Teen Drug Abuse Decline Pauses

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With some exceptions, overall drug abuse among American adolescents held steady during 1999, according to "Monitoring the Future," the ongoing study by the Michigan Institute of Social Research. Depending on the perspective, the year marked an end to, or a just a pause, in the drug use decrease among adolescents that began in 1996.

The study, released in December, is based on questionnaires completed by 50,000 eighth through 12th graders in hundreds of public and private schools across the country.

While there was virtually no change in the reported use of most drugs, such as marijuana, there were exceptions. Nitrate inhalant, crack cocaine and cigarette use all dropped. Nitrate use, which was only asked of high school seniors, declined significantly, with less than 1 percent reporting use in the last year. Although overall amphetamine use changed little, crystal methamphetamine use fell among 12th graders (the only group asked about it) from 3 percent in 1998 to 1.9 percent in 1999 - its lowest level in five years. Among eighth and 10th graders, crack saw a significant decline (to 1.8 percent among eighth graders and 2.4 percent among 10th graders) after increasing for several years. Cigarette use continued its decline among younger teens, reaching 17.5 percent of eighth and 10th graders.

On the other hand, 1999 saw some increases in the use of anabolic steroids and MDMA ("ecstacy") among teens. The increase in anabolic steroids use was among males in their early to mid-teens, rising from 1.6 percent in 1998 to 2.5 percent in 1999 among eighth graders, and from 1.9 percent to 2.8 percent among 10th graders. According to the principal investigator of the study, Michigan professor Lloyd Johnston, "As many had feared, we think it likely that Mark McGwire's reported use of androstenedione in the year in which he set a new home run record [1998] affected young boys." McGwire has since stopped using the legal non-prescription drug.

Ecstacy use increased among 10th and 12th graders (to 4.4 and 5.6 percent, respectively), following a steady decline since 1996. Johnston said it is unclear why.

Also puzzling was the increase in binge drinking, even while overall alcohol use remained steady. Although "Monitoring the Future" reports only a slight increase in this area, Mathea Falco, president of Drug Strategies, calls the findings on alcohol "disturbing." Drug Strategies' recent report, "Millennium Hangover: Keeping Score on Alcohol," released in December, focuses in part on the lack of awareness of the problem of teenage drinking. The study finds that while one-third of high school students say they have binged on alcohol (five or more drinks) in the last month, only 3 percent of high school students' parents think their teens have over-indulged.

The reasons for, and implications of, the general leveling off of drug abuse is unclear. Researchers are wary of drawing conclusions based on one-year changes. According to "Monitoring the Future," beliefs about the dangers of drug use did not change during 1999. As for what these findings mean for the future, Johnston says, "We think there is a fair chance that it simply reflects a pause in a longer-term decline."

- Amy Bracken