WASHINGTON -- Casual drug use by Americans has dropped sharply over the past five years, but the number of addicts using cocaine daily has not changed significantly, the federal government reported yesterday.
The figures, based on a government survey of more than 9,000 people nationwide, indicate that more than 10 million Americans have stopped using illicit drugs on an occasional basis since 1985 -- a drop of 44 percent.
An even steeper 72 percent decline was reported among casual cocaine users. An estimated 1.6 million people used cocaine at least once a month this year -- the common description of casual use -- compared to 5.8 million in 1985.
President Bush embraced the statistics as "wonderful and welcome news," saying: "Virtually every piece of information we have tells us that drug use trends are headed in the right direction -- down."
The survey was immediately challenged, however, by the Democratic staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which released a study estimating significantly higher numbers of cocaine and heroin addicts than estimated by the Bush administration.
The committee study was based on information from drug treatment centers, homeless advocacy groups and arrest records. Unlike the administration survey, it did not poll the general population.
"Unquestionably, progress has been made," said Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., but he charged that the administration's survey "misses more addicts than it counts." Mr. Biden expressed concern that the administration survey would be used to justify inadequate funding requests.
Independent analysts said the figures reflected the greater emphasis many Americans have placed on a healthy lifestyle, noting that usage of alcohol and cigarettes has also been declining.
"A generation of people giving up red meat and refined sugar was not
going to keep putting chemicals up their nose," Harvard University drug researcher Mark Kleiman said.
Government health officials acknowledged, however, making limited or no headway in combating heavy drug use, particularly among cocaine addicts.
"Our strategies are working for the general population," said James O. Mason, assistant secretary for health in the Department of Health and Human Services. "But we need to target our efforts at those that are heavily addicted."
The survey estimated that Americans who used cocaine daily or al
most daily increased from 292,000 in 1988 to 336,000 in 1990. It reported 662,000 weekly cocaine users, a decline of 200,000 from 1988 levels.
The survey also contradicts popular stereotypes of the typical drug user, said John P. Walters, acting director of the administration's drug control policy office.
"The characteristic drug user in our population today . . . is still white, is still middle-class, is still employed . . . " Mr. Walters said. "It's simply not a minority individual in the inner city, although those places also have a serious problem."