IN HIS benign adolescence, J. Joseph Curran Jr., the future attorney general of Maryland, heard a funny word. The word was "marijuana." After an instant's puzzlement, Curran leapt upon its definition.
"That's an Indian prince, right?" he told a buddy.
"Naw," the buddy explained. "You're thinking of the maharaja."
By the time Curran graduated from Loyola High, Class of '49, he says he had never seen any of his friends ingest any manner of drug, or drink any alcohol. Some smoked cigarettes. In fact, the good fathers at Loyola, not understanding the health risks, allowed upperclassmen to smoke in the Senior Garden.
But that, as they say, was that. Curran remembers weekend Catholic Youth Organization dances. The girls stood on one side of the hall, the boys stood on the other, and the distance between them yawned like the Grand Canyon. He remembers teen-age gatherings sponsored by the Kiwanis Club, and Blessed Sacrament Church on Old York Road, and streetcar rides to hot pingpong matches.
"What's the worst trouble you got into as a kid?" Curran was asked the other day.
"Golly," he said. That's how he talks. "Golly, I don't remember anybody getting into trouble. The only thing we did -- well, we didn't have any money. There's a statute of limitations, so I guess I can tell you -- we used to sneak into the Navy football games. We'd go down to the old ballpark and sneak in. Or we'd sneak into Loyola College basketball games."
Today, there would be a term for the adolescent Curran: Good Kid.
But the world has turned, and Curran is not unaware. In a time of casual alcohol and drugs, and the breakdown of families, Curran says there are about 45,000 incidents a year where Maryland teens are cited for legal infractions. Not to mention, the thousands of incidents that go unnoticed.
In Maryland, recent studies show, nearly 40 percent of high school seniors smoke half a pack of cigarettes or more a day. More than half say they've tried to quit, and failed. A third of the smokers started before they turned 12, and two-thirds before they were 15. Thirty percent say they've never been asked for proof of age.
Studies also show 17 percent of Maryland sixth-graders say they've tried some form of alcohol, as have 41 percent of eighth-graders. Among high school drinkers, 18 percent say they started before they were 12. About 75 percent of 12th-graders have tried some form of alcohol.
Forty-six percent of the state's high school seniors say they've tried marijuana, and 84 percent started before reaching 16, studies show. Thirty percent tried it by 14, and 13 percent before they were 12. Among high school seniors, 11 percent say they've used amphetamines, 11 percent LSD, 6 percent cocaine.
This is a long way from Joe Curran's youth, and his sensibilities. So he is trying to bridge the gap. From May last year to May this year, Curran went to high schools (and a few middle schools) in every jurisdiction in Maryland. Most were public, but a few were private schools. He crossed race and religion, tough neighborhoods and well-to-do.
Accompanied by various school officials, police, judges and politicians, he met with 700 students -- not to talk to them, he says, but to listen. The results are gathered in a new, 80-page report called "In Their Own Words" -- about "how Maryland teens perceive their lives and what they think would help alleviate the problems that trouble them most."
"We have such a staggering number of juvenile arrests each year," Curran said this week, "that we felt we needed to listen to them. We have government telling us what's good for the kids. We thought, let's let the kids tell us what's working and what's not."
What he heard repeatedly, Curran says, is a lack of structure in their after-school lives. Where Curran remembered weekend dances and ballgames, these kids talked of hanging out at the shopping mall, the McDonald's, the Food Lion parking lot.
"No supervision," he said. "They all wanted something to do, something creative. Some wanted more dances in the school, or a rec center, a place to hang out in a safe setting. They talked about doing 'laps.' I'd never heard of it. They said it was just driving from point A to point B, and then back. To see what they could see. Doing laps, that's all it was."
An overriding theme: the need for caring adults in their lives. Some talked about parties in their homes, where their parents were not there. But the mothers had purchased beer for the parties. Their reasoning? At least the kids wouldn't be outside, wouldn't be driving around with alcohol.
The Curran report will be circulated among law enforcement, political, school and health officials. For Curran, the interviews cross generations in a couple of ways. They brought him back to his own innocent youth. And, days from now, Curran awaits the arrival of his 10th grandchild -- the child of his daughter, Judge Katie O'Malley, and Mayor Martin O'Malley.