If government studies are a reliable guide, about 25,000 residents of Fairfax County, Va. — 2.5 percent of its population — have used cocaine in the past year. The same data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggest that about 9,000 have done so within the past 30 days. Those estimates rely almost completely on the candor of the respondents. The Bush administration, hoping to broaden the government’s knowledge of illegal drug use, is probing Fairfax’s sewage for a clearer picture.
The county has agreed to participate in a White House pilot program to analyze wastewater from communities throughout the Potomac River Basin for urinary byproducts of cocaine. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said it is not seeking to single out specific localities. It is premature, officials said, to conclude that levels of metabolized cocaine in sewage offer a more accurate index of consumption than traditional survey research. David Murray, special assistant to drug czar John Walters, said wastewater testing, which has been tried in Europe, “certainly has that potential.” He said, “We think it will be very, very useful.”