D.C. Mayor Marion Barry took a poke yesterday at some area jewelry merchants, saying they are "just as guilty of this drug epidemic as the people who sell drugs" because, he said, they accept large sums of cash for sales of gold jewelry to youths involved in drug trafficking.

Barry said he had asked city lawyers to investigate ways to halt such jewelry sales, and suggested one remedy might be to station D.C. police officers outside the stores to "scare away" youths who might be tempted to buy goods there.

The mayor, who made his remarks while visiting a Northwest residential shelter for youths awaiting trial on criminal charges, was referring to fashions within the illicit drug trade for such status symbols as gold jewelry and watches.

"These guys and gals like gold," Barry said. "They go in and they pay cash -- $500, $600."

He criticized merchants for not reporting such transactions, and said he had asked police officials to draw up a list of stores involved.

In other remarks, Barry played down the significance of recent figures showing that as many as 30 percent of juveniles held at the Oak Hill detention facility on criminal charges had escaped.

Barry said that from 80 to 85 percent of the youths reported as escapees, in fact, had not broken out of the facility, but had failed to return from sanctioned visits home. He said the city was developing a program to better identify juveniles who merit home visits, and to cull those who might not come back.

City officials have acknowledged serious security problems at Oak Hill, the city's maximum security facility for juvenile offenders, and announced stepped-up measures this month to prevent escapes and tighten disciplinary measures for inmates who break out.

But Barry, while vowing the city would enforce court detention orders in juvenile cases, said yesterday that the break-out problem is not as bad as has been reported recently. "They're not really escapes," he said. "They're absconders."

Barry spent nearly an hour touring the Dupont III shelter on Colorado Avenue NW, where eight youths awaiting trial on criminal charges are housed under a city contract.

The mayor spoke privately with three of the youths living there, and later said the conversation pointed to some of the factors fueling the D.C.'s drug problems.

Two of the three teen-agers, Barry said, had pending drug charges. One had been arrested after a recent police search of his house in which large quantities of cocaine were found.

Barry, who said he spent his time with the youths "getting through all the bull," complained that the youth whose house was searched continued to deny the drugs were his. "He said it just happened to be there. I said, 'Man, come on.' "

"The sad thing about it," Barry said, "is that these guys are bright. If these guys used that energy for good things, that would be great."

Marva Thomas, who directs operations at Dupont III and two other juvenile shelters run by the nonprofit Associates for Renewal in Education, estimated that 60 percent of youths referred to the homes by the courts test positive for drug use when they arrive.