WASHINGTON - The number of high school seniors reporting use of marijuana, cocaine or most other illegal drugs declined again last year, continuing a long-term trend that has brought student drug use to its lowest levels in 15 years, according to a federally sponsored survey released Tuesday. The annual survey of 17,000 high school students showed that 19.7 percent reported using some illicit drug in the month before - down from 21.3 percent in 1988 and representing barely half the number of student drug users 10 years ago.
Most of that was marijuana, used by 16.7 percent of high school seniors in 1989 compared to nearly 40 percent 10 years ago, while 2.8 percent of students reporting using cocaine - a sharp drop from the 6.7 percent of seniors using cocaine five years ago.
While Bush administration officials said the figures were further evidence of progress in the drug war, federal researchers cautioned that the survey gives only an incomplete picture since it does not include high school dropouts and other segments of the population in which drug use is likely to be much higher.
Nevertheless, some experts said the survey was the latest in a series of statistical indicators suggesting that public intolerance and even anger toward illegal drugs has risen so greatly in recent years that it may have caused many Americans to overstate the dimensions of the drug problem. While opinion polls over the past year have shown public anxiety about drugs at an all-time high, virtually every survey has shown that drug use has been consistently declining, particularly in the middle class.
To some degree, the public and the media have "confused violence on the streets that is drug-related with the amount of drug use that is occurring," said Lloyd Johnston of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, which has been conducting the confidential survey for the National Institute on Drug Abuse every year since 1975.
Even such phenomena as the soaring drug-related murder rate in Washington and other major cities may be misunderstood, Johnston said.
Increases in drug-related violence may actually be an indication of drug dealers fighting over a declining market rather than a sign of growing drug use. "As the market gets tighter, you have more competition for a shrinking market, so the violence increases," he said.
But other experts noted Tuesday that some findings in the survey were less reassuring.
One of every two high school students uses an illicit drug before graduation, the survey said. More than 40 percent have smoked marijuana, and 1 in 10 has tried cocaine before receiving a diploma.
For the first time, use of steroids, which are used primarily by athletes and bodybuilders, was measured in the survey. It found that 3 percent of seniors had tried steroids at least once, including 4.7 percent of the males and 1.3 percent of the females.
Use of PCP, a dangerous stimulant that was thought to be disappearing, showed an unexpected jump, from 0.3 percent of seniors in 1988 to 1.4 percent in 1989. Monthly use of heroin increased slightly, from 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent during the same period.
Perhaps most significantly, there was little change in the small number of seniors reporting use of crack cocaine. Monthly crack use dipped from 1.6 percent in 1988 to 1.4 percent in 1989, but the percentage of seniors who reported using crack in the past year - 3.1 percent - was the same in 1989 as it was in 1988.
The crack findings, combined with the exclusion of high school dropouts, estimated to be about 27 percent of all teen-agers, prompted Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics, to dismiss the survey as having "extremely limited value."
But national drug-control director William Bennett, who along with Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan released the survey at a White House news conference, emphasized a different aspect of the findings.
Bennett noted that while drug use is declining, students also reported increases in the perceived availability of some drugs, particularly cocaine, which 58 percent of all seniors said was "fairly easy" or "very easy" for them to obtain.
Bennett said these findings prove that drugs are still "all too available" and that while "we are making headway on the demand side, more work needs to be done on the supply side."
Johnston said declines in the use of most drugs among smaller samples of college students and young Americans found in two other surveys released Tuesday supported the conclusions of the high school survey. The percentage of college students reporting cocaine use in the past month dropped to 2.8 percent in 1989, down from 4.2 percent the previous year.
All three surveys continued to show that, by overwhelming margins, the most widely used drugs by students were alcohol and tobacco, which have not shown comparable declines. Sixty percent of seniors reported drinking alcohol in the past month while 33 percent reported so-called "binge" drinking - consuming five or more drinks in a row during the previous two weeks.
In addition, 18.9 percent of seniors reporting smoking cigarettes daily - up slightly from the previous year and about the same as in 1984.
Said Johnston: "There is so much hype about illicit drug use that the continued high rates of cigarette smoking never gets reported."
- Information from AP and Reuters was used in this report.