<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The use of illicit drugs by high school seniors dropped last year to its lowest level since 1975, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported.

The government agency’s latest annual survey found that cocaine use dropped for the second straight year and that declining trends in the use of marijuana and alcohol had continued.

Nevertheless, more than half of all students still use an illegal drug at least once before graduating from high school, the report said.

And it warned that its assessment could well be too sanguine because its survey did not include high school dropouts, among whom drug abuse is “becoming more compulsive and more damaging.”


“We don’t want to imply that the war is won,” said Charles R. Schuster, the institute’s director. “The problem is that there are still pockets, primarily among those who have dropped out of high school, where drug use remains at very high levels.”

Citing evidence of growing use of crack cocaine in the inner cities, officials have warned recently that the high school senior survey grossly underestimates the drug problem among the nation’s young people.

The survey results were based on questionnaires given to more than 16,000 seniors in 135 public and private high schools across the country. The study found that the proportion of seniors using any illicit drug in the past year fell from 42% to 39% in 1988. The peak year was 1979, with 54% reporting drug use.

The proportion of seniors who had used cocaine at least once dropped from 15% in 1987 to 12% in 1988, with the percentage who had used cocaine in the previous 30 days dropping from 4.3% to 3.4%. The proportion of cocaine users who had used crack at least once dropped from 5.6% in 1987 to 4.8% last year.