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Antidrug coalition is turning the tide

Pinellas County is pulling its weight in the statewide march toward Gov. Jeb Bush's goal of cutting substance abuse in half in Florida by 2005. According to the 2002 Florida Youth Substance Abuse Survey, the most extensive survey of its type in the nation, Pinellas County's sixth-graders through 12th-graders are increasingly making the right choices. Among the findings:

+ Alcohol use begins to decline: Alcohol use dropped for the first time in years. We still have further to go to reach our goal of 20 percent or less use by 2005. Current use (use within the past 30 days) is at 35.1 percent; it was 43.4 percent in 2000.

+ Marijuana use on steady decline: In the past two years it has declined from 18.6 percent to 16.1 percent, our goal by 2005 being 8 percent or less.

+ Cigarette use is exceeding goals: Our youth are racing toward the state's 2005 goal of 14 percent. This rate has dropped from 24.3 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2002. The state has surpassed this goal, also.

+ All other drug use is down dramatically: Our youth have moved away from traditional drugs of abuse: heroin (0.5 percent use), crack cocaine (0.5 percent), cocaine (1 percent), methamphetamine (1.2 percent), even ecstasy (1.9 percent).

What is the key to success? The direct and indirect public health impact of substance abuse is widespread, and fluctuations in trends reinforce the need for education as a continuous process for children, parents, communities and policymakers. The Coalition To Prevent Substance Abuse and Suicide Inc. has provided education and prevention efforts in a collaborative effort through its all-volunteer participation. Working closely with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp, Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-Entry Coalition, Suncoast Practice and Research Collaborative, Juvenile Welfare Board, drug treatment organizations and Springfield College of Tampa; Dr. Stella Pagano and the coalition continue to play a critically important role, to communicate from the grass roots level, the importance in the development of substance abuse prevention theory, programming and research.

In addition to the coalition's efforts, Operation PAR at Springbrook Hospital and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office have also contributed to this movement to keep our kids drug-free. Operation PAR has been key in fighting southwest Florida's substance abuse problem _ serving more than 13,000 individuals a year in intervention and treatment services. Another 40,000 participants are impacted annually by the agency's messages of substance abuse awareness, education, prevention, research and information and referral.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has doubled the number of student resource officers in each of the eight high schools. Crime watch programs in middle and high schools have also been increased, empowering students to take back their schools and keep them safe. Safe and Drug Free Schools programs are having a positive impact along with Students Against Destructive Decisions. Osceola High School's SADD program was recognized as having one of the top two programs in the state last year.

Nearly 63,000 sixth-graders through 12th-graders in public schools are surveyed in Florida annually to measure youth attitudes and behavior patterns in regard to substance abuse. Each percentage drop in drug use indicated 25,000 fewer teens using drugs. The general rule is that where antidrug coalitions are in place, drug use is going down.

Why has Florida seen declining drug use numbers while the rest of the nation's usage rates are going up? Because our approach to the systemic drug problem our nation faces has differed from other states. Gov. Jeb Bush focused the state effort on prevention, education and treatment. Clearly prevention is the key to reducing the demand for illegal drugs, and it begins with our youth. Throughout his term in office, the governor has visited countless treatment and prevention centers and led the rallying cry of concerned parents and neighborhoods to turn their children away from drug abuse and bring help to the afflicted. He has increased funding for state drug control efforts by 65 percent or $109.3-million during the past five years. As a result, nearly 52,000 additional people are receiving substance abuse services, for a total of 254,598 in fiscal year 2002-2003. The fiscal year 2003-2004 budget brings total funding in this critical area to $277-million.

For those who are already caught up in drug addiction, the answer, whenever possible, is treatment. That is why the drug courts (which stress treatment in lieu of incarceration for more than 10,000 nonviolent first-time drug offenders a year) have increased from 34 statewide in 1998 to a total of 82. Ninety-three drug courts will become operational by January 2004. In the end, we seek to return those drug abusers to productive citizenship free of their addiction. To view county and statewide results of the FYSAS, log onto www.myflorida.com/drugcontrol.

_ James R. McDonough is the director of the Florida Office of Drug Control.

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