With Rise in Teen Drugs, Experts Begin to Ask Why

Youngsters say drug use personal choice because society now accepts it

AFTER a decade of steady decline, drug use among teens is on the rise again. And experts want to know the reasons why.

``People are not scared anymore,'' said one Virginia high school student, Annette, 17, who did not want to reveal her last name. ``They think drugs are cool. You see drugs in homes, in school bathrooms, in back yards, you name it. It's a way of life.''

A national report released last week by University of Michigan researchers attributed this sudden increase in drug use to changing attitudes and beliefs toward drugs. Teenagers, experts say, are either less aware or simply indifferent to the dangers of drugs.

(President Clinton unveils an anti-drug plan; see Page 20.)

What baffles the experts most is that many kids now experiment with drugs as early as the eighth grade; and that fewer teenagers today think drugs are dangerous.

``There is a greater sense of apathy among teens and a feeling that there are no opportunities,'' said Peter Provet, vice president of Phoenix House, the nation's largest residential drug treatment organization. ``There's a sense that they must live day by day and struggle with an uncertain future.'' Others define this mood as a wave of pessimism and lack of hope in tomorrow.

As a result, drugs, and the temporary high they provide, seem the only way to escape hopelessness, said Judson Hixon, senior assistant director for the Midwest Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities.

``It's not like it was in the 50's and 60's when there was a level of stability in society,'' said Mr. Hixon.

But teenagers disagree. They say a sense of hopelessness is only part of the problem. ``Sure, it's hard to always remain positive in this world,'' said Mark, 18, another Virginia high school student, who asked to remain anonymous. ``But that's only a part of it. It's difficult to explain why you see more drugs - probably because drugs are simply a part of the high school scene now.''

High school students don't dispute the fact that drug use has increased - nor that the latest trend is to believe drugs may not be harmful.

Drugs are no longer limited to a specific group of teenagers, ``like the ones who aren't going anywhere,'' said Rena, 18, a Virgina student who prefers to give only her first name. Kids of all ages and backgrounds are curious about drugs and experiment with them at one point or another, she said.

For instance, Rena said, many students who have a positive outlook on life smoke marijuana or drink alcohol because they believe it's a way to cope with the stress of going to school, applying to college, and planning for the future - which can be a very lonely experience.

As long as drugs don't become an addiction, Mark said, most teens feel that it's not a problem to use them. Indeed, they say using ``soft drugs'' like marijuana is seen today as being equivalent to smoking cigarettes, or having a glass of beer - habits they see widely accepted by adults.

Also, because drugs are so easy to find, kids tend to think there's no harm in trying with them, said David, a 17-year-old student in Washington. As far as marijuana is concerned, said Mark, there is so much talk of legalizing it that most teenagers think it cannot be as bad as people say it is.

That attitude is worrying experts. Most agree that the real problem goes beyond the actual use of drugs; the problem, they say, stems from a broader looseness in values that is alienating kids from their parents and, more than ever, parents from children.

They cite a list of societal breakdowns, including a departure from traditional family values and an adherence to a new ``corporate'' mentality that urges many parents to spend more time on the job than at home. The notion of a successful career, as opposed to a solid family life, is becoming the highest measure of a person's happiness.

``Ambition in itself isn't necessarily bad,'' said Mr. Hixon. ``But we've become so frazzled in terms of our workloads that we've left our kids to cope on their own. We don't have time for them anymore. Think about what that does to kids' sense of family as somewhere to turn to when in trouble.''

Drug counselors also say that because parents are bombarded by messages that they should allow kids to make their own choices, they now hesitate to advise their kids or tell them how to act.

Teenagers, however, say it is unfair to target parents as the source of today's increased drug problem. They say that parents should continue to allow their kids to make their own decisions because, ultimately, kids will do what they want to do.

But counselors and experts alike are quoting the familiar phrase, ``the apple doesn't fall far from the tree,'' to emphasize that the war on drugs needs to start at home. If parents don't teach their kids to cope effectively without a drug or a pill, experts say, drug use will continue to increase.

``Kids are bombarded by the message that there's a snake oil for whatever is bothering them,'' said Maxine Wombell, director of The Midwest Regional Center for Drug Free Schools and Communities. ``Got a headache, pop a pill. Kids are told that pills work, and they pick up on it.''

But pills cannot take the place of parents, said Ms. Wombell. Parents need to reallocate their priorities; they need to understand that a teenager, while on the brink of adulthood and capable of making mature decisions, still needs guidance.

But many teens are saying that greater parental supervision and responsibility is not going to change teens much.

``It's a personal choice now, that's what it boils down to,'' said Mark.

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