The Detroit News

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Friday, June 28, 1996

Drug High

Drug use among teens appears to be increasing. The Clinton administration, facing fierce criticism for its early drug policy decisions, has responded by proposing new funding and a new director for drug war programs. Both the opprobrium and the president's response, however, suggest politics as usual.

Concern about teen drug use is the result of reports such as the University of Michigan's annual survey of drug use among eighth, 10th, and 12th grade students. According to the survey, adolescents were more likely to use drugs - particularly marijuana - in 1995 than they were in 1992, the last year of the Bush administration. Indeed, there appears to have been a steady increase in reported teen drug use and in other drug use indicators since Mr. Clinton took office.

The president's critics have savaged him for this increase, his drug policies and - above all - his failure to use the presidential bully pulpit to criticize drug use. It is difficult to feel sympathy for Mr. Clinton as he squirms under the barrage. This, after all, is the president who "didn't inhale," hung around with Don Lasater (who was later convicted of drug distribution) and yet accused George Bush of failing to fight an aggressive drug war.

But the argument that the Clinton administration is responsible for current drug use trends is unconvincing. According to the University of Michigan survey, increases in marijuana use among eighth graders began in 1991, while George Bush was in office. LSD use increased even earlier. As Lloyd Johnston, a principal investigator in the survey, notes, the trends in teen drug use "don't map" with the change in presidential administration.

It should also be remembered that marijuana use among high school seniors dropped steadily for years after 1978 - a shift that took place during the Carter presidency. If presidential rhetoric were key to drug use patterns, this shift wouldn't have occurred: Mr. Carter's administration was more receptive to arguments for decriminalizing marijuana use than any in recent history. And if presidential policy and rhetoric explained teen drug use, the Clinton administration's notable hostility to cigarettes should have produced reductions in teen smoking. Teen smoking has risen nevertheless.

It's doubtful that most kids surrounded by their buddies in a basement on Friday night will say no to smoking dope because of the president's latest sound bite. Rather, drug use appears to decrease and increase in cycles, perhaps as generations of youngsters who have gained hard experience about the drawbacks of drug use are replaced by others innocent of drugs' bad effects. If surveys and statistics show anything, it is that drug use is a complex social phenomenon.

The current political posturing is likely to distract from understanding how to change this phenomenon. There is ample evidence, for instance, that trying to intercept drug traffic outside U.S. borders is a waste of time and money, but the Clinton administration will increase such efforts anyway as part of its new, get-tough image.

Sadly, then, the latest round in the drug war suggests the same old Washington addiction: trumpet a problem, don't understand it, spend money on it - and then hope no one will care that it hasn't gone away.


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