About half the adults in Maryland think the use of illegal drugs such as cocaine is widespread among athletes at the University of Maryland, but only three in every 100 think the problem is worse there than at other large schools, according to a Washington Post public opinion poll.

Residents see the drug problem as so complex that they are sharply divided over whether it is possible for university officials to prevent athletes from using the drug. By a 2-to-1 margin, Marylanders surveyed said they would reject a rule banning players from competition if they are found to be using cocaine for the first time.

The Post's poll began last Saturday, two days after All-America basketball player Len Bias died from using cocaine, and was completed Wednesday. In all, 1,656 people age 18 and older were interviewed at random by telephone across the state.

Concern that drug use is common among Maryland athletes grew day by day as details of Bias' death became known. On Saturday 39 percent of the people interviewed believed that the problem was widespread; by Wednesday that figure climbed to 49 percent.

On the average over the five days of the survey, 44 percent believed that the use of illegal drugs such as cocaine was a widespread problem among the school's athletes. Eleven percent believed such drug use was not widespread, and 45 percent said they were unable to venture an opinion.

With only a few exceptions, all groups in the population -- men and women, high school dropouts and those with graduate degrees, younger people and older ones, blacks and whites, political conservatives and liberals -- had uniform views on the nature of the drug problem.

There was virtually no difference among any of these groups, for example, in the proportions thinking the situation at Maryland is worse than at other large schools. Overall, only 3 percent felt that way, and 6 percent said drugs such as cocaine were used less by Maryland athletes than by athletes at other schools. The great majority, 70 percent, saw no difference in the pattern at Maryland and other places, and 21 percent offered no opinion.

There also were virtually no differences in views on whether it was "realistic or unrealistic to expect the University of Maryland and other large schools" to prevent athletes from using drugs such as cocaine.

In all, 47 percent called such an effort "unrealistic," 41 percent said it was "realistic" and 12 percent had no opinion. However, younger people -- those between the ages of 18 and 34 -- were slightly more inclined to think the use of drugs such as cocaine use could be stopped.

The survey asked whether athletes found to be using cocaine for the first time at Maryland should be banned from sports there, or whether whatever decision is made should "depend on the circumstances." Among all people interviewed, sentiment ran against a blanket ban, 62 to 31 percent.

On that question, one group -- people who thought of themselves as conservatives -- tended to be tougher, dividing 41 percent in favor of a ban and 50 percent against.

Theoretically, a poll this size has a margin of sampling error of less than 3 percentage points. That does not take into account other undeterminable sources of error that may occur in polls.