Scientists Create Method to Drug Test an Entire City
> 8/22/2007 11:01:26 AM

It's unlikely that the war on drugs will be won by longer prison sentences. Instead, greater access to information and understanding about the way drugs change the brain and the way they circulate through the country are essential for crafting sound policy aimed at stamping out their use. Unfortunately, as of yet there are only two types of tools for gathering circulation and usage information, both of them flawed. Self-reported surveys can easily be distorted by respondents with bad memories or guilty consciences, and individual testing often runs up against privacy concerns.

Help may have arrived yesterday as a team of researchers from Oregon State University presented their work on a new information-gathering method at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston. USA Today reports that OSU researchers successfully measured the drug use of an entire city with just a small sample from a sewer plant. The government has done preliminary tests to see if they can detect drugs in water supplies, but this university research is much further along. Lead researcher Dr. Jennifer Field was reluctant to reveal the exact locations of her testing, but she told USA Today that multiple communities in Oregon, with populations ranging from 17,000 to 600,000, had been successfully tested for 15 types of drug.

Dr. Field has already detected some interesting variations in circulation. Some cities recorded methamphetamine waste an order of magnitude greater than in surrounding communities. These standout numbers can serve as a focus for drug enforcement investigations.

The geographic variation that waste-testing reveals is very useful, but the chronological variation may be even more important. Because waste-testing is so cheap and non-intrusive, it can be performed frequently enough to precisely chart changes over time. This can alert city officials that immediate action is needed to combat rising drug use. In addition, it has the potential to uncover any number of unanticipated trends. For example, Field noticed that cocaine and ecstasy use jumped on weekends. To throw out another possibility, perhaps future testing will reveal that certain drug use increases on school holidays, giving insight into student patterns of consumption. We stand to learn a lot more about drug abuse than has been possible with surveys. Sensational reports about "drug epidemics" will soon need to be based on hard numbers.

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