WASHINGTON — Cocaine use by U.S. workers is at its lowest rate in at least a decade, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said Thursday.
It cited a 16 percent drop in positive workplace drug tests for cocaine in the first six months of this year, based on the experience of the leading American tester. The decline coincides with tight supplies and rising prices in many U.S. cities, according to a drug market intelligence report released by John Walters, the office's director.
Emergency room visits for cocaine-related problems also are down, Walters said in an interview. In a drug-fighting career that started in the Reagan administration, he added, he's never seen so many cocaine-use trends "pointing in the same direction."
He gives much of the credit to crackdowns on drug traffickers by Colombia and Mexico, which together supply about 90 percent of U.S. cocaine.
While confirming a general decline in U.S. cocaine use, Thomas Pietschmann, a senior researcher at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria, thought it might reflect growing demand in Europe, at least in part.
"Cocaine's still a celebrity drug here; it doesn't have the bad reputation that it does in the U.S.," he said.
Another possibility is that traffickers are stockpiling cocaine in Colombia and Mexico until enforcement subsides. Yet another is that interdictions earlier this year — especially two huge seizures in the eastern Pacific that took out more than 41 tons of cocaine — disrupted traffickers' supply lines to U.S. consumers.
Among the cities that are reporting price spikes or scarcity, according to Walters' office, are Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Minn., and Wichita, Kan.
The White House drug czar's upbeat news comes as President Bush prepares to offer Mexican President Felipe Calderon a massive drug-interdiction aid program when the two meet at a North American summit in Quebec City? on Aug. 20-21. Colombia, whose latest U.S. drug-aid package is pending on Capitol Hill, already has received $5 billion under a joint, multi-pronged quasi-military campaign called Plan Colombia.
Cocaine's reported decline among U.S. workers reflects the outcomes of 4.4 million drug tests conducted nationwide by Quest Diagnostics Inc. of Lyndhurst, N.J., in the first half of this year. The positive test rate of about 1 in 200 — 0.58 percent — was the lowest in the 10 years since Quest began reporting cocaine in its testing index, a widely used benchmark.
The rate compares with 0.69 percent for all of 2006. Those tested were from the general work force, especially workers in safety-sensitive jobs such as pilots, bus and truck drivers and workers in nuclear power plants, whose drug testing is federally mandated.
Declines were in double digits in most of the nation and were greatest in New England and the Middle Atlantic states plus a region formed by Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas. The Upper Midwestern states of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota dropped just 9.5 percent.
Barry Sample, Quest's director of science and technology for employment testing, said the declines "may suggest that our nation's workers are choosing not to use cocaine or that they lack access to the drug."
Cocaine use declines were reported by region, not city or state. To see how your region did, go to http://www.ondcp.gov/news/press07/080907.html
(Pablo Bachelet contributed to this report.)