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Teen-Agers’ Marijuana Use Nearly Doubles : Drugs: The increase, which began in 1992, is attributed in large part to a perception among youngsters that pot cannot harm them.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marijuana smoking among young people 12 to 17 has nearly doubled since 1992, a startling new trend that is attributable in part to an increasing perception by youngsters that pot cannot hurt them, federal health officials said Tuesday.

The marijuana use numbers, although far below the high reached in 1979, nevertheless indicate a reversal of a downward pattern that began in the early 1980s and continued to drop sharply until 1992.

Monthly marijuana use among 12- to 17-year-olds rose to 7.3%--or 1.3 million teen-agers--in 1994, up from 4.0% in 1992 and 4.9% in 1993, according to the Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In 1979--when the use of all illicit drugs was soaring in the nation--16.8% of that age group smoked marijuana.

The survey, based on a nationally representative sample of 22,181 people 12 and older, is the primary source of statistical information on the use of illegal drugs in the United States. For purposes of the study, a teen-ager was judged to be a marijuana user if he or she had used the drug sometime in the month before the survey was conducted. The survey also examines alcohol and tobacco use.

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The latest increase “should serve as a profound wake-up call to parents,” said Lee P. Brown, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Statistically, we call it an uptick in the numbers, but it makes me fear for the future of our children if we do not take effective action now.”

The survey also found in that age group that the view of marijuana as dangerous had decreased.

“When teen-agers’ perception of the harm caused by marijuana goes down, marijuana use goes up,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, speaking before an audience of local high school students.

Rejecting the notion that marijuana is benign, Shalala cited its physiological and psychological effects, including heart and lung damage, impairment of learning, memory and complex motor skills “associated with driving a car or playing sports,” she said. Experts, seeking to explain the turnaround in marijuana use, pointed to a pervasive ambivalence on the part of today’s parents--many of whom once smoked marijuana themselves.

“They do not know how to deal with this subject with their kids,” said Joseph A. Califano Jr., secretary of health, education and welfare during the Jimmy Carter Administration, who now heads the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. “The parents of many of these kids smoked pot like little chimneys in the ‘70s.”

During that time, “the whole attitude in the country was very lax,” he added, noting that even Carter floated the idea that marijuana use should not be a crime.

“To be a kid in the United States today is to get a very ambiguous message from parents and even from teachers, who are often the same age as the parents,” Califano added.

Dr. Robert DuPont, former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, agreed.

“There’s a whole new generation out there who didn’t go through it before and has to relearn it,” he said. “Marijuana is perceived as uniquely safe, that it’s a natural product, that you don’t die from an overdose, that you don’t have withdrawal symptoms when you stop. Well, you don’t have withdrawal symptoms because the stuff can stay in your body for at least 30 days. It tapers off.”

Clinton Administration officials used the opportunity to slam Republican congressional attempts to slash more than $700 million in federal drug prevention and treatment funds.

“We hope they remember that drug prevention is a national priority of the very same order as clean water, good roads and safe streets,” Shalala said.

But Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), responding to the statistics, accused the Clinton Administration of having “sat on the sidelines, transforming the war on drugs into a full-scale retreat.”

He criticized the Administration for de-emphasizing interdiction, allowing the number of federal drug prosecutions to decline and a “badly managed” effort against countries that are the source of drugs. “It means leadership at the top,” Dole said, “starting with the President of the United States.”

The survey also found that, despite the marijuana statistics, the total number of illicit drug users has remained constant since 1992 and casual cocaine use has continued to drop.

Califano, however, noting past trends, warned that the change in marijuana use could be a harbinger of a surge in cocaine use.

“The last time we had the rise in marijuana in the ‘70s it was followed by a tremendous increase in the use of cocaine in the ‘80s,” he said. “Statistically, we know that a kid who smokes pot is 85 times likelier to use cocaine than one who does not. We don’t know the causal relationship; we need to do more research in that area. But what this is signaling, is--unless we stem this fast--we will see a rise in the use of harder drugs.”

The survey also showed that underage drinking remains a problem, with 11 million drinkers between 12 and 20. Of these, 2 million are considered “heavy” drinkers.

The survey also found that, in an average month in 1994:

* 13 million Americans used illicit drugs;

* 10 million Americans used marijuana, making it the most commonly used illicit drug;

* 1.4 million Americans used cocaine;

* 13 million Americans had five or more drinks per occasion on five or more days in the month and;

* 60 million people, including 4 million adolescents 12 to 17, smoked cigarettes.

The study also found that among pregnant women, 1.8% used an illicit drug, compared with 6.7% of all women age 15-44. The findings suggested that many substance abusers cut down during pregnancy yet return to previous levels of use after giving birth.


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