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First Significant Drop in 13 Years : Cocaine Use by Students Fell 20% in '87, U.S. Says

January 14, 1988|MARLENE CIMONS | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Cocaine use among high school seniors and other young adults, which had escalated markedly in recent years, dropped significantly for the first time in 1987, federal health officials announced Wednesday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen called cocaine use among students last year "the lowest in eight years, dropping 20% in a single year." He said that until now, cocaine use in each of the last 13 years had either increased or remained stable, increasing "sharply" in the late 1970s and rising again between 1983 and 1985.

"For the class of 1987, however, we finally see a significant downturn in cocaine use among high school seniors," Bowen said at a press conference. "And results are similar for college students and other young adults."

The amount of cocaine smuggled into the United States, however, has risen steadily in recent years, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Special agent Lawrence Gallina said the DEA estimates that about 150 metric tons of cocaine finds its way into the country each year, mostly from Colombia.

That rate is up from estimates of 30 to 50 metric tons only four or five years ago, Gallina said. He added that, "unfortunately," officials expect the rate to continue rising.

Bowen and other officials attributed the decline in drug use shown by a nationwide survey to a substantial change in attitude among students regarding their perceived risk of the dangers of cocaine use, in part, the result of the well-publicized deaths of professional athletes.

In addition, they said, the most "sudden and dramatic" attitude shift occurred in the way young people viewed the consequences of using cocaine only once or twice.

"It's one of the sharpest reversals we've ever seen in the course of this study," said Dr. Donald Ian MacDonald, administrator of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration and special assistant to the President for drug abuse policy, emphasizing that the decline in cocaine use had little to do "with controlling the supply of the drug."

"Because cocaine is so powerfully reinforcing, it is important that we get across the message that even casual experimentation with the drug poses great risk," he added. "These data show that the message is getting out."

Cite Athletes' Deaths

MacDonald said the June, 1986, cocaine deaths of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias and professional football player Don Rogers of the Cleveland Browns drew the attention of the nation's youth "to the life-threatening consequences of using drugs."

"The class of '87 was the first to be surveyed subsequent to those deaths, and we can infer from the data what impact those deaths have had on the behavior of youngsters," he said.

At the White House, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said: "The President and the First Lady welcome these trends. The President has often said we have to stop the demand for drugs first, and these results show a growing number of kids are just saying no." Nancy Reagan has turned teen-age drug abuse into her personal project, coining the phrase "Just say no" as part of her campaign.

The report, an annual survey of 16,000 seniors in 130 schools across the nation and 2,400 other young adults questioned in previous surveys who serve as a follow-up, found a decrease from 16.9% to 15.2% in high school seniors who had ever used cocaine.

Drop Among 'Current Users'

Further, the survey reported a decline of about one-fifth, from 12.7% to 10.3%, in seniors who had used cocaine at least once in the last year. Also, the report found a drop of about one-third in the proportion of seniors who called themselves "current users"--meaning that they had used cocaine in the 30 days before the survey--from 6.2% in 1986 to 4.3% in 1987.

However, preliminary findings on "crack," the processed, smokable form of cocaine, suggest that it is not following the overall decline in cocaine use, officials said. The report found that, among seniors, 5.6% reported having tried "crack," an increase from 4% in 1986.

"Thankfully, it appears that we may have avoided the explosion in the use of 'crack,' which many of us feared," Bowen said. "But we still must be concerned . . . that 'crack' may not be following the decline which we see for cocaine in general."

Bowen said he continued to be concerned about alcohol abuse, which he said has shown no decrease among the nation's youth in the last three years. About 66% reported using alcohol within the last 30 days, he said.

'5% Daily Drinkers'

"Some 5% are daily drinkers, and more than 37% report at least one occasion of heavy drinking within the past two weeks--an occasion in which they had five or more drinks in a row," Bowen said.

Overall, the survey continued to show a steady reduction in the use of most illicit drugs. In its early years, the survey--begun in 1975 and conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan--showed increasing drug use, especially marijuana use. Then, beginning in 1979, the survey began indicating declines in illicit drug use, especially for daily marijuana use.

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