WASHINGTON — Baby-boom parents who experimented with illicit drugs in the 1960s and '70s are facing the difficult task of persuading the children of the '90s not to follow their example.
Antidrug experts say that strong parental disapproval - not only of illicit drugs but of tobacco and alcohol - is one of the most effective tools in countering drug use by teens.
They advise parents to talk to their children about the dangers of drug use. They suggest that it may be necessary during such discussions for parents to admit any prior use of illicit drugs.
But is it a good idea for a sixth-grader to learn that mommy smoked marijuana, or that daddy experimented with LSD?
It is a dilemma currently facing the estimated 60 percent of baby-boom parents who experimented with drugs when they were younger.
"I think there is a little problem here,'' says Rob Stewart of the nonprofit Drug Policy Foundation. "How do you insist on zero tolerance when the people who are preaching it admit to using drugs? Does it send the wrong message?''
Government statistics released this week suggest parents have their work cut out for them. The drug-abuse rate among young people ages 12 to 17 has more than doubled since 1992. Among the most alarming trend: Ever younger users are seeking more potent drugs, including LSD and cocaine.
On a national scale, the issue has crept into the presidential campaign. Republican nominee Bob Dole and others have tried to paint President Clinton as having a lackadaisical attitude toward the prior use of illicit drugs by baby boomers.
Mr. Clinton, the first baby-boom president, has admitted to the nation that he smoked marijuana, although he says he never inhaled.
And last month, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry attempted to downplay concerns about the prior illegal drug use of members of the White House staff. Mr. McCurry admitted to using marijuana in his youth, explaining to reporters: "I was a kid in the 1970s."
Drug-abuse experts say that teens pay attention to the often unintended messages of such admissions. The fact that Clinton tried marijuana and became president of the United States suggests to some teens that maybe illicit drug use isn't as bad as everyone says.
Experts caution that any admission of prior drug abuse by parents and other role models should be accompanied by sincere statements of regret. Otherwise, the wrong message could be sent.
William Bennett, drug czar under President Bush, called the latest statistics on teenage drug use "a national disgrace." He says the Clinton White House suffers from "moral confusion and moral weakness."
But administration officials defend their record. "The president has put in place the most comprehensive drug strategy our nation has ever seen," says Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services. "This is a strong record of leadership."
Ms. Shalala says the rise in teen drug use follows a change in attitude by some young people about the risks of drug use. She says the change began in 1991, when researchers recorded a decline in the number of young people who said they felt drugs were dangerous.
DRUG use by teens remains below the record levels of the late 1970s. In 1979, government statistics show, 16.3 percent of teens acknowledged using drugs. That rate declined steadily until it reached a low of 5.2 percent in 1992. Since then the rate has turned upward, reaching 10.9 percent last year, the survey shows.
Experts say the change has come in part because of a de-emphasis on drug issues by the federal government and because of an increasing glamorization of drug culture in motion pictures and by rock stars.
Barry McCaffrey, Clinton's drug czar, stresses the role that parents must play in turning youths off to illegal drug use. He says parents who have a history of illicit drug use must overcome their reluctance to talk to their children about the mistakes they made.
And it can't stop there, he says. Parents must also insist their children refrain from smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. "If we can keep kids away from cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs from ages 10 to 20, they will never have an addictive problem in their lives," he says.
Most experts say honesty is the best policy when discussing past drug use. But the message must be clear. "When the question comes: 'Dad did you?' some fathers might answer: 'Yeah, I used drugs in the '70s, didn't everyone?," says James Copple of Community Antidrug Coalitions of America.
"The better answer is: 'Yes, I did, and I was stupid for doing it. It was a dangerous and stupid thing to do and I am very lucky that I didn't do anything more harmful to myself.'
"Talking straight and honestly with kids builds credibility," he says.
Debbie McKnight of the nonprofit group Drug Strategies agrees. Parents who are ex-drug users have insight others might lack, she says. "You can get a parent who has never taken a drug in his life and the kid will say, 'How do you know it is bad for you?' " Ms. McKnight says.
Sue Rusche of the antidrug group National Families in Action, says parents must have strict no-use standards: "We really want parents to set those very clear expectations. 'I expect you not to use and there will be consequences if you do.' "