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Kids and drugs: Worrisome signs, here and on the horizon

December 14, 2009 |  9:37 am

The federal government's annual report of kids' alcohol and drug abuse and attitudes about that abuse seems reassuring enough: Compared with that of recent years, marijuana use is down, use of hallucinogens is way down and use of methamphetamine is way, way down.

But the researchers and public officials who crunch those numbers warned that some of statistics gleaned from an annual survey of 46,000 American eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders are worrisome.

Marijuana use is a good example. American students' marijuana use has declined steadily since the mid-1990s. Now, one in three high school seniors says he or she has smoked marijuana at some point in the past 30 days; just over one in four 10th-graders has done so; and 11.8% of eighth-graders acknowledge they've smoked pot in the past month.

While those numbers represent a steady decline in pot use among U.S. students over the past 15 years, it's a decline that has stalled in the past five years. And kids' attitudes about marijuana use suggest a reversal may be ahead. In 1991, 58% of eighth-graders said they believed occasional marijuana use is harmful. By last year, that number had declined to 48% last year and this year slumped to 45%.

Gil Kerlikowske, the Obama administration's drug policy advisor, called such numbers "a warning sign."

"When beliefs soften, drug use worsens," said Kerlikowske, whose office is expected to release its first draft of policy initiatives to combat and treat drug abuse in February. "Drug use becomes more acceptable," Kerlikowske added in a news conference Monday morning in Washington, D.C.

University of Michigan researcher Lloyd Johnston, who oversees the yearly survey of American school kids, said there was "serious softening" in the risks kids perceived in use of the party drug Ecstasy, of LSD and of inhalants. He called the survey results "an early warning sign [that] a new generation of kids are interested ... in rediscovering these drugs, because they don't understand why they shouldn't be using them." 

Closer to home, the survey shows that U.S. adolescents continue to raid their parents' and their friends' medicine chests for drugs to abuse. Use of prescription painkillers is at an all-time high, with one in 10 high school seniors reporting they have taken Vicodin for nonmedical reasons in the past year, and one in 20 seniors reporting the nonmedical use of Oxycontin in that period.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which has commissioned the survey for each of the past 35 years, added that teenagers' use of prescription stimulant drugs is holding steady, with just over one in 20 10th- and 12th-graders reporting they have taken "speed" prescribed to many kids in treatment of ADHD symptoms. Volkow said that in many cases, teenagers are taking these drugs before tests or study sessions as "cognitive enhancers." While fewer kids report they're taking Ritalin, the survey detected that much of that decline has merely shifted to Adderall, a newer ADHD drug.

The officials said that kids report some confidence that prescription drugs are less harmful -- in part because they are prescribed by doctors and not produced in street labs. In the survey's first accounting of where kids get the drugs they take, it found that two in three who reported illicit drug use said they got the drugs from a friend or relative. Almost one in five said he or she got drugs with a prescription from a doctor.

-- Melissa Healy