Wish Upon a Czar

The mayor's efforts to crown a drug czar aren't exactly smokin'.

Bruce Mendelson, a researcher in the alcohol- and drug-abuse division of the Colorado Department of Human Services, supports the idea of a drug czar but says statistics can be deceiving.

On the positive side, he says, state statistics tell him that drug use among the general population has declined significantly in the last twenty years. For instance, marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine use all dropped between 1979 and 1995, according to state surveys. On the negative side, however, "you still have a substantial drug problem and hardcore drug users are getting into trouble with increasing frequency."

So even though fewer people are abusing drugs, the people who are abusing them put a heavy burden on the legal and health-care systems -- for example, the Denver County Jail, where 43 percent of arrestees sampled in 1998 tested positive for cocaine (up from 27 percent in 1990), or area hospital emergency rooms, where 66 people out of every 100,000 said they had cocaine in their systems in 1998 (up from 39.2 in 1990), and the morgue, where there were 26.5 cocaine-related deaths per one million people recorded in 1998 (up from 7.6 in 1990).

"The problem has not gone away," Mendelson says. "Drugs are still readily available, and although I don't think new abusers are being added to the population as quickly as they were in the '70s and '80s, you can never let your guard down. You always need to keep vigilant in terms of prevention."

Tracy says his department is hoping to have "something done" in terms of hiring a drug czar by late spring, now that the mayor has given the go-ahead, but Hudson didn't want to put a deadline on it. "On any given day, this office has hundreds of projects going on," he says. "Trying to fit it into reality has just been delayed."

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