Illicit drug use by U.S. adolescents declined last year for the first time since 1992, and the Clinton administration heralded the improvement as “the beginning of an arrest of the astronomical level of drug use among our children.”
The rate of drug use among youths aged 12 to 17 fell from 10.9 percent in 1995 to 9 percent in 1996, according to the 1996 National Household Drug Survey released Wednesday by the Health and Human Services Department.
The good news was marred by many factors, including more first-time heroin use among teens, increased use of hallucinogens, fewer teens believing cocaine is harmful, and little change in cigarette smoking.
Usage of illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco among Americans of all ages held steady at 6.1 percent, with slight increases in cocaine and cigarette use and small decreases for hallucinogens, alcohol and smokeless tobacco. Marijuana and heroin use remained constant.
Clinton administration drug czar Barry McCaffrey said the decrease in teens reporting marijuana use in the past month represents “tentative good news.” Although the decline, from 8.2 percent in 1995 to 7.1 percent in 1996, is slight, he said it could signal a “leveling-off” for marijuana, the primary drug abused by youth. Marijuana use among teens had been on the upswing until this year, more than doubling since 1992.
Alcohol use declined more significantly, from 21.1 percent of teens reporting usage in the past month in 1995 to 18.8 percent in 1996. The use of smokeless tobacco products such as snuff declined substantially from 2.8 percent in 1995 to 1.9 percent in 1996, according to the survey.
“These findings on teen drug use offer a glimmer of hope, but they also remind us that we cannot rest in our efforts against drugs,” said HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, who joined in releasing the report. “No one should hang a victory flag yet.”
The percentage of teens reporting use of hallucinogens has nearly doubled in the past two years, according to the survey.
Among all Americans, 141,000 tried heroin for the first time 1995, the year of the most recent data for that figure. First-time heroin use has been increasing substantially, rising from 40,000 new users in 1992. The average age for first-time users is 19.3, down from 25 just eight years ago. Most first-time users are teens, 25 percent of whom said heroin is easy to obtain.
McCaffrey and Shalala emphasized the importance of examining adolescents’ attitudes about drugs. They expressed particular concern that fewer teens believe there is “great risk” in using cocaine once a month; the percentage expressing that view has fallen from 63 percent in 1994 to 54 percent in 1996.