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Youth access to drugs increases

Teens can now get marijuana and prescription drugs more easily than last year. But drug usage is not up.

By Uri FriedmanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 2008

Teenagers can get their hands on marijuana and prescription drugs more rapidly and easily this year than last, according to a new study. However, greater drug availability has not yet translated into greater drug abuse in the group – marijuana use among teens continues to decline.

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While this paradox may be accounted for by a lag time between an uptick in drug availability and drug abuse, it also raises questions about what aside from drug supply determines substance abuse behavior.

The findings on drug availability, released Thursday morning by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University in New York, appear at a time when more teens are abusing prescription medication than any other drug except marijuana and inhalants, sparking concern nationwide.

In February, the Office of National Drug Control Policy kicked off a $14 million prescription-drug campaign with a Super Bowl ad profiling a drug dealer whose teenage customers had deserted him for the free prescription drugs in their parents' medicine cabinets.

According to the CASA study, 23 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds said they could buy marijuana in an hour or less and 42 percent reported they could do so in a day or less, jumps of 35 percent and 14 percent from 2007, respectively, after two years of decreases.

However, the most recent data shows that marijuana use among young people is falling steadily, with past-month use dropping 25 percent between 2001 and 2007. Data for this year is not yet available.

Teen usage of prescription medicine has not decreased as it has for most other illicit drugs, but it hasn't budged much either. Since 2005, the proportion of teens who say they've abused prescription drugs at least once has remained roughly 1 in 5.

This year also marked the first time in the CASA survey's 13-year history that more teens said prescription medication was easier to buy than beer. Among teens who know prescription drug abusers, 34 percent said abusers get the drugs from home, parents, or the medicine cabinet, while 31 percent said friends or classmates.

"A substantial number of American parents have become passive pushers," says CASA chairman Joseph Califano Jr. "A few decades ago, parents used to have a lock on the liquor cabinet. Maybe there should be a lock on the medicine cabinet."

The study cites parental negligence as key to the upswing in teen access to drugs.

There are different explanations for the divergence of trends in drug availability and use. Increased supply may yet convert into "upticks in usage" in the near future, says Mr. Califano. "Availability is the mother of use," he adds.