For drug educators, the latest batch of studies on teenage substance abuse was a mixture of good news and bad news.
While one federal government study showed that fewer teenagers were sampling marijuana and other illegal drugs, a separate recent report said adolescents were trying harder drugs at younger ages.
“There is a downturn [in overall teenage drug use], and this is encouraging,” said Rosalind Brannigan, the vice president of Drug Strategies, a Washington research and policy group. “But children are using stronger drugs at younger ages, so this is not the time to let down our guard.”
In the 1996 “National Household Survey on Drug Abuse,” released by the federal government last month, researchers found, for example, that after four years of increases, illicit drug use among teenagers had declined slightly. The proportion of 12- to 17-year-olds reporting illegal drug use fell from 11 percent in 1995 to 9 percent last year--the lowest percentage since 1992.
The 1996 survey also found that 7.1 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds reported having used marijuana in the past month, compared with 8.2 percent in 1995. The 1996 level was the lowest since 1992, when 3.4 percent of youths reported using marijuana. Alcohol and smokeless-tobacco use among teenagers also decreased from 1995 to last year, according to the report.
A federal survey last year that showed a big jump in teenage drug use fueled debate over the quality of schools’ prevention efforts. (“Increase in Drug Use Raises Issue of Prevention,” Sept. 4, 1996.)
Donna E. Shalala, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, said the latest federal report was good news. “These findings offer us a glimmer of hope,” she said in a written statement last month.
The researchers interviewed 4,538 12- to 17-year-olds. The margin of error for the data on teenagers was plus or minus 1 percent.
But a study released last month by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University underscored the need for continued concern.
The proportion of 12-year-olds who reported having a friend or classmate who uses LSD, cocaine, or heroin has more than doubled in the past year, CASA researchers report in “Substance Abuse and the American Adolescent.”
The 1997 report found that 23.5 percent of the 12-year-olds surveyed reported having a friend or classmate who used hard drugs, compared with only 10.6 percent of 12-year-olds surveyed in 1996. Fifty-six percent of the 12- to 17-year-olds said they had a friend or classmate who used hard drugs, up from 39 percent last year.
Older teenagers showed a less dramatic increase.
The survey of 1,115 12- to 17-year-olds was conducted during June and July and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
“Children are being exposed to these substances at younger ages and therefore are more vulnerable to their tragic affects,” said the Rev. Edward A. Malloy, the president of the University of Notre Dame and the chairman of the CASA panel that released the report.