An article yesterday misstated results of the federal government's household survey of illicit drug use released last year. The survey estimated the number of Americans who used any illicit drug in the past month as declining from 23 million in 1985 to 14.5 million in 1988. The number of Americans estimated to have used cocaine during the same period dropped from 5.8 million to 2.9 million. (Published 9/7/ 90)

On the first anniversary of releasing his anti-drug plan, President Bush proclaimed yesterday there have been "clear signs of progress" in curbing the nation's drug problems and that "cocaine is harder to find, more expensive and less pure than it was just one year ago."

Although he stopped far short of declaring victory, Bush's comments were his most upbeat assessment to date on the state of the drug war -- an issue he reaffirmed as his "number one" priority. His optimism was based on a series of recent reports showing unexpectedly sharp increases in wholesale cocaine prices, continued declines in so-called casual use of drugs, and most surprisingly, a 27 percent decrease in cocaine-related hospital emergencies since last October -- a sign that many experts said suggests that the worst days of the cocaine epidemic may have passed.

But Bush's analysis was promptly discounted by some Democratic critics who pointed to soaring murder rates in many cities and a lack of treatment programs for inner-city addicts as evidence that the nation's drug problems are as serious as ever. A number of academic specialists also noted that some of the positive developments Bush cited were well underway before he took office or, in other cases, bear little relation to the impact of federal policy.

Perhaps most significant of these was the tough drug crackdown launched by Colombia's then-President Virgilio Barco in August 1989 -- a move that U.S. officials have credited with disrupting operations of the Medellin cocaine cartel. In addition, a number of recent research studies have chronicled a gradual but marked turn away from crack cocaine among inner-city teenagers -- a trend that some specialists say was probably inevitable given the saturation levels the drug had reached in many communities during the late 1980s.

For example, one Justice Department study of 1,000 current and former crack smokers in New York City found that young people are increasingly ridiculing their older peers who are still crack smokers. Follow-up street studies by the same researcher have found a sharp drop-off in the recruitment of users.

"Most of the data is suggesting there are very few new {crack} users, and people who are using are dropping off or going back to powder cocaine," said Jeffrey Fagan, an associate professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University who conducted the studies. "You get people walking around and talking about crack heads in the same way they used to talk about winos."

But that trend still leaves a large pool of "hard-core" cocaine or crack addicts -- a group that may be as large as 2.4 million people, according to a new estimate by the staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee released yesterday by Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). While acknowledging that some parts of Bush's drug strategy were "working well," Biden sharply criticized the administration for not spending more on treatment programs.

"The figures we are releasing today show that less than one in 10 pregnant addicts got treatment this year; about 300,000 more drug babies have been born in America since the first drug strategy was released; less than one in seven addicts in prison were treated," Biden said. "No drug strategy that permits {this} to continue unabated can be considered a 'success,' in my view."

Bush's brief appearance came one year to the day after he gave his first nationally televised anti-drug speech, holding up a bag of crack cocaine that he said had been seized across the street from the White House and declaring drug abuse "the gravest domestic threat facing our nation." His appearance yesterday at a long-scheduled news conference by national drug control policy director William J. Bennett was in part aimed at calming fears among anti-drug officials that, between the Persian Gulf crisis and the looming budget crunch, the administration's commitment to attacking the drug problem would soon fade. There also have been concerns that, with recent reports of progress, it may become harder to sustain the president's proposed anti-drug funding increases in Congress.

Bush went out of his way to reaffirm his commitment to the issue with a flourish of Churchillian rhetoric. He said there is "still too much violence, too much destruction, too many innocent victims" from the drug trade and added:

"My administration will remain on the front lines until this scourge is licked for good -- block by block, school by school, child by child -- we will take back the streets, we will never surrender. I know that other subjects are preoccupying all of us these days. But this one remains number one."

To a large extent, Bennett and other administration officials said, recent government indicators have challenged the "conventional wisdom" among many commentators and public policy analysts last year that the drug problem had become "hopeless" and "out of control."

Now, Bennett said, "the drug problem -- in general, nationwide -- is no longer getting worse, and in some very significant aspects, it is now getting better." He pointed to the following developments:

A sharp increase in wholesale cocaine prices in many cities, accompanied by declines in the purity of drugs sold on the streets. Between 1981 and last year, cocaine prices had plummeted from $60,000 per kilogram to as low as $10,000. But in recent months, in Los Angeles, New York and Houston, prices have risen to between $32,000 and $35,000, resulting in what local officials have described as street "shortages" in some cities.

After nearly a fivefold increase between mid-1985 and mid-1989, the number of cocaine-related hospital emergencies recorded each quarter by the Drug Abuse Warning Network, a group of 700 hospitals in 21 major cities, has declined from 11,096 to 8,135 in the past six months.

The federal government's household survey released last year estimated that the number of people who use cocaine once a month or more declined from 23 million to 14.5 million, while this year's annual high school student survey showed that the percentage of high school seniors who admitted using illegal drugs in the past 30 days dropped to 19.7 percent from a peak of 39 percent 10 years earlier. But officials acknowledge that these figures reflect long-term trends among the middle class that had started years before the Bush administration took office.