Teen drug use drops, but there's still a lot of it

If Robert France ever had any doubts about whether to experiment with Ecstasy, the club drug known as the love drug, they were resolved at a recent party.

A girl there had taken her first Ecstasy pill and the warm feelings and confidence brought on by the mix of speed and hallucinogens was starting to take hold. Then things began to change. She got a little nervous, then scared, and then started acting "crazy." What she didn't know, was that someone had popped another Ecstasy pill into her liquor bottle.

"She started burning, they had to put her in the tub with some cold water and ice," says the lanky teen from the Bronx. "They couldn't call the hospital because her parents didn't know she was at the party."

The girl survived, and her experience became a cautionary tale for those at the party.

Today, the Bush administration will tout the 11 percent drop in teen drug use between 2001 and 2003 as it rolls out its annual Drug Control Strategy.

There's no question that there's a reason to celebrate, say experts. The causes for the drop, as Mr. France's story illustrates, are varied - they range from personal experience to an intense media campaign funded in part by the federal government. But experts worry that the good news may mask some troubling trends in the recreational drug culture.

"When drug use goes down we tend to forget that a new generation of drug users comes of age every year," says David Rosenbloom, executive director of Join Together, a substance abuse prevention network in Boston. "When our perception of harm goes down, drug use tends to go up."

In the past three years, frightening stories like the one told by France circulated in schools, were highlighted on "Oprah," and touted in TV ads. The combination has helped bring down the use of the once surging drug Ecstasy for the second straight year. A study released by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America last week found it was down 25 percent in 2003.

"Clearly, the drop in Ecstasy use reflects a change in attitudes," says Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership, a non-profit drug prevention media program. "But we can't forget that 2 million teenagers in America still tried this drug last year - we can't take our eye off of it."

Experts credit the concerted efforts of the Partnership's focused and aggressive advertising and the Office of National Drug Control Policy support for the findings of the two recent surveys that report an overall drop in drug use from marijuana to methamphetamines for the second year in a row. And it finally has statistical significance. In 1998, 51 percent of all teens reported experimenting with an illegal drug. In 2003, it was down to 46 percent.

Call it the beginning of what could be a very good trend.

But substance experts see warnings woven in with the positive data. One troubling sign comes from several numbers found among eighth-graders surveyed by the Monitoring the Future Study by the University of Michigan.

It found that while the other grades continued to find drops in overall drug use, a number of drugs leveled off in the junior high crowd. That's usually a harbinger of what's to come in future surveys of higher grades. Also, abuse of alcohol - still the drug which does the most harm to teens - remained essentially the same across the grade levels. The abuse of prescription painkillers like OxyContin actually went up in the eighth, 10th, and 12th grades, with 4.5 percent of 12th graders reporting using the drug without a doctor's prescription in the past year.

"Considering the addictive potential of this drug, these are disturbingly high rates of use," said Lloyd Johnston, principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future Study, "and they contrast with heroin's annual prevalence rate of less than 1 percent on all three grade levels."

The other less tangible but more worrisome reason to worry about the future has to do with American culture. Historically, drug use in the United States is cyclical, but that's often ignored in the wake of good news. When drug use goes down, some of the urgency and funding that fueled prevention programs like the Partnership's aggressive ad campaigns also dissipates.

"Drug abuse lends itself to public denial so when there's good news people are predisposed to think they don't have to deal with it any more," says Dr. Peter Provet, president of Odyssey House, a substance abuse and mental-health treatment agency based in New York. "[The problem] remains severe."

Indeed, as Dr. Provet reads the data, almost half of all teens admit to trying illegal drugs. And 24 percent, that's almost 1 in 4, admit to using illegal drugs within the past month. And then there are the kids who've dropped out of the larger culture overall - the hard-core drug teens who aren't registered in the data because they're dropouts and homeless.

"If we talk about the hard-core teen addicts, I've seen no decrease, only an increase in the past year," says Dr. Provet. "Odyssey House had 1,000 treatment beds and they're filled."

Join Together's Dr. Rosenbloom also worries that the data reflect only reductions in casual use and may mask a more difficult social problem. One in 5 American kids lives in a household where an adult has an untreated alcohol or drug problem.

"Those kids are at particular risk," says Rosenbloom. "We need to get them educated and their parents into treatment to prevent the cycle from continuing. "

Kimberly Chase contributed to this report.

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