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DRUG POLL ADDS TO ESTIMATE OF USERS’ RANKS

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A new survey of drug abuse and attitudes found that while use of illegal drugs has declined dramatically in the past five years, the number of Americans still using them is far higher than an earlier government study indicated.

The trends found in the private Partnership for a Drug-Free America's Attitude Tracking Study, known as PATS, are similar to those in the Household Survey conducted by the government's National Institute on Drug Abuse, but the actual numbers differ.For example, the institute's survey found only 0.8 percent of adults, or almost 1.5 million people, were current users of cocaine, meaning they had used the drug within 30 days of being polled.

The PATS poll said the level was almost three times higher - 2.3 percent - for the equivalent of about 4.2 million people.Similar differences were found in other areas.

For marijuana, the Household Survey, which included hashish in this category, said 5.1 percent of adults were current users. PATS, which counted only marijuana, said 8.8 percent were current users. As for crack cocaine, the Household Survey said 0.25 percent of adults were current users, compared with 1.1 percent in the PATS report.

Pollster Gordon Black, who conducted the PATS survey, said PATS has consistently gotten more reports of drug use since the first poll in 1987.

"I frankly believe it is in large part due to the fact that we get a higher degree of candor in a fully anonymous survey than one gets in the Household Survey," Black said Thursday. "I'm not being critical of them. They do about everything that's humanly possible to provide respondents with confidentiality."

Dr. Herbert Kleber, deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in charge of drug demand reduction, said all the surveys are flawed, but that doesn't matter.

"The important thing is not the absolute number but the shape of the curve," Kleber said. "The shapes are all the same. The trends are all the same. That's what the critical point is."

The Household Survey has been criticized for underestimating the nation's drug abuse problem by not polling the homeless and people in institutions such as prisons and dormitories, where drug use might be more prevalent.