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Drug Surveys Set Off Alarm Bell

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During the 1992 presidential campaign, MTV reporter Tabitha Soren asked candidate Bill Clinton, “If you could try marijuana again for the first time, would you inhale?” “Sure,” Clinton replied, “if I could. I tried before.”

The casual climate that allowed the candidate such admissions in 1992 stands in stark contrast to the troubled atmosphere governing this year’s contest. Chastening Americans is a recent series of dire statistics about teenage drug use. On Monday, Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse released a study disclosing that the percentage of teenagers expecting to use illegal drugs in the future (22%) had doubled since last year. And last month, the Clinton administration’s Health and Human Services Department published a survey showing that drug use by teenagers had more than doubled in the last four years. More than 10% claimed to use drugs each month.

Both Republicans and Democrats are now championing an aggressive, quasi-militaristic war that will enable Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton’s drug czar, to spend unprecedented amounts of federal money in fiscal year 1997 to arrest drug dealers in the streets and drug runners at the borders.

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The Columbia study, however, gives credence to McCaffrey’s testimony to Congress last week that more dollars are needed to step up drug education, treatment and prevention programs in communities and public schools. The university report disclosed, for instance, that by age 17, more than two-thirds of the teenagers surveyed said they could buy marijuana within a day at most. And only about one-third of 17-year-olds said they would turn in a drug dealer operating in their school.

Government can do only so much. Most damaging, said the Columbia report, was the expectation of nearly half of the parents surveyed that their children would use drugs. As Joseph Califano, a Carter administration Cabinet member who oversaw the Columbia study, put it: “What is infuriating about the attitudes revealed in this survey is the resignation of so many parents and teens to the present mess. It’s time for parents of American teens to say, ‘We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.’ ”

This, however, is easier said than done, for baby-boomer parents who, like Clinton, flirted with drugs themselves often lack credibility in the eyes of their children.

These parents need to let their kids know that they have, unequivocally, changed their tune, much as singer Jackson Browne did in this 1980s revision of his ‘70s paean to cocaine. “Cocaine runnin’ all ‘round my brain / There was damage to the body / Damage to the soul / Damage to the quality of the rock ‘n’ roll.”

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