs nationwide, the report found that the most popular drug-education curriculum in the country, Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, earned only a C for its effort to curb adolescent drug use. (Please see "New Guide Gives A's to Six of 47 National Anti-Drug Programs," June 12, 1995.)
But Ms. Brannigan said several drug-education programs that employ certain strategies have had impressive results.
Several elements are central to any effective drug-prevention effort, she said. Programs should help students to recognize the internal and external pressures that influence them to use drugs and alcohol. And teachers should let children know that using drugs is not the norm.
Also, Ms. Brannigan said, interactive rather than didactic approaches are often the most successful ways to get the anti-drug message across to young people.
"A 10th-grade teacher should have students do a project on the harms of marijuana, not just lecture them on the dangers," said Dr. Richard B. Heyman, the chairman of the committee on substance abuse for the American Academy of Pediatrics in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
But state and local educators point to a lack of funding.
They say some drug-education efforts are faltering because the federal and local grant programs that pay for many school-based drug-education efforts are inadequate.
The annual budget for the Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, the main federal source for drug-education funds, has remained at roughly $440 million for the past several years.
Funding from this program goes to 97 percent of the nation's school systems.
Congress repeatedly has rejected Clinton administration attempts to boost funds for the U.S. Department of Education program, and opponents have argued that the drug-prevention grants the agency issues to school districts are so small--sometimes less than $100--that they are ineffectual.
"Everyone says the programs need to be more effective, but to do that schools need financial and community support," said Gary Marx, the spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.
But Jesse Flores, the executive director of Youth Advocacy, a substance-abuse-prevention program based in Austin, Texas, said last week that schools are not the best venue to steer teenagers away from drugs.
"Most kids think drug education at school is a joke for the most part," said Mr. Flores, whose group counsels young substance abusers in their homes, in community centers, and occasionally in the classroom.
"The problem is these kids lack role models, and that starts at home," he said.
In his speech to the Democratic National Convention, where he was renominated late last week, President Clinton tried to give hope to all drug-prevention workers. Though he proposed no specific policies, the president said, if re-elected, he would lead a crusade to turn children away from illegal drugs by driving home an anti-drug message.
"We have to renew our energy to teach this generation of young people the hard, cold truth: Drugs are deadly, drugs are wrong, drugs can cost you your life," the president said.
He called on Congress to approve the administration's funding request for the national office of drug control-policy to advance this effort.