Illegal Drug Use Among Teenagers Continues to Fall

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2006

Federal officials are concerned that teenagers are abusing prescription medications and over-the-counter cold remedies even as their use of illegal drugs has generally declined over the past five years, according to a government survey released yesterday.

Illegal drug use by teenagers has fallen 23 percent since 2001, but their use of prescription narcotics, tranquilizers and other medicines remains "relatively high," government investigators said.

For the first time researchers asked whether teenagers were using nonprescription cough or cold medicines to get high and found reason for concern. Over-the-counter medicines often contain the cough suppressant dextromethorphan, which alters mood and consciousness when consumed in high doses and can cause brain damage or even death, officials said.

About 1 in 14 12th-graders, or 7 percent, said they had taken such medicines to get high in the past year. Among eighth-graders, the figure was 1 in 25, or about 4 percent.

"This is now an area of drug abuse that we need to pay more attention to," said Lloyd D. Johnston, the University of Michigan researcher who led the annual "Monitoring the Future" survey, now in its 32nd year. "My guess is that young people do not understand the dangers of abusing these drugs."

The annual government-funded survey reached 48,460 students in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades in 410 public and private schools nationwide.

Prescription-drug abuse remained a persistent problem, officials said. After rising steadily since 2002, the percentage of 12th-graders who said they had used the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin in the past year fell from 5.5 percent to 4.3 percent, about the same level as four years ago. Use of Vicodin, another popular narcotic, more or less has held steady since 2002, with 10 percent of 12th-graders, 7 percent of 10th-graders and 3 percent of eighth-graders saying they had used it to get high within the past year.

"If there is one thing that every adult can do today to help protect young people against prescription drugs, it is go to your medicine cabinet, take those prescription drugs you are finished using and throw them away," said John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "If you have teens in your house, remove this hazard today."

Overall, the survey shows a continued long-term decline in teenagers' use of alcohol and illicit drugs such as marijuana, the most widely used illicit substance. The reduction occurred while federal funding for anti-drug advertising fell annually, from $185 million when President Bush took office in 2001 to $100 million in 2006. However, the past year's declines in drug and alcohol use were "relatively small," the report said.

"In many ways, this was a year of modest changes, but nearly all of it in the right direction," Johnston said.

For instance, about 32 percent of high school seniors and 25 percent of 10th-graders said they had used marijuana in the past year, down from 34 percent and 27 percent, respectively, in 2005. Among eighth-graders the figure held steady at about 12 percent. In 2000, the comparable figures were 37 percent for seniors, 32 percent for sophomores and 16 percent for eighth-graders.

In 2006, about 30 percent of 12th-graders said they had been drunk in the month before taking the survey, the same as in 2005. That compared with about 32 percent in 2000 and 31 percent in 1996.

Cocaine use dipped slightly among eighth- and 10th-graders in 2006, with 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively, saying they had used the drug in the past year. But it rose slightly among 12th-graders, to 6 percent from 5 percent. In 2000, by comparison, 5 percent of seniors reported using the drug in the past year, as did 4 percent of sophomores and 3 percent of eighth-graders.

Critics noted that teenagers' use of marijuana, cocaine and other illicit drugs remains higher today than it was 15 years ago. In 2006, 37 percent of high school seniors said they had used an illicit drug in the past year. In 1991, 29 percent said so.

"This isn't progress," said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group that wants marijuana to be regulated and taxed the way alcohol is. "The truth is that our policies don't work."

Walters warned that favorable trends could turn around.

"We've had in the past a tendency to take our eye off the ball," he said. "We want to continue this decline, and that requires us to stay at it. If we fail to send anti-drug messages across multiple contexts with young people -- especially given the contrary drumbeat that still appears in popular culture and on the Internet -- we risk losing our progress."

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