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The Nation

Report Links Teen Drug Use With Friends' Sexual Activity

August 20, 2004|Jia Lynn Yang | Times Staff Writer

Teenagers who have sexually active friends face a significantly higher risk of smoking, drinking and using drugs than do other youths, according to an annual Columbia University substance-abuse survey released Thursday.

The report found that youths 12 to 17 who said that at least half of their friends were sexually active were 31 times more likely to get drunk, 22 times more likely to try marijuana, and more than five times as likely to smoke cigarettes.

Advocates for liberalizing the nation's drug laws accused the writers of the report -- which showed no causal connection between sexual activity and drug or alcohol use -- of sensationalizing teenage behavior to make a stronger case against the use of marijuana and other drugs.

For the first time, the ninth annual survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse focused on the relationship between teen dating behavior and tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs.

Wilson Compton, a physician and division director at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said the connections between sexual activity and drug use were more complicated than they seemed.

Compton said new research showed that risky drug use was more likely to be followed by risky sexual activity than the other way around.

The report showed that drugs again were the No. 1 concern of teens after sharing the top spot last year with academic and social pressures. Nearly half of the youths surveyed said they could buy marijuana within a day.

"There's been no progress in reducing the availability of marijuana," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., the former secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. "And the concern is that the marijuana today is not the marijuana of the 1970s. It's much stronger."

Keith Stroup, executive director and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the report was emblematic of the misguided way in which social conservatives wanted to dictate the drug war.

"It's unrealistic and absurd to suggest that the goal is adolescents never having sex, adolescents never experimenting with marijuana," Stroup said. "It's about time we quit acting like this is shocking behavior."

The report showed that of the 1,000 teenagers surveyed by phone, 38% said they had friends who smoked marijuana, up from 32% last year. In addition, 36% said they had friends who smoked cigarettes, up from 30%, and 48% said they had friends who drank regularly, compared with 44% last year.

In California, there are new signs that teen substance abuse might be declining. Numbers released Wednesday by the state attorney general's office showed that the rate of abstinence from drugs and alcohol among seventh- and ninth-graders was at a historical high. Among the students who responded to the state's survey, 70% of seventh-graders, 49% of ninth-graders and 35% of 11th-graders had used no alcohol or drugs in the six months prior.

The Columbia report found that teens who spent more than 25 hours a week with a boyfriend or a girlfriend were more likely to drink and use illegal drugs. They were 2 1/2 times more likely to drink and 4 1/2 times more likely to have tried marijuana.

The survey also pointed to a trend among girls with boyfriends two or more years older than themselves. The girls were more than twice as likely to drink and six times as likely to have tried marijuana.

"What's interesting to me about this report is how much they have gone out of their way to dodge the central issues," said Bruce Mirken, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington lobbying group.

Mirken said the report did not address whether the strategies for deterring kids from drugs and alcohol were working. Of the survey's findings, he said, "Is anyone shocked?"

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