Young Americans are shunning illicit drugs, according to the 10th annual study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. Results of a survey of 17,000 high school seniors in 135 public and private high schools nationwide were released in February. Some findings are encouraging: Seniors reporting marijuana use decreased from a high of 37 percent in 1979 to 17 percent in 1989.

The proportion of high school seniors using cocaine decreased from 6.2 percent in 1986 to 2.8 percent in 1989.

Use of amphetamines decreased from a peak of 12 percent in 1980 to around 4 percent in 1989.

Not all the survey's findings are positive, however.

Little change is shown in the proportion of high school seniors using crack - the highly addictive cocaine derivative.

Inhalant drugs (glues, aerosols, nitrous oxide) have also resisted the decline.

Although some decrease in alcohol use registered in the survey, alcohol continues to be a prominent drug.

Cigarette smoking has remained stable for most of the decade. The survey labels 29 percent of high school seniors as smokers - the same proportion reported in 1981.

The report identifies a ``heightened concern about the health and other effects of these drugs'' as a principal cause for downward trends.

Some researchers question the validity of such surveys. ``It's more stigmatized to be seen doing drugs now, so people are more likely to dissemble in their responses,'' says W. Timothy Anderson, chairman of the behavioral science department at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.

The survey, which is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, does not account for drug use among dropouts.

``Where the dropout rates are so high, dropout and drug consumption are frequently conjoined,'' says Edwin Delattre, Olin scholar in applied ethics at Boston University's school of education.

Lloyd D. Johnston, principal investigator of the Michigan study, cites evidence in the report suggesting that there is ``at least as great an improvement among the seniors who are most like dropouts.''

But Don Nance, director of counseling at Wichita State University in Kansas, sees a more conservative youth culture using the ``drugs of choice of those more conservative segments of our population. That's alcohol and tobacco.''

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