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Statistics Aside, Teens' Alcohol, Drug Use Is Alarming

Washington Post  Thursday, May 27, 2004; Page VA08

The results of the 2003 "Fairfax County Survey of Youth Risks and Assets" were recently released. The survey of 4,239 eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students showed that overall, alcohol and marijuana use declined slightly when compared with the results of a similar survey in 2001. These are the major drugs youth use.

To me, the data indicate that there is reason to be alarmed. There is a clear trend that as youth age, alcohol or drug use rises significantly. Youth are exposed to a wide variety of drugs when they leave middle school.

There were 10,616 eighth-graders, 11,881 10th-graders and 10,494 seniors in Fairfax Country as of February. When looking closer at the survey data, 36 percent of eighth-graders have tried alcohol.

More troubling, 13 percent of eighth-graders use alcohol regularly. Among 10th-graders, 60 percent have tried alcohol; about 33 percent use alcohol regularly. For 12th-graders, 72 percent have tried alcohol; 46 percent use alcohol regularly.

Marijuana use is also of concern, as 5 percent of eighth-graders, 24 percent of 10th-graders and 41 percent of 12th-graders have tried marijuana. In terms of regular use, 3 percent of eighth-graders, 12 percent of 10th-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders smoke marijuana.

Finally, the survey indicates that 14 percent of 12th-graders have sold drugs at least once. Approximately 11 percent of 10th-graders and 18 percent of 12th-graders have been drunk or high at school.

Substance abuse counselors say that teenagers use other types of drugs not captured by this survey. The use of over-the-counter cold and allergy medication is frequently reported by youth in counseling programs. These drugs are easily accessible from household medicine cabinets or at the local grocery and drug stores. Young people frequently steal them from stores, leading some merchants to put these drugs behind the pharmacy counter.

In taking these medicines, teenagers often do not follow the recommended doses. They commonly take five to 10 times the recommended dose to get a better "high." They also mix them with alcohol or marijuana.

In addition, the illegal drug ecstasy has gained popularity over the past several years. Ecstasy is a combination of speed and mescaline, a hallucinogen. Oxycontin, a prescription narcotic painkiller, is also popular among youth.

It is important to understand that any teenager can develop a problem with alcohol or drugs quickly, particularly if there is a family history of alcohol or drug abuse. To help a child avoid becoming involved with alcohol or drugs, parents need to first look at their own attitude toward alcohol and drug use by asking these questions:

How much alcohol, marijuana or other drugs do you use?

Do you allow your child to drink at home?

Do you think alcohol or drug use is a normal phase of growing up?

Do you have clear rules at home?

Do you closely monitor your child?

For a parent, being able to detect whether your child is using alcohol or drugs is difficult. Any young person can become involved with alcohol or drugs, regardless of ethnic, economic or educational background.

Youth involved in clubs, sports or other extracurricular activities can become involved in using alcohol or drugs as any other students. However, keeping children in these activities will help prevent alcohol or drug use.

Normal adolescent behavior at times can mimic alcohol- or drug-using behavior. This causes confusion in determining whether your child is using alcohol or drugs. As a general rule, you need to pay attention to your child's attitude, a change in friends, a drop in grades or problems in following rules within the home such as curfew.

You also should be aware of the presence of cold medication, cough syrup, pipes, bongs or cigarette rolling papers in your child's room or car. Beer cans, wine or liquor bottles clearly indicate alcohol use. Your child may come home intoxicated, which is of particular concern if the child has been driving.

Be aware of your child's social life. Many parties or free time after school are an occasion to use alcohol or drugs.

Keep in mind that teenagers using alcohol or drugs are breaking the law and risk legal consequences if they are caught.

Should you have any concerns about your child or for general information, you can speak with a substance abuse counselor at the county's Alcohol and Drug Youth Services office, 703-961-1080.

A recently released survey of Fairfax County teenagers showed fewer are drinking, using drugs and smoking compared with two years ago. But Patrick McConnell, director of youth programs for the county's Alcohol and Drug Services, found some disturbing trends in the survey.