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Bush says teen drug use falling, yet reports vary

/ Source: The Associated Press

President George W. Bush is trumpeting progress in the battle against illicit drugs, citing declining drug use in high school and a shrinking supply of cocaine in the country.

But there are troubling signs, too: carefree attitudes among young people about marijuana and a shift to prescription medicine as a drug of choice. Independent anti-drug experts say the progress during the Bush years has been mixed and that large numbers of kids still use drugs.

At the White House on Thursday, the president planned to surround himself with leaders in drug prevention and people who are in recovery, including Josh Hamilton, a star baseball player for the Texas Rangers who has battled through addictions to cocaine and alcohol. Bush himself has spoken openly about his old drinking habit, saying: "I understand addiction." The 62-year-old president gave up drinking after his 40th birthday.

The event was timed to the release of data from three separate studies. One examines drug use among teenagers; the other two detail use and availability of cocaine.

The president's main message is that overall drug use among youths is down 25 percent since he took office in 2001. That figure is based on the new "Monitoring the Future" study by the University of Michigan, a yearly report that looks at the behavior of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders nationwide.

"What we see here is a very good trend for the youth of the country," John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

But the White House says the trend shows a significant reduction in the use of those drugs, and others, since 2001. The White House cites those numbers as proof that Bush's strategy of prevention, treatment, and disruption of the drug supply has had a marked effect.

The new survey, though, found that the decline in teenagers' marijuana use of recent years has stalled. A downward trend in cigarette and alcohol use continues.

Walters said that any gains are fragile, and the government and its partners must follow through.

"People have in the past failed to maintain effort because there's background noise here about `We never make any difference; the drug problem is here,'" he said. "It's one of those things that somehow we think it's elective whether or not we have to confront this threat to our country and to our kids. It's not."

The Michigan survey found 10.9 percent of eighth-graders, 23.9 percent of 10th-graders, and 32.4 percent of 12th-graders reported using marijuana over the past year. It also found that the proportion of eighth-graders who considered smoking marijuana to be harmful was going in the wrong direction — down.

Separately, new research published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, a major social marketing effort, is "unlikely to have had favorable effects" on whether young people used marijuana. And the 2008 teen survey by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that marijuana is easy to access — 42 percent of teens said they were able to get it in a day or less.

"Marijuana is as available to teenagers in this country as candy," said Joseph A. Califano, Jr., the center's president.

In terms of reducing teen drug use overall, he said, "It's a mixed bag. Any kind of progress is nice, but I would hardly say that we've done a good job. When you look at alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs, we're not there. There is a decline. But you have to remember, there is still an enormous proportion of kids using these drugs."

The other part of Bush's message, based on two other data sets, is success in targeting cocaine. Walters' office says the research suggests the supply and the purity of street-level cocaine is dropping, helped by U.S. interdiction efforts with countries such as Mexico.