To the editors:

Harold Henderson is a fine chronicler of the offbeat and the unfamiliar. But I’m afraid his powers of prognostication fail him–at least in regard to an item in his April 29 City File column.

Contrary to Mr. Henderson’s prediction that an “amazingly low rate of drug use” would be found among arrestees in Cook County who agreed to voluntary testing, initial findings from the Drug Use Forecasting (DUF) program show just the opposite: drug use among suspected offenders–not just here in Cook County but also in the 11 other metropolitan areas where the program is operating–is turning out to be higher than even some of the most liberal forecasts of the past.

According to Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime (TASC), the non-profit organization that administers the DUF program locally, 73 percent of the 200-plus male arrestees in Cook County who volunteered for urinalysis last October tested positive for at least one of the 10 drugs being screened for. (Nationally, this percentage ranged from a high of 79 percent in New York City to a low of 53 percent in Marion County [Indianapolis], Indiana.) Among the Cook County sample, 50 percent tested positive for cocaine, 40 percent for marijuana and 14 percent for opiates (heroin, morphine, codeine and the like); 37 percent tested positive for two or more drugs. One other amazing statistic: more than 95 percent of the arrestees who have been asked to participate in the DUF program in Cook County have agreed to volunteer.

Clearly one of the main reasons for this high participation rate–and probably the surprisingly high rates of drug use–is that the DUF program is completely anonymous. Since no names are recorded, the results of the tests have no bearing on the cases against the defendants who participate. DUF is strictly a research program.

So what does it all mean? The answer is that it is still difficult to generalize from the DUF data. Conclusions regarding patterns of drug abuse or addiction–and how those patterns translate into criminal activity–cannot be drawn from the DUF numbers alone, for several reasons. For example, urinalysis reveals only the presence of certain drugs in an individual’s system within the last 24-48 hours. In addition, DUF does not test for the presence of alcohol, the abuse of which, either alone or in combination with other drugs, has also been linked with criminal activity. Furthermore, DUF can establish only the presence of drugs in an arrestee’s system, not the exact role that drugs played in the commission of a crime.

Nevertheless, DUF is giving policymakers and the public their first hard data on the level of drug use among suspected offenders in our major metropolitan areas. And since the program is ongoing, it will provide valuable information on how patterns of drug use among arrestees change over time.

Kevin P. Morison

Public Information Officer

Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority