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Political Rhetoric Overlooks Change in Drug-Use Patterns

By Roberto Suro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 24, 1996; Page A01

While the presidential candidates are promising swift action against teenage drug use, law enforcement officials and other experts warn that the new pattern of drug activity isn't susceptible to the same types of government initiatives used in the past.

Unlike with previous surges in drug use, studies show that the current increase is mostly among adolescents, and mostly involving marijuana. But the political rhetoric has yet to focus on the changed face of the drug problem, according to law enforcement officials and others who follow the issue.

Instead, the two candidates have focused on assigning blame for the increased drug use, with the debate dissolving into a long-standing disagreement over whether the central problem is one of supply or demand. Republican candidate Robert J. Dole emphasizes stepped-up efforts to curtail the amount of drugs available through interdiction and tough law enforcement. President Clinton is more focused on demand: What is needed, he says, are more prevention, education and treatment programs.

However, experts warn that solutions to the drug problems will not be found by looking to the past. The current upsurge in teenage marijuana use is marked by distinctive characteristics that call out for new strategies to address both supply and demand challenges, according to many law enforcement officials and others who follow the drug trade.

Unlike the drug epidemic of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the current trend is occurring among youth in their early teens, often still in grade school, rather than among college students and young adults. And, unlike the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, which centered on a drug that is entirely imported from overseas, the current trend is fueled primarily by the use of marijuana, much of which is now cultivated domestically.

Because much of the marijuana supply comes from domestic growers and is believed to be distributed by small networks or individuals, law enforcement officials say curtailing the supply will require a different approach than was taken for cocaine and heroin -- drugs that come entirely from abroad and are usually distributed by large criminal organizations. Stopping people from growing marijuana in their suburban basements, enforcement officials say, requires tactics quite distinct from those used to stop the cultivation of coca plants in the Andes.

Who is using drugs is also different this time around. In one important measure of usage, an annual University of Michigan study called "Monitoring the Future" found that the percentage of high school seniors who admit to smoking marijuana in the previous year has gone from 27 percent in 1991 to 39 percent in 1995. In 1979, use stood at 54 percent. No other drugs, including various hallucinogens, cocaine and inhalants, registered usage levels above 10 percent in the 1995 survey. Although heroin use doubled over this period, only 1 percent of high school seniors said they have used it in the past year.

"We still have a chance to address the kids untouched by drugs with prevention programs, which is different than dealing with a population that is already hooked and needs treatment," said Mathea Falco, president of Drug Strategies, a research and advocacy organization.

There are other factors that make this current surge in drug use different, say experts:

The fact that many of today's parents once used illicit drugs themselves and must now grapple with how to persuade their children not to follow the same path.

The relative youth of the target audience and therefore the potential that their initial use will grow into a more serious problem.

The widespread perception that marijuana is less dangerous than other drugs, a view that may lead to a greater tolerance of its use.

While there is general agreement that these challenges need urgent attention, what to do about it has become a bitterly partisan issue in the presidential race.

Dole, at almost every campaign stop, charges that Clinton has a tolerant attitude toward drug use and that his administration is responsible for the recent climb. Clinton counters that Dole is simply trying to exploit the issue for partisan advantage and insists the administration is moving in the right direction with its drug control policies.

In defining the federal role in past crises, three recent presidents -- Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush -- preached against drug use from the White House and proclaimed a "war on drugs" that set out to attack the foreign sources of narcotics. Each of those efforts proved controversial, setting off debates between those who advocated measures aimed at reducing demand and those who backed a strategy focused on supply.

The reports of increasing adolescent drug use not only have revived the supply-vs.-demand debate, they also have given rise to disagreements over whether the concept of a "drug war" is appropriate in the first place.

"We got trapped in the drug war metaphor, and the media and others insisted that if we hadn't won, then we must have lost, and that does not produce the kind of sustained, long-term effort which is what you need when you are trying to ensure that every successive generation of young people has strong attitudes against drug abuse," said Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the White House drug policy office, who prefers the metaphor of curing a disease by applying several types of medicine simultaneously.

"The debate between prevention and punishment is a dead end," said Patrick McGowan, sheriff of Hennepin County, Minn., which includes Minneapolis. "It is not an either/or choice. Education is essential for the long term when you are trying to keep 13-year-olds from making their first mistake, but in the short term there have to be meaningful consequences when people want to pollute our young with marijuana. Right now we are not doing a good job either way."

Some law enforcement officials worry that the preoccupation with a foreign peril has created a mistaken perception of the threats America faces.

"What I hope we have learned from the last drug war is that our problem is user-generated," said Sherman Block, sheriff of Los Angeles County, Calif. "It is not generated in Mexico or Colombia or anywhere else."

Domestic marijuana cultivation has increased substantially over the past decade, according to federal officials, who estimate that the domestic crop has risen from one-quarter to one-half of the market.

Federal funding for eradicating marijuana crops in the United States has remained flat at $10 million a year since 1992 -- a tiny fraction of the $13 billion federal drug-control budget.

The relatively small amount of money focused on marijuana is in part a reflection of the widely held belief that cocaine not only is more addictive but often is accompanied by more violence. Though their efforts were rightly focused on the more serious problem, law enforcement experts say, the unintended result was that marijuana received less attention than it probably should have, laying the groundwork for the current increase in use of the drug.

"Many cities were so overwhelmed by the crack problem, both in its actual dimensions and the sensationalism that surrounded it, that police departments simply had no choice but to throw resources at crack while marijuana slid further and further down the priority list," said Patrick V. Murphy, a former police commissioner in Washington and New York and now director of police policy for the National Conference of Mayors.

In 1979, when overall drug use was at its peak, marijuana arrests outnumbered those for cocaine offenses more than five to one, according to FBI statistics. A decade later at the height of the struggle against crack, cocaine arrests peaked at 734,000 a year, which was nearly nearly double the number for marijuana.

Over this period, use of all drugs declined dramatically. According to federal surveys, the number of illicit drug users fell from 25.4 million in 1979 to 12 million in 1992. The one exception to the trend was hard-core addictive use. The number of crack addicts has remained roughly stable at 400,000 since 1988.

In addition to the law enforcement effort, a broad process of demographic and cultural change also took place. The baby-boom generation had moved into middle age by the early 1990s, and American society generally grew more disapproving of many behaviors, from excessive alcohol consumption to sexual promiscuity. The change in drug use was sharp, but may have lulled society into believing the problem was contained.

"The people who gave up cigarettes, red meat and hard liquor also gave up the recreational use of drugs, but that created a false impression that we had beat the problem," Falco said.

The Partnership for a Drug Free America, for example, helped make the frying egg an American icon for a brain on drugs during the 1980s, but it has experienced a 30 percent drop in the amount of broadcast time donated for its public service announcements since 1991.

The Monitoring the Future surveys detected a change in the way adolescents perceived drugs that started roughly in 1991, as the attention generated by the war on cocaine began to wane. Both the proportion of students who saw drugs as dangerous and who expressed disapproval of drug use began to decline; the level of usage began to increase almost immediately.

Persuading young teenagers to reject marijuana use may be more difficult than it was for cocaine. "Marijuana is the toughest product we have to sell against," said Steve Dnistrian, senior vice president at the partnership, a volunteer media and advertising effort.

The death of basketball star Len Bias in 1986 and other less publicized tragedies did much to convince the American public of the dangers of even occasional cocaine use, but marijuana rarely produces such dramatic results.

Moreover, some 70 million adults have used marijuana at some time in their life, including the president and vice president, the speaker of the House and many other public figures.

"As a society we have removed the stigma from marijuana use," McGowan said, "and now we face a very tough job of convincing our young people that we are serious when we tell them this is unacceptable."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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