Pubdate: Mon, 21 Feb 2005
Source: Knoxville News-Sentinel (TN)
Copyright: 2005 The Knoxville News-Sentinel Co.
Author: Richard Powelson


Community Leaders Speculate Why State'S Rates Lowest In Nation

Tennesseans had the lowest rates in the nation for both alcohol abuse
and marijuana use, according to a new two-year federal study.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study showed about 6
percent of Tennessee residents 12 and older had abused alcohol in the
past year, and about 7.4 percent had used marijuana in the same
period. North Dakota had the highest alcohol abuse rate, 10.8 percent,
and Alaska the highest percentage (16.6) using marijuana.

	 But the federal statisticians, who obtained the results from about
125,000 representative home interviews in 2002 and 2003, did not offer
reasons why Tennessee and other states had the lowest rankings.

The state's Department of Health, which runs a variety of alcohol and
drug prevention programs, was "very thrilled" at the Tennessee
results. "We have made this a priority in Tennessee," said Dr.
Stephanie Perry, a physician in the department.

"We try to target what is needed most in each community," she said,
emphasizing the after-school programs that address teen issues,
including self-esteem, team building and family focus.

Also, the Bible Belt cuts a wide path through the state.

Ron Stewart, senior pastor at Grace Baptist Church in Karns, said
there are more than 3,000 Southern Baptist churches in Tennessee and
most of them preach about the benefits of total abstinence from drugs
and alcohol.

"I would hope and I would believe that a great part of the reason for
this survey result has to be what is being done through these
churches," Stewart said. His church is one of the state's growing
number of mega-churches, which have large congregations and reach many
more through TV and radio stations airing perhaps a dozen hours of
spiritual programming each week.

"Beer is a gateway drug" that often leads to more extreme drug abuse,
he said. "It is definitely a danger to our society and it's causing
many, many problems."

Leah Young, a spokesperson for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental
Health Services Administration, which handled the two-year survey,
said the lowest alcohol and marijuana use rates in states could be a
reflection of a state's prevention and treatment programs. "Our data
. will enable states to try and figure out why."

U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, an East Tennessee Republican, said "values,
morals, religious convictions and upbringing of children have a whole
lot to do with these outcomes" where some states have lower alcohol
and drug abuse. Wamp said he quit drinking 21 years ago to improve his

Despite the good news for Tennessee in the survey, Wamp and Stewart
noted that methamphetamines remain a big illegal drug problem hurting
users and their families. "It's clearly on the increase," Wamp said.

Wamp said Congress must better address prevention of methamphetamine
use and illegal youth drinking.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, citing federal data, has reported that
about one in seven Americans 12 and older in 2002 drove under the
influence of alcohol at least once in the previous 12 months. Also, in
2003, 25 percent of 15- to 20-year-old drivers killed in motor vehicle
crashes had been drinking.

Keller Barnette, a spokesman in Knoxville for the National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said he did not know
why marijuana usage in Tennessee would be lower than other states.

"Maybe the people are just, like, more paranoid here," Barnette said,
and underreported drug activity to federal survey personnel. (Each
respondent entered his or her answers into a portable computer without
the visiting federal worker able to see one's answers, a survey
spokesman said.)

Barnette said his group's top priority is winning state approval of a
law allowing medicinal marijuana for those suffering pain from a
life-threatening disease like cancer. "In limited circumstances,
marijuana should be legal," he said.

Dr. Perry, the state Health Department physician, said Tennessee's
good ranking from the survey should make it easier to broaden the
existing coalition of health organizations and volunteers involved
with alcohol and drug abuse.

"We're going to continue doing what we're doing," she said. "You have
to have a sustained focus to really make a difference."
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