The most promising frontier in the nation's long-standing war on drugs isn't in the jungles of South America or along the US-Mexico border. It is in sixth- and seventh-grade classrooms where American schoolchildren are learning how to protect themselves from drug abuse.
After 20 years of research and testing, the results are in. Drug-prevention programs - following certain accepted principles - dramatically reduce the number of children who fall prey to smoking, drinking, and illicit drug use.
One such program has reduced such behavior by 50 to 75 percent among seventh-graders.
"We've proven that prevention can work," says Gilbert Botvin of Cornell University Medical College in Ithaca, N.Y. "Today we have the tools available to us to prevent teen drug use."
Adds J. David Hawkins of the University of Washington: "We are at a point of breakthrough."
Both men are leading experts in drug-abuse prevention. They spoke this week at a conference in Arlington, Va., where the nation's best preventive programs were on display for some 400 school officials.
The upbeat comments couldn't have come at a better time. Once again, the nation is in the midst of sharply rising rates of drug use among its teens. After falling throughout the 1980s, teenage drug use turned upward in the early 1990s.
Prevention experts hope that as information about the best scientifically proven programs spreads across the country, and those programs are adopted, the dangerous trend of increased teen drug abuse will reverse.
Lloyd Johnson of the University of Michigan studies patterns of teenage drug use. He says alarming increases in cigarette and marijuana smoking resulted in part from many young people's perception that smoking and marijuana use aren't very dangerous.
"There are culture-wide forces at work, mostly among adolescents," Professor Johnson says.
Contributing to those forces, he says, was a 93 percent drop in news coverage of drug-addiction issues between 1989 - when the crack-cocaine epidemic was in full swing - and 1993.
During the same period, parents talked less frequently to their children about drugs, and drug use was portrayed as exciting and "cool" by Hollywood and the recording industry, Johnson says. In addition, federal funding for drug-free school programs dropped from $623 million in 1992 to $466 million last year.
The rising statistics on teenage drug use are a "wake-up call," says Kris Bosworth, a visiting scientist at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
She says the statistics are causing experts and school administrators to reassess their programs to make sure their strategies are effective.
A special report on school-based drug-prevention programs was released last year by Drug Strategies, a nonprofit group in Washington. It notes that prevention programs - many of which are outdated and ineffective - reach less than half of the nation's students.
The report, entitled "Making the Grade, A Guide to School Drug Prevention Programs," compares 47 prevention efforts.
Prevention has always been the poor stepchild of the nation's antidrug arsenal. The vast majority of antidrug funds pay for drug interdiction and enforcement, but these have barely affected drugs' price and availability.
In contrast, some prevention efforts - like Professor Botvin's Life Skills Training program - are impressive. According to the Drug Strategies report, Life Skills reduced smoking, drinking, and marijuana use by 50 to 75 percent among seventh-grade participants. When the students were in high school, their use of the substances was 44 percent less than students who hadn't had the training.
During the course of his research, Botvin discovered not only what works but also what doesn't.
Scare tactics or simply disseminating information about drugs' effects are unproductive, he says.
Instead, Botvin says, students must understand and agree among themselves that it isn't cool to smoke, drink, or use drugs. Reinforcement of that common belief must also come from family members and others within the community, such as members of religious institutions.
The Life Skills program coaches children in a range of skills, including how to refuse a friend's offer to share drugs. Students also learn strategies for problem solving, goal setting, coping with stress, making friends, standing up for one's beliefs, and recognizing false messages in advertisements, movies, and recordings that glamorize smoking, alcohol, or drugs.
"We have the tools available to us," Botvin says. "The next challenge is to convince schools to use these approaches."