U.S. raises its estimate of cocaine users to 1.7 million

February 07, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration reports there are 1.7 million regular users of cocaine, a huge increase over recent government survey estimates.

But government officials insist the number of cocaine user, including heavy users, is declining. They say the new figure is not surprising and merely takes into account users missed by the surveys.

The major government indicator of drug use has been the national household survey of drug abuse, done for the Department of Health and Human Services. The latest survey, reported in December, found that weekly cocaine users numbered 662,000 in 1990, down from 862,000 in 1989.

Those figures were criticized as too low by critics, among them Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Judiciary Committee. His own study estimates there are 2.4 million weekly users.

At a hearing Biden held yesterday, officials of the Office of National Drug Control Policy disclosed the new estimate. Bruce Carnes, director of budget and administration, said the office arrived at 1.7 million by

including results from studies that encompassed prison inmates, the homeless and other groups overlooked by the household survey.

Acting office director John Walters said he believes the number of weekly users is declining, as evidenced by the decreasing number of hospital emergency room admissions attributed to drug abuse.

He said the household survey, while not a reliable census of all drug users, reflects trends.

The government's estimate of the number of illegal drug users has dropped from 5.9 million a year ago to 5.7 million, Walters said.

Maryland officials say they can't reliably estimate the number of drug users in the state. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said 77,000 people were treated for alcohol and drug abuse in 1990.

Michael M. Gimbel, director of the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, said the number of heavy drug users is increasing.

"The bottom line to me is we continue to see more hard-core addicts in our treatment centers," Gimbel said. On the other hand, he said, "I also think we're making headway with our middle and upper-class occasional users. We really have two wars on drugs, a middle-class war and a lower-class war."

At the hearing, Biden offered his own anti-drug strategy and called on the administration to spend $14.7 billion next year. The administration proposes to spend $11.7 billion, an increase of $1.1 billion over 1991 -- and $5.3 billion more than the government was spending when President Bush took office, Walters said.

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