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Drug Use Is Down In America

The percentage of Americans using illegal drugs is declining, but a dangerous new wave of drugs is available on the nation's streets. That's the message Barry R. McCaffrey, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, is delivering to Congress in the first annual report on the state of the nation's drug war.

He spoke to Early Show Co-Anchor Jane Clayson from Washington about some of the successes and challenges.

The good news for law enforcement officials: Drug use among kids is down, declining 13 percent in 1998, McCaffrey reports.

And, there is other news, McCaffrey says: "There's 213 community coalitions now operating around the country. It will go up to 350 in the coming year. Adolescent drug use (is) down sharply. The media campaign is talking to our children eight times a week-television, radio, the Internet."

In addition, he says, ("There are) huge successes in the Coast Guard and Custom Service on interdiction."

And finally, drug treatment dollars are up. Health and Human Services Director Donna Shalala, he says, "now has $3.1 billion of money in the...budget for the largest drug treatment effort ever; (it was) up 32 percent in the last five years."

Overall, drug use among teen-agers is down. Yet the report shows that in 1997 the average age of first-time heroin users was down to 17, from 27 in 1988.

In fact, the street price of heroin is at an all-time low, and supply is up sharply. "We have around probably 900,000 Americans using heroin," says McCaffrey. "But our kids don't understand that it's dangerous, whether you're sticking it up your nose or injecting it," he says.

And, it isn't just heroin. He sees a new wave of hard drugs becoming available to young Americans: "Methamphetamines, the worst thing to ever happen to America, are now spreading across the nation. High-purity heroin-more eighth graders use heroin in today's America than twelfth graders. Finally, we've got rave drugs like ecstasy (that) a lot of kids think are not dangerous and, in fact, are killing them or causing near-permanent neural chemical impairment."

Methamphetamines have the potential to equal the crack cocaine epidemic, according to McCaffrey. The Drug Enforcement Agency "took down more than 2,000 labs across America last year. This is the worst thing that ever hit the drug scene. Its impact on brain function is devastating. And we've got to convince our children to not try them."

Drug-induced deaths are at a record high. In 1990 there were 9,463 drug-induced deaths. By 1997 there were 16,000.

Both prevention and treatment continue to be a problem. Four out of 10 Americans who need treatment for drug addiction don't get it, according to the report, and those addicts, McCaffrey claims, "cost us 110 billion in damage." He estimates the chronic addict population at about 5 million Americans.

"We've got to organize drutreatment, which will change the nature of this problem," he says. "And you've got to go to the welfare system, the criminal justice system and hospital emergency rooms, because that's where these people end up."

The Clinton administration is spending record amounts of money, according to McCaffrey, with expenditures "up 32 percent in the last five budget years."

"I think we're moving in the right direction," he says. The big payoff, of course, is prevention. "That means parents and ministers and educators, coaches, the health professions. In a community context, you have to build coalitions and reduce drug use," he says.

Is the United States losing the war on drugs? Maybe not.

"If you look back to 1979, it was 14 percent of the country using drugs. Today it's down to 6 percent. Cocaine use is down by 70 percent. Drug-related murders and crime are down sharply. We're moving in the right direction, but the key is middle school children. Can we get them to age 19 reasonably drug-free? If you can, they never have a problem in their entire life," he says.

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