IT IS NO secret that the United States has an unconscionable drug problem, with well over 10 million regular users of illegal substances, several million of whom are in various stages of addiction. Nevertheless, profound changes in attitudes toward drugs and usage patterns are occurring in this country and communities, corporation and media outlets everywhere are taking action and scoring notable successes. Nearly 500 organizations were represented at a conference sponsored by the President's Drug Advisory Council in Washington this weekend to share resources and develop an action plan.

America's current drug problem had its beginnings in the 1960s. By 1988, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported 68 million people between the ages of 12 and 54 had used illegal drugs once in their lifetime, almost 44 percent of the age group. Drug use had become so pervasive that it had become "normal" behavior. In the last five years, however, this country has gone a long way toward "de-normalizing" the use of illegal drugs -- a fact that is often overlooked in all the attention given to drug-related crime.

While many factors affect public perceptions and behavior, research shows that harnessing the power of the communications industry can work a dramatic change in the public's attitudes toward the acceptability of drug use -- and that change translates into reductions in actual drug use.

Part of this effort has come from the independent decisions of the print and broadcast media to run innumerable news and feature stories, editorials and TV specials on the drug problem. But it also includes a conscious efforts by Hollywood and TV program producers to deglamorize drugs as well as the largest pro-bono educational campaign in the history of our country. The last initiative -- the Partnership for a Drug-Free America -- is delivering approximately $1 million worth of advertising per day and will run for at least two more years.

Is this mobilization of media power having an effect? Three major studies showing dramatic drops in drug usage in recent years {see chart} suggest that it is:

The Partnership's own Attitude & Usage Study, begun in 1987 prior to our anti-drug advertising, has shown a corresponding reduction in drug usage each successive year -- except in the 13- to 17-year-old age group. But, as the Partnership reported on Sept. 3, teenage cocaine use finally dropped dramatically -- 44 percent in the past year -- from 10.6 percent to 5.9 percent. And in markets with the highest levels of Partnership advertising, declines were correspondingly greater. For example, marijuana use declined by 33 percent in frequent ad exposure areas vs. 15 percent elsewhere.

NIDA's Household Survey shows cocaine use down 32 percent in the three-year period from 1985 to 1988, the most recent data available until early next year.

The Annual High School Seniors Study, conducted for the last 15 years by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, shows that cocaine usage among high school seniors and college students peaked in 1985. In 1987, usage turned down sharply as perception of risk increased dramatically. (Fifty-six percent of students in 1989 saw a great risk or harm in using cocaine once or twice vs. 33 percent in 1986, according to the Partnership study.) Cocaine use in this group has dropped almost 50 percent in three years even though its availability on high school campuses was at an all-time high last year.

Each of these studies involved different methodologies, age groups and time frames; yet all three confirm the same downward trends. As attitudes change, usage declines because fewer people try drugs, and more so-called casual users stop before getting into trouble. People start using drugs because they want to, and the so-called "war against drugs" can't be won unless people stop wanting to use them.

The Medium and the Message

The effort to "denormalize" drug use began in earnest in mid-1986 not long after University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. His death generated enormous media interest. A few weeks later, Richard Frank, president of Walt Disney Studios, in his capacity as president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, told 600 of the industry's leaders in Hollywood:

"Today we begin the mobilization of the television industry in the war against drugs . . . . Because the problem of drug abuse is so pervasive, we are the obvious choice to combat it . . . . Kids typically watch seven hours of programming a day. Drug abusers -- more importantly potential abusers -- all watch television." Frank went on to note that his industry was the first "in which drug abuse was publicly acknowledged as a problem. Let ours also be the first to provide national leadership in combating it!"

Phil Joanou, chairman of Dailey & Associates Advertising in Los Angeles, was perplexed as to why his industry couldn't use its considerable talent to persuade the public about the risks of drug abuse. Joanou discussed his concern with his peers on the board of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. On May 15, 1986, Lou Hagopian, chairman of N.W. Ayer Advertising and the association's president, announced the formation of the Media-Advertising Partnership for a Drug-Free America. This tiny organization worked with the advertising industry to create educational anti-drug ads on a pro-bono basis, and with the media to volunteer free time and space.

Since the mid-'80s, press coverage has been unrelenting and drug abuse has become a familiar topic in the lives of even rural Americans. As a result, in virtually every opinion poll last year, the public defined illicit drugs as the country's number-one problem.

One of the most visible changes has occurred in Hollywood, which is now a very different place from what it was in 1986. It is much harder now to find movies and television shows that glamorize drugs, and easier to find programs that dramatize the risks of substance abuse.

The highest impact single event in Hollywood was the creation of the anti-drug program "Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue," which brought competing studios together in a common cause. Characters such as Alf, Garfield, Kermit & Miss Piggy, Daffy Duck, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Bugs Bunny, came together for this half-hour "blockbuster" event on April 21. All the networks carried the show at the same time, and 30 million people viewed it, including 15 million children aged 2 to 11.

Afterwards, the Partnership interviewed children who'd seen "Cartoon All-Stars" and found overwhelmingly positive results. Even 4-year-olds who couldn't comprehend many of the concepts intended for older children came away with the bottom-line understanding that "drugs are bad." This program had done much to prepare these youngsters, many of whom watched with parents or teachers, to resist the inevitable "peer pressure" to try drugs as they approach their teens. Information gathered from these interviews has added to the Partnership's large body of research on effective ways to communicate anti-drug messages.

Seeding the Grass Roots

The media have been an important catalyst. Less visible -- and so far not widely known -- is a growing "grass-roots" movement of people organizing against drugs in schools, in churches and synagogues, in their workplaces and communities. In a recent survey commissioned by Gannett and USA Today, one out of 10 respondents claimed to be working at the local community level to help solve the drug problem; and over half said they would devote five hours a week if asked.

Many programs around the country are already eliciting an enormous volunteer effort. Here are a few examples:

Target -- Created by the National Federation of State High School Associations in 1984, Target now has members in 50 states and Washington, D.C. In some schools, the program includes an interactive laser-disc program called "Tip Dart," which is an unqualified success in reducing drug and alcohol usage.

Pride -- Another nationwide group with hundreds of local teams dedicated to "Drug Abuse Prevention Through Education," Pride has demonstrated outstanding success in numerous communities.

D.A.R.E. -- Drug Abuse Resistance Education originated in Los Angeles and is now practiced in 105 communities. Local police in uniform visit schools to assure students that the police are their friends, but remind them that only they can stop the drug problem by saying no. Availability and usage of drugs in Los Angeles schools are reported down.

"STAR" Program -- Kansas City's substance abuse intervention program in the schools is now in its fifth year. The Department of Health and Human Services released a study this summer showing program participants were only half as likely to have used cocaine in the last month as non-participants.

Local success stories -- Hard data from emergency room and law enforcement reports begins to validate progress in other problem cities including Dallas, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Tampa and Seattle.

"Fighting Back" -- The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has awarded "planning and development grants" of $100,000 per year to 15 communities with serious drug problems. Eventually, up to eight of these will be funded at approximately $3 million each to implement model programs for the rest of the country.

Workplace 1nitiatives -- The majority of the top 100 corporations now have comprehensive drug education, testing and employee assistance programs in place.

The President's Drug Advisory Council -- Chairman William Moss is encouraging the development of anti-drug coalitions through local leaders in the top 150 metropolitan areas of the country.

When President Bush addressed the nation on Sept. 5, 1989, be said, "Whether you give your time or talent, everyone counts. Every employer who bans drugs from the workplace. Every school that is tough on drug use. Every neighborhood in which drugs are not welcome. And most important, every one of you who refuses to look the other way."

A year later, people are coming to realize that illegal drug use is not some force outside our control or something we "catch" like the flu. It's a matter of free choice. We tolerated drugs for 25 years; now we are actively rejecting them.

James Burke, chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and former chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson, is a director of The Washington Post Co.