Teenage Drug Use Seems To Be Leveling Off

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Although a recent study suggests that teenage drug use may be leveling off, the continuing high levels of substance abuse among American youths has prompted some experts to suggest a change in federal drug policies.

After six years of steady increases in drug use by teenagers, there was no significant increase in the findings of the latest Monitoring the Future survey, an annual report by the University of Michigan and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"This change in attitudes represents a glimmer of hope in our efforts to protect our children from drugs. But our work is far from over," said President Clinton, who unveiled the study's results in a radio address last month.

Pot Disapproval

The survey showed no growth in drug usage among 8th graders. Moreover, the study found that while smoking marijuana continued its long-term rise among 10th to 12th graders, the use of other drugs, such as inhalants, cocaine, and heroin, has stabilized.

This latest survey also marks the first time since 1991 that there has been an increase in the percentage of 8th graders disapproving of occasional marijuana use, from 76.5 percent in 1996 to 78.1 in 1997.

About 51,000 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in 429 public and private secondary schools were surveyed last spring. The margin of error was less than 2 percentage points.

"Some of the social forces which probably gave rise to the increase have reversed direction," said Lloyd D. Johnston, the principal investigator of Monitoring the Future. "The media are paying much more attention to these issues, and federal funding for drug prevention has begun to rise," said the researcher, who is based at the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor.

Ad Campaign Planned

Beginning early this year, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy will launch a $195 million national anti-drug advertising campaign aimed at warning young people about the dangers of drug use. In addition to radio and television ads, the message will go out over the Internet.

Barry R. McCaffrey, the national drug-policy director, sees the survey results as a step in the right direction, but has cautioned against losing sight of the data that show schoolchildren are using drugs at unacceptably high levels. "We have to remain focused on the goal of keeping our kids drug free from the ages of 10 to 20, and halting dangerous gateway behavior," he said in a statement.

Mathea Falco, the president of Drug Strategies, a Washington policy-research institute, said the University of Michigan survey shows a need to "rethink federal drug policies which fail to stress prevention."

Drug Strategies prepares its own annual review of the impact and effectiveness of federal drug-control spending.

Called "Keeping Score," the most recent report, which was out last month, focuses on drug abuse among young people.

The report concludes that much more money and emphasis should be put into prevention programs rather than into incarceration and international drug-interdiction efforts.

It also recommends more supervision and structured activities during after-school hours to keep children out of trouble and off drugs.

Surveys such as "Keeping Score" and the annual National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which provides estimates of the prevalence of illicit drug, alcohol, and tobacco use and monitors trends in use, are used as indicators to help create a base for setting policies, said Brian Morton, a spokesman for the national drug-control office.

"We take them all into account," he said, to see if the policies are on course.

The Department of Health and Human Services underwrites the University of Michigan research.

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