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Area Juveniles Feel the Tug of Illegal Drugs

By Charles W. Hall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 23, 1996; Page A01

Juvenile arrests and student suspensions for illegal drug use and sales have risen sharply in the Washington suburbs, and abusers are getting younger, according to federal and local officials who said the numbers reflect a discouraging reversal in the war on drugs.

Unlike a surge in crack cocaine that ravaged urban areas in the late 1980s, the latest increases are fueled by marijuana's comeback and cut across social and geographic lines, officials said. At the same time, they said, parents have been slow to recognize a growing problem, and national anti-drug campaigns have waned.

"What it seems to boil down to is that we as a nation took our eye off the ball," said Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, recently appointed as President Clinton's drug-policy director. "We thought we had drug addiction backed into a corner. Suddenly, we have what many of us believe is a negative situation among our children."

In opinion polls during the 1980s, student opposition to drug use more than doubled, but state and national surveys since 1991 have found a growing willingness to try illegal drugs, especially among eighth-graders. In a 1994 survey in Maryland, for instance, 13 percent of all eighth-graders reported that they had tried marijuana, nearly four times the 3.5 percent who said they had used it in 1992.

That changing attitude is translating into more drug violations at younger ages, according to local school and court statistics. Officials in the city of Alexandria and the counties of Arlington, Anne Arundel, Fairfax, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's said they had seen significant rises in arrests and suspensions over the last two years. Most cited marijuana violations.

One of the biggest jumps has been in Fairfax, where law enforcement officials predict they will arrest more than 900 juveniles for drugs and alcohol by the time the fiscal year ends June 30, compared with 504 just two years ago.

The county's school system recommended this year that 112 students be expelled for distributing drugs, including 81 who sold marijuana, compared with 66 expulsions last year, 44 of them for marijuana distribution.

"We began seeing more marijuana about a year ago, and it caught us by surprise," said Dolores Bohen, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County school system. "We said to ourselves, 'Look what's making a comeback.' "

In the District, urine samples of arrested juveniles began showing a surge in marijuana use beginning in late 1993, but school officials said they have not seen a rise in drug suspensions. Prince William County police said their drug arrests of juveniles have not risen.

Beyond the raw numbers, say officials and parents, are troubling signs that many families are not facing up to a newer, and harsher, drug environment and that they are baffled as their children's troubles mount.

Drug counselors said parents are especially clueless about one of the most troubling trends: the younger age at which drug abuse is starting.

At Phoenix II, a special high school in Gaithersburg for recovering drug abusers, the population used to be mostly juniors and seniors. This year, 22 of the school's 30 students were ninth-graders, and most were users before their 14th birthdays.

"The parents all worry about high school, but kids start thinking about drinking and drugs in the sixth grade, mostly," said Sally Eller, director of Phoenix II, one of two Montgomery schools for recovering addicts.

In Fairfax, a study of 311 students suspended for alcohol and drug violations during the school year that just ended shows a similar trend: The largest group, 66, was in the eighth grade, rather than in upper grades. Moreover, 168 of the suspended students said they first used illegal drugs or drank outside the home at age 13 or younger.

Parents frequently are stunned when their children get into trouble. Jim Money, the Fairfax school sys tem's drug counselor, has given those parents a sardonic acronym: NCAA, for "no clue at all."

"There is so much denial," Money said. "When kids say they are at a friend's, most parents don't follow up with a phone call. Some of these kids are great liars."

In interviews, parents expressed frustration, saying a veil of secrecy often descends on children just as they are entering the age of greatest risk.

An Alexandria mother, who asked that her name not be used, said she became worried when her daughter was in junior high school and got drunk at her home during a sleepover with friends.

The daughter, now an 11th-grader at T.C. Williams High School, angrily rejected her mother's advice and denied using drugs until Thanksgiving, when she and several friends were caught by police driving home from Southeast Washington, where they had purchased marijuana.

"I wasn't bothered by the marijuana as much as the fact that she could be stupid enough to go to a place I wouldn't even go," said the mother, who said that before the arrest, "my opinions, words and thoughts had no value to her. It was like she thought I was the dumbest person in the world."

A McLean mother, who also asked that her name not be published, said she was surprised by the complacency of other parents when her 15-year-old daughter was involved in a car crash after she and two friends passed out from inhaling nitrous oxide.

When the mother found notes to her daughter from friends discussing drugs, she called their parents, but found that the parents did not share her concerns. "I was appalled," she said. "One mother said she didn't care about marijuana, that she had done marijuana in college. She said, 'I'll just tell her not to do inhalants and not to see older boyfriends.' "

Experts said parents' past drug experiences often give them a false sense of security. Marijuana today is far more chemically potent than in the 1960s, they said, and youngsters using drugs in their early teens are far more vulnerable to addiction than are older users.

"The single biggest thing we are worried about is the increasing use by young kids," said Alan I. Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "If you make it to 20 without drinking or using drugs, there is almost zero chance of becoming addicted. Early use increases the odds phenomenally."

Officials worry, however. that mobilizing public concern about drugs may be more difficult than it was a decade ago. Federal funding for drug education and treatment has faced stiff congressional opposition in recent years, and television and radio broadcast time for anti-drug announcements has fallen by 30 percent since 1990.

Monday, anti-drug leaders endorsed a new campaign against heroin use, citing falling awareness among young people as a key factor. According to national surveys, they said, only 50 percent of youngsters 12 to 17 years old believe heroin poses a serious health risk.

"When the media focused on drugs, they had a huge impact on attitudes," said Steve Dnistrian, senior vice president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which assembled the heroin ads. "There has been a public burnout. We're talking about a long-term engagement, and that's not very sexy."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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