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Youth access to drugs increases

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This year also marked the first time in the CASA survey's 13-year history that more teens said prescription medication was easier to buy than beer. Among teens who know prescription drug abusers, 34 percent said abusers get the drugs from home, parents, or the medicine cabinet, while 31 percent said friends or classmates.

"A substantial number of American parents have become passive pushers," says CASA chairman Joseph Califano Jr. "A few decades ago, parents used to have a lock on the liquor cabinet. Maybe there should be a lock on the medicine cabinet."

The study cites parental negligence as key to the upswing in teen access to drugs.

There are different explanations for the divergence of trends in drug availability and use. Increased supply may yet convert into "upticks in usage" in the near future, says Mr. Califano. "Availability is the mother of use," he adds.

Drug price also plays an important role in usage, and it is not always affected by availability, notes Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md. A 2007 NIDA study notes, for example, that changes in cocaine availability for 12th-graders over the last three decades has not proved a major determinant of use. What changed cocaine use was the introduction of low-cost crack cocaine in the early 1980s, which broke down social-class differences.

Besides, attitudes count most, says Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "Use moves independent of supply to a degree."

For example, teen Ecstasy use increased dramatically at the beginning of this decade because young people viewed the pills as safe and saw few social consequences to taking "the hug drug." But news of Ecstasy-related deaths and a national campaign, launched in 2001, helped reduce usage by ratcheting up perception of risk and social disapproval, says Mr. Pasierb.

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