TOPICS > Health

Report: Teen Drug Use Up, Binge Drinking Down

December 14, 2010 at 4:31 PM EDT
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A new report from the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows teenage drug use is up, especially among eighth-graders. Gwen Ifill speaks with U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske about the report's findings.

GWEN IFILL: Now: teens and drugs.

A new report out today from the National Institute of Drug Abuse shows teenage drug use is up, especially among eighth-graders, the primary culprits: marijuana, ecstasy, and prescription drugs. Teenagers are also now less likely to believe that marijuana use is dangerous.

At the same time, previously reported declines in cigarette smoking have stalled. There was some good news. The rate of binge drinking, consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in a row, is down.

Here to discuss the findings is Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Welcome, Mr. Kerlikowske.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE, director, U.S. Drug Policy: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Very bad numbers there.



GIL KERLIKOWSKE: It’s almost a perfect storm.

It shows that eighth, 10th and 12th graders showed an increase in drug use. particularly troubling, the eighth graders showed this increase in marijuana use. But also troubling is that, across the board, they really perceive the risk or the harms of drugs, of marijuana, less. And I think that is a perfect bad storm.

GWEN IFILL: Is it correct to say that marijuana use has exceeded cigarette smoking among children of this age, teenagers?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, we’re seeing that we have continued to show a decrease in the nicotine use by young people, but the marijuana use has really picked up, particularly in the last year.

GWEN IFILL: Have those lines crossed?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: And there are probably — just about. And there are probably several reasons for it.

GWEN IFILL: And they are?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, first of all, we continue to talk about legalization of marijuana, as if it’s some benign substance. We continue to talk about the medicalization of marijuana.

And, of course, smoked marijuana is not medicine. It hasn’t been through any of the FDA approvals. And when I meet with high school students all over this country, you know, it’s a very clear message that they tell me, and that is: We’re getting the wrong message from adults.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s draw the — make a distinction between the legalization of marijuana and the medicalization, the term you used, of marijuana. Are they the same thing?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: No, they’re very different.

Of course, legalizing drugs — and marijuana is against federal law — but, as we know from Proposition 19, which, thankfully, the voters of California listened to a lot of the leadership there and voted that down — that would have been making a small amount of marijuana legal.

The medicalization — and I think the “TIME” magazine piece just recently highlighted it — we keep talking about it as if it’s medicine. We keep talking about patients, and we keep talking about dispensers as caregivers. And, in fact, smoked marijuana is just not medicine.

GWEN IFILL: Proponents of medical marijuana, these initiatives, say that the real problem here isn’t the idea of using marijuana to relieve symptoms. The problem here is that the government is not enforcing the illegal use of marijuana and make it too easy for these young people to get ahold of it.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I think that we have to look at — and — and President Obama released his national drug control strategy in May of this year in a much more balanced way.

Frankly, for the last number of decades, we have talked about a war on drugs. We have looked at using the criminal justice system as the end-all and be-all. What we’re talking about here is also — it’s a public health problem. It’s an education problem. Oh, and it’s also a public safety problem.

If we combine a lot of those resources, we get parents to be much more involved, we look at prevention as working, and we look at treatment as being effective, we can make a big difference in these trends, which are disturbing.

GWEN IFILL: Your background in Seattle is in public safety. I don’t hear the term war on drugs at all anymore. Is there still a war on drugs?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: No. What I tried to do and — when I took this job in May of last year was to say we shouldn’t talk about it as a war on drugs.

But, you know, frankly, my colleagues from all of those years, sheriffs and police chiefs, they really never talked about it as a war on drugs.

GWEN IFILL: Shouldn’t it be, though, if the numbers are this bad?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, no. I will tell you what it should be. And they talked about it often. And that is, we are not going to arrest our way out of this situation, that we need to be, not soft on drugs or soft on crime, but we need to be smart on drugs.

So, if we use education, we use prevention, we combine some of those resources — and if you look at how we have done it in reducing crime in this country, we have never used those same tactics or strategies to go after the drug problem.

GWEN IFILL: If the use of marijuana or over-the-counter prescription drugs that maybe they get from their parents’ medicine cabinet or leftover prescriptions or the use of ecstasy, if these are all headed up, what are — what evidence are we seeing that this has an effect on young people’s physical duress or their intellectual — what — what effect does this have? What is the fallout?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, when the National Institute of Drug Abuse released this information this morning, Dr. Nora Volkow, the director, very clearly stated that the use of marijuana, particularly by young people, particularly with their developing brains, impacts their memory, impacts their ability to learn.

And I have listened to people, particularly those that run the Los Angeles Unified School System, talk about the correlation of young people dropping out of school and their use of marijuana. So, if we want to be concerned about keeping kids in school, getting kids into college and graduating, making sure we have a productive, educated work force, the drug issue is kind of front and center with all of this.

GWEN IFILL: Well, what — let’s talk about the good news, one little piece of good news.


GWEN IFILL: Binge drinking is down. Why is that?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well — and, again, the survey doesn’t really go into the reasons why. But we can kind of assume a couple things.

One is, there’s been a great focus on alcohol, particularly when you think about these young people wanting or just being at the age of having a driver’s license. The sanctions against any alcohol use by a young person and getting a driver’s license or keeping a driver’s license are pretty high.

So, I think that has a chilling effect. Frankly, too, I think that parents are more comfortable about talking to their children about alcohol use. They’re not particularly comfortable about talking to their children about drug use.

GWEN IFILL: So, what do you, as drug czar, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy — a mouthful — what do you do to turn this around, to make this something that we are more likely to talk about, to bring the numbers, which were going down, back down?

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Well, I think that the strategy that the president signed and — and released from the Oval Office not that long ago is a particularly good one. And it really talks about looking at this problem through a variety of new ways.

He has asked for over $200 million for an increase in prevention money. He’s also asked for an increase in treatment. You know, one of the things that we…

GWEN IFILL: Yet, we hear more about nutrition than we hear about drug use.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Yes, although, you know, the two are very closely tied. And I have heard this repeatedly, in which we talk about, how do you educate a young person? Do you give them a two-hour anti-drug message, or do you talk about letting them make good decisions about nutrition, exercise, good — nutrition, alcohol?

Let them have that information from a trusted messenger, parent, coach, faith-based, and you know what? A lot of kids will make the right decision, and they actually do listen to their parents.

GWEN IFILL: Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, thank you so much.