How severe is the current problem of teen drug abuse? What percentage of teenagers abuse drugs, and what steps is the federal government taking to curb this problem?

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In 1996, a major study was conducted to try to determine drug use by teens in the United States. The study was called the “National Survey on Drug Abuse.” The study found that among the nearly twenty-two million teens surveys, 13.3 percent admitted to using illegal drugs on a regular basses. A similar study, this one conducted by the “National Parents’ Resource Institution” reported even higher numbers: approximately 20 percent of teens reported illicit, regular use of drugs. When compared to previous studies in 1992 reports of illegal drug use had risen 105 percent. Two of those years, 1994 and 1995, saw a whopping 33% increase. The study projected that if the rates continued, drug use among teens would parallel usage of 1979.

This late-1990s study found that American teens were the biggest users of illegal drugs in any country in the world. For this reason, efforts to get the government to act more forcefully increased. The government launched its “War on Drugs,” by creating strict anti-drug laws which called for higher penalties for use and distribution. It also focused efforts on curbing supply. For a few years, it seemed like the War on Drugs was working. Networks had fewer drug-related stories to report (from 518 in 1989 to just 45 in 1992). Because of the drop in coverage, corporations stopped donating as much money to anti-drug efforts; contributions plummeted by thirty percent. However, Lee Brown, who had been the federal drug policy director, claims that it was not that use and distribution had dropped so significantly that there were no stories for the media to cover. Brown argues that the reason for the decline in coverage had to do with the beginning of the Persian Gulf War. It wasn’t until 1996, when drug use began its steady rise, that attention was once again focused on the problem. President Clinton promised to make the use of drugs by teens a priority; to this end, he appointed the fist “drug czar,” former Army General Barry McCaffrey. McCaffrey headed the Office on Drug Control. Part of his duties included setting up sanctions for countries who smuggled drugs into the United States.

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, Donna E. Shalala, (who served in this capacity from 1993-200), described the abuse of drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) as “a poison in the well of our national future.” Efforts by the HHS and other government agencies continue to address the problems of teen drug abuse, enlisting the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and other groups that work closely with teens to reduce drug use.

Source: Teen Drug Abuse, ©1998-01 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.

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While teenage drug abuse in the United States has declined in most categories over the past decade, it has been a serious societal problem for the past 50 years, with favorite “drugs of choice” evolving among various chemically-derived substances including LSD, methamphetamines like Ecstasy, cocaine, heroin, and many others.  And, of course, marijuana use has been widespread for decades.  The effects of teenage drug abuse are measured both in terms of financial costs associated with treatment and law enforcement operations intended to disrupt drug trafficking and use, and in terms of lives lost to overdoses and gradual deterioration of neurological systems associated with drug abuse.  The appeal of drugs and their ready availability despite those law enforcement efforts has continued to attract new users among not just American youth but those in Europe, Asia, and Latin America as well.

That the problem of teenage drug abuse continues largely unabated is evident in the following data provided by the United States National Institutes of Health National Institute on Drug Abuse:

“Illicit drug use among teenagers re-mains high, largely due to increasing popularity of marijuana. Marijuana use by adolescents declined from the late 1990s until the mid-to-late 2000s, but has been on the increase since then. In 2013, 7.0 percent of 8th graders, 18.0 percent of 10th graders, and 22.7 percent of 12th graders used marijuana in the past month, up from 5.8 percent, 13.8 percent, and 19.4 percent in 2008. Daily use has also increased; 6.5 percent of 12th graders now use marijuana every day, compared to 5 percent in the mid-2000s.”

 According to the government data, teenage use of cocaine has decreased over the past several years, but use of heroin, methamphetamines, Ecstasy, and other drugs remain steady, especially heroin.  Additionally, some communities have witnessed an increase in use of synthetic drugs, often labeled “bath salts,” but, nationally, such substances represent a very small fraction of the total percentage of drugs abused by teenagers.

Steps the federal government has taken to curb the problem of teenage drug abuse have been focused primarily on interdiction before drugs like cocaine, heroin and marijuana reach U.S. borders – although the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington State will likely affect domestic marijuana use in some way – and on public education.  While drug abuse is a national priority, and has been at least since President Richard Nixon established the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973, federal efforts have emphasized those areas in which federal resources are considered to be best oriented, like interdiction, public education, and research into treatment options.  Teenage drug use, however, is usually considered a local problem best left to city, county and state authorities.

A particularly useful source of information on teenage drug use can be located at the U.S Centers for Disease Control website address Trends in the Prevalence of Marijuana, Cocaine, and Other Illegal Drug Use National YRBS: 1991–2011

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