Preventing Teen Drug Abuse

IN an era of diminishing federal resources, members of Congress must work creatively to help local organizations and communities - which will inevitably be expected to shoulder increasing responsibility - address pressing social problems. Nowhere is the need more urgent than on the drug-abuse front, where marijuana use is up a staggering 200 percent among 14- to 15-year-olds and 137 percent among 12- to 13-year-olds.

After years of progress in the fight against drug abuse, the numbers suggest a frightening reversal. Apparently our children have come to view drug use as less harmful and more socially acceptable. As a consequence of this increasing drug use at younger and younger ages, our most critical social problems - crime, spiraling health care costs, welfare, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, and homelessness - are compounded.

According to the chairman of the Partnership for a Drug Free America, James E. Burke, ''The country is losing precious, hard-won ground in its effort to curb adolescent drug use. Today's trends are similar to those of the late 1960s, and the outlook for the near future is disturbing.''

We believe that real progress can be made only when communities take charge of their own problems. Comprehensive community antidrug coalitions show us what works. The most visible example is the Miami (Fla.) Coalition. Community leaders brought together parents, youths, the media, religious and business leaders, educators, law enforcement officials, health care professionals, and others to craft an effective approach to the problem.

In 1990, Miami had the highest drug- abuse rates of the six major American cities. Four years after the formation of the Miami Coalition, those rates were cut in half, giving Miami the lowest rates of the six. The approach can and should be replicated.

Co-author Rob Portman has helped form a comprehensive community antidrug coalition in Ohio's Second Congressional District (in the Greater Cincinnati area), which he represents. It brings together existing antidrug groups with key community leaders from businesses, churches, and parent and school groups.

Every community in the district is included in this effort to create parent networks; get commitments from local media to run antidrug spots; ask priests, ministers, rabbis, and others to address the drug issue in their sermons; and reproduce successful antidrug workplace initiatives in businesses.

It is our hope that this antidrug coalition can serve as a model for what other members of Congress can do in their districts and states. We believe members of Congress are in a position to look beyond their traditional legislative roles in Washington and mobilize leaders in their districts and states to combat the drug problem.

All the evidence shows that when national leaders speak out on the issue and keep it on the agenda, that alone helps. But this level of visibility has been shown to wax and wane over time. We need sustained national leadership to really make an impact at the local level.

We need to get other political leaders to join with other community leaders engaged in antidrug efforts.

The point is not to create a new layer of bureaucracy at the local level, but to enhance the work that is already being done and to involve key segments of the community that previously have not been involved.

The drug problem is back. Imagine what a dramatic impact we could have nationwide if we could establish antidrug coalitions in every congressional district across America. The future of our kids depends on it.

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