WASHINGTON -- Marijuana smoking among young people ages 12 to 17 has nearly doubled since 1992, a startling trend due in part to an increasing perception by youngsters that pot can't hurt them, federal health officials said yesterday.
The marijuana numbers, although far below the high reached in 1979, nevertheless indicate a reversal of the downward pattern of marijuana use that began in the early 1980s and continued to drop until 1992.
Monthly marijuana use among 12- to 17-year-olds rose to 7.3 percent -- or 1.3 million teens -- in 1994, up from 4.0 percent in 1992 and 4.9 percent in 1993, according to the Household Survey on Drug Abuse, conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
In 1979 -- when the use of all illicit drugs was soaring in the United States -- 16.8 percent of that age group smoked marijuana.
The survey, based on a nationally representative sample of 22,181 people 12 and older, is the primary source of statistical information on the use of illegal drugs in the United States. For the purposes of the study, drug use was defined as having used the drug sometime in the month before the survey was conducted.
The latest increase "should serve as a profound wake-up call to parents," said Lee P. Brown, director of the White House drug policy office. "Statistically, we call it an 'uptick' in the numbers, but it makes me fear for the future of our children if we do not take effective action now."
The survey also found in that age group that the view of marijuana as dangerous had decreased.
"When teen-agers' perception of the harm caused by marijuana goes down, marijuana use goes up," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, speaking before Washington high school students.
Rejecting the notion that marijuana was benign, Ms. Shalala cited its physiological and psychological effects, including heart and lung damage and impairment of learning, memory and complex motor skills.
Clinton administration officials used the opportunity to slam Republican congressional attempts to slash more than $700 million in federal drug prevention and treatment.
But Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, responding to the statistics, accused the Clinton administration of having "sat on the sidelines, transforming the war on drugs into a full-scale retreat."
The survey also showed that underage drinking remains a problem, with 11 million drinkers between ages 12 and 20. Of these, 2 million are considered "heavy" drinkers.
The survey found that, in an average month in 1994, 10 million Americans used marijuana, making it the most commonly used illicit drug.