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People are finally starting to realize that we have a problem.

Maybe that's because of all the publicity surrounding the events in Jamestown, where an outbreak of HIV infections resulted when a man knowingly spread the virus to teen-age girls, in some cases in drugs-for-sex exchanges. Or the attention given to the City Honors camping trip, when 93 kids admitted to using marijuana or consuming alcohol.

What's the problem people are finally waking up to? Teen-age substance abuse.

But in order to get kids to stop using drugs, it is important to figure out why they're using them, despite years of anti-drug education programs. To find some of the answers, I went straight to the source: teen-agers.

After surveying 32 students of varying race and both sexes from six different local high schools, I was able to gain some perspective on the matter. When I asked them, in this informal survey, if they had ever experimented with an illegal drug, nine responded "yes." The drugs they mentioned ranged from marijuana to LSD, mushrooms and cocaine.

When asked about alcohol consumption, 11 kids admitted to drinking beer, vodka or wine. Most said they had "just tried it" or that they did it only at parties.

Responses varied when the high schoolers were asked why they did drugs or drank alcohol. "Because I was experimenting; having fun," said one boy.

Experimenting" was a common explanation. But an equally common reply was, "I was curious."

One respondent said she used drugs "to be sociable and comfortable." Another cited relief from stress as a reason for her drinking. One cited peer pressure.

Of the 20 kids who admitted to using either drugs or alcohol, however, most said they just did it "to feel good."

On the other side of the spectrum, those kids who didn't drink or do drugs gave sound reasons for their choices. Said one girl, "(I never drank or used drugs) because I want to play sports and don't want anything to keep me from my goal. I would like to play professional basketball. . . . Sports and drugs don't mix."

Another student echoed these sentiments: "As an athlete, I need to stay in peak condition."

One girl supported her choice by saying,"I don't want anything in my body that I'm not sure (how) I will react to." Another girl said she just "never felt the need to do it (drugs or alcohol)." Another student said quite simply, "It's not right."

At the end of my survey, there was a question about smoking cigarettes. Out of the 12 kids who said they never did drugs or used alcohol, only one said she "once tried a cigarette, because of peer pressure." Out of the 20 kids who admitted to drinking or using drugs, nine said they had smoked, and two said they were addicted to cigarettes.

Many said they had quit (or were trying to quit) smoking.

We can't make generalized statements about the entire population of American teens based on this sampling of local teens. We can, however, learn about the motivation behind why they want to drink or use drugs.

For instance, many teens who say they use drugs believe that certain drugs aren't harmful, and that justifies their behavior as long as it occurs, as one girl put it, "safely and with friends."

That attitude confirms my belief that kids not only need, but deserve honest answers to any questions they may have about drug use from people they trust and respect.

One girl, who admitted in the survey to using marijuana and alcohol, said it best: "I am not saying that I am a strong person, but it takes a strong person to say no. Kids need other strong kids their own age who they look up to. . . . If those stronger kids say no, then other kids will, too."

Raina Lipsitz is a sophomore at City Honors.

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