WASHINGTON — For more and more children across United States, drugs - including hard drugs like cocaine and heroin - are becoming a part of their daily lives, raising concern that the country may be entering a period of drug use unseen since the '70s.
Recent evidence points to the rising use of heroin among teens and says kids are smoking, drinking, and using illicit drugs at younger ages. But there is a morsel of good news - teen use of marijuana may be holding steady or falling.
These are some of the themes emerging from recent reports and talks with experts and teens nationwide.
"It's not as bad as it was in the 1970s, but it's headed that way," says Sue Rushe, executive director of National Families in Action, based in Atlanta.
Ms. Rushe's concerns are born out in The National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) report released this week saying users of cocaine and hallucinogens are younger than ever.
The number of 12-year-olds, it found, who know a classmate who use LSD, cocaine, or heroin, has more than doubled in the past year. While experts cannot pinpoint why the rate is accelerating, they say certain cultural indicators may hold clues:
* The messages from today's popular culture are fraught with images and lyrics that either glamorize drug use or do not portray its effects accurately.
* Some baby-boomer parents, who in many cases experimented with drugs themselves, remain ambivalent about marijuana use.
* The drug legalization effort has soft-pedaled the dangers of widely available alcohol and tobacco.
Combined, these factors could be contributing to use of alcohol and tobacco at younger ages, opening what CASA claims is a gateway to the use of harder drugs.
"For the first time" says CASA President Joseph Califano Jr., "We know a teen who smokes and drinks will be 30 times more likely to use marijuana. That will make him 17 times more likely to use cocaine."
Yet a recent government report claims that marijuana use is down slightly among 12- to 15-year olds, giving hope that this gateway drug is on the decline. This is welcome news for those who worry about a return to the '70s drug culture.
Between 1970 and 1992, the rate of household drug usage was cut in half. At about that time, former drug czar William Bennett declared victory in President Bush's war on drugs, and experts say a national perception of drug-free teens began to develop. But today's 12-year-olds were only 7 then, they note, meaning that the antidrug message never soaked in.
And many teens' experiences have borne this out.
"Its like a normal thing" inner-city Houston, Texas teenager Keiandra Lavergne says of smoking marijuana on school property. It is part of the daily routine, "most people start around 15."
But the trend toward ambivalence has some teenagers concerned. In its annual national survey, "State of Our Nation's Youth," teenagers from across the country point to drugs as the worst influence affecting their peers today.
TO counter this trend, almost everyone agrees that solutions must focus on the message children receive at home. "This is not a battle that will be fought out in Washington," says Mr. Califano. "It will occur over the kitchen table."
Edrian Wengeer agrees. The hip, high heeled 14-year-old says she feels free to talk about drug-related issues with her parents. Watching them, "I get a sense of values. I know what is right or wrong."
Edrian's parents are doing it right, according to the experts. "Parents and families are more important - potentially [more] powerful - than at any other time," says Ford Kuramoto of the National Asian-Pacific American families Against Substance Abuse, in Los Angeles. "Parents and families need to see themselves as the first line of defense, the most powerful mechanism in raising productive, nondrug using children in the next generation."