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Teen Drug Use Still Rising, According to a Federal Survey


September 1996

Drug Abuse by teen-agers has risen dramatically while overall drug use stayed the same according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse by the Department of Health and Human Services (Tim Friend, "Teens' use of drugs rises 78%," USA Today, August 20, 1996, p. A1; Josh Greenberg, "Teen Drug Use Doubled in Past 4 Years, U.S. Says," Los Angeles Times/Washington Edition, August 21, 1996, p. A1; Carey Goldberg, "Survey Reports More Drug Use by Teen-Agers," New York Times, August 21, 1996, p. A12; Roberto Suro, "Teens' Use of Drugs Still Rising," Washington Post, August 21, 1996, p. A1; Bill Nichols, "White House, GOP spar on drug report," USA Today, August 21, 1996, p. A1; Joel Kaplan, "Drug use rising among youths, new study says," Chicago Tribune, August 21, 1996, p. 1).

The annual household survey was released on August 20 and reflects the results of interviews with 17,747 people older than 12. Previous surveys show that teen drug use was at its lowest in 1992, after a decade of decline. The following table compares the new figures to the figures from 1992 and 1994:


% of 12- to 17-year-olds who reported drug use
in the month preceding the survey

 DRUG 1992% 1994% 1995% % increase
% increase
any illegal drug 5.3% 8.2% 10.9% 105% 33%
marijuana 3.4% 6.0% 8.2% 141% 37% 
cocaine 0.3% 0.3% 0.8% 166% 166% 
hallucinogens 0.6% 1.1% 1.7% 183% 54% 

A second study was released on August 20 by the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), also run by the Department of Health and Human Services. It found that between 1992 and 1995, emergency room visits that mentioned drug use rose 96% for marijuana, 58% for heroin and 19% for cocaine.

Bob Dole and the GOP are using the survey findings as political ammunition against Clinton. Dole called the findings "nothing short of a national tragedy" and promised, if elected, "to make the drug war priority number one once again." Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said, "The statistics confirm an upward spiral of drug abuse across the nation since President Clinton took office." The White House cut the staff of the Office of National Drug Control Policy by 83% in 1993 as part of its government-wide downsizing effort, but restored the funding later.

The Administration defended itself by noting that Republicans proposed a $185 million cut from the president's 1997 budget for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA, which conducts the household survey, is the government's lead agency on substance abuse and treatment.

The White House maintains that while it is concerned about the statistics, the rise in teen drug use began before President Clinton took office. "Before this Administration came to Washington, this trend began ... [and] it continues today," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. "This is a bipartisan issue. These are all our children." Shalala also noted that the survey found overall drug use has remained stable since 1992 and that the 1995 figures were far below the peak levels of the 1970s.

General Barry McCaffrey, the Administration's director of drug policy, suggested that a new emphasis in America's schools and homes is needed. He said, "I would suggest that we have done an inadequate job of ... explaining the centrality of drug education and prevention."

Experts say the findings were not completely unexpected. Lloyd Johnston, chief researcher on the Monitoring the Future Survey at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, says the stage was set in 1991. That year studies began to show a decline in the number of teenagers who perceived drugs as dangerous and who disapproved of marijuana.

Instead of blaming President Clinton, three other possible explanations have been reported in the media. First, many parents feel hypocritical about warning their kids about drugs. "We have a generation of parents who have a difficult time talking to kids about drugs, since 57% of them used drugs in the 60s," said James Copple of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. Second, teen-agers today are less likely to have seen the ill effects of drugs, because drug use declined so steeply during the 1980's. "There's a phenomenon I like to label as generational forgetting," said Johnston. He added, "This generation doesn't know about the dangers of drugs the way the last did. That knowledge didn't get passed along, so since there's no opportunity to learn informally from all the users falling like flies around them, there's a greater need for institutional and formal learning."

Third, some experts blame the media for glamorizing drugs. Dr. Herbert Kleber, head of Columbia University's Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse, credited the rise in part to "a drumbeat of pro-drug messages in the media." Dr. Johnston cites the "growing glamorization of drug use in popular music."