WASHINGTON -- Illegal drug use continues to drop among young teens, according to the government's latest annual survey, but they are still experimenting with marijuana in numbers not seen since the late 1970s.
Each day more than 4,200 youths ages 12 to 17 try pot for the first time, according to the National Household Drug Abuse survey, released Thursday. The rate -- 81 teens out of 1,000 -- is down from 1997's all-time high of 90.8, but is still well above the rate of first-time teen marijuana users through the 1980s.
In the latest survey, covering 1999, by the Department of Health and Human Services, 9 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds who were questioned said they had used an illegal drug in the past 30 days. That's down from 9.9 percent in 1998 and 11.4 percent in 1997.
Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton's drug policy adviser, said the 21 percent decline in drug use by young teens since 1997 is proof that a $200 million media campaign is working.
"If you want to see America's drug problem in 10 years, watch this population," McCaffrey said.
But increased drug use among people over 17 suggests that the war on drugs is, at best, being fought to a stalemate.
Illicit drug use among young adults ages 18 to 25 has climbed 28 percent since 1997, from 14.7 percent of the population that age in 1997 to 16.1 percent in 1998 and 18.8 percent in 1999.
"We have miles to go when 14.8 million Americans were current users of illicit drugs in 1999," HHS Secretary Donna Shalala said Thursday.
Eighty thousand people were questioned in last year's survey, which also asked about tobacco and alcohol use. The government provided no figures for margin of error with the report.
For all age groups, drug use was most common in the West and parts of Appalachia and New England. Teen drug use was more prevalent in the Southwest, Great Plains and Northeast.
The study found that children in homes where parents "neither approve nor disapprove" of cigarette smoking were four times as likely to have used marijuana in the past month than in homes where parents "strongly disapprove" of cigarette use.
"I don't think there's any question that cigarette use, and alcohol use, and marijuana use, all three, are related to the ... probability that you would have drug abuse problems as a young adult," said McCaffrey.
Fifty-two percent of Americans age 12 and older reported that they used alcohol, a rate that has remained relatively flat for the past several years, the survey reported. It also said 19 percent of teens had a drink within the past month, 7.8 percent reported binge drinking, and 3.6 percent said they were heavy users of alcohol.
As for smoking, the study said 30 percent of Americans 12 and older -- 66.8 million people -- were using tobacco. Of those, 57 million smoked cigarettes. Others smoked cigars or pipes or used smokeless tobacco.
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