Research Watch: Youth Drug Use Rises

Diana Zuckerman
October 1, 1998

Preliminary 1997 report

U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

(202) 443-8956

In late August, when the media was focused on other issues, the Clinton administration released a report showing a dramatic increase in drug use among youth ages 12-17.

Drug use for the U.S. population as a whole was steady at 6.4 percent from 1996 to 1997, but there was an almost one-third increase for youth, form 9 percent to 11.4 percent. Youth drug use has increases steadily since 1992. The increase in the past year is primarily due to greater marijuana use (from 7.1 percent to 9.4 percent). Perhaps more worrisome, the report found that the rate of new users of marijuana doubled from 1991 to 1996, to 8.3 percent.

Heroin use remains low among youth (.2 percent), but the rate of new heroin users among those ages 12-17 increased by 1,000 percent form 1991 to 1996.

Cocaine use also increased among that age group, from .6 percent in 1996 to 1 percent in 1997. Most significant was cocaine’s more than 100 percent increase among white youth, from .5 to 1.1 percent.

Drug use is much lower today than in the last 1970s and early 1980s, but increases use in recent years is of great concern to parents and those who work with at-risk youth. Surprisingly, the report’s findings have been barely noticed by the media or policy makers. “Two years ago, the increase in drug use became a campaign issue,” said Rosalind Brannigan, vice president of Drug Strategies, Inc. “There was no media coverage this time, and that’s a real concern when you take your eye off the ball, it comes back.”

Alcohol use among youth has remained stable (approximately 21 percent) since 1992. This is a dramatic decrease from 1979, when half of all youth reported drinking in the previous month.

The report found that cigarettes are a growing problem, with the percentage of 12-to-13-year-olds who smoked in the last month increasing from 7.3 percent in 1996 to 9.7 percent in 1997.

This report is considered the best measure of drug use in the U.S., and its findings inevitably influence public policy. In July, the federal government launched a five-year, $2 billion national media campaign to encourage parents to talk to their children about drugs at an early age, and two years from now the 1997 and 1999 Household Survey reports will be compared to evaluate the initial impact of that effort.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Youth Drug Use Rises." Research Watch review of National Household Survey On Drug Abuse. Youth Today, October 1998, p. 6.

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