Pubdate: Sat, 13 Aug 2005 Source: International Herald-Tribune (International) Copyright: International Herald Tribune 2005 Contact: http://www.iht.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/212 Author: Elisabetta Povoledo Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/coke.htm (Cocaine) ITALY'S RIVER OF COCAINE PUTS NATION ON THE ALERT MILAN Italy famously shuts down in August, and that may explain the sleepy response to a report last weekend that drug abuse in northern Italy has been significantly underestimated. But acknowledging that cocaine use has surged, Italian authorities said they were treating the findings as a wake-up call. Officials are so concerned with the rise in cocaine consumption that they plan to initiate a nationwide awareness campaign targeting young people this autumn. "We're looking closely at the issue, which is very preoccupying," Carlo Giovanardi, minister for relations with Parliament, said in a telephone interview. A scientist at the World Health Organization in Geneva said also that the latest report and other research indicated that cocaine had become democratized and was no longer the prerogative of the wealthy. The report, an analysis of the waters of the Po River, found that the waterway carried "the equivalent of about 4 kilograms of cocaine per day," or 8.8 pounds, indicating that consumption of the drug was substantially higher in the area than that given in official national figures. Reacting to the report, Sebastiano Vitali, the director of operations of Italy's anti-drug police, said that their data showed that seizures of cocaine had been highest in Lombardy, the province where the study had been carried out. "Certainly, cocaine is more present in wealthier, industrial cities," Vitali added. He said he could not comment on the scientific data. The Po, Italy's longest river, runs through the northern part of the country from the Alps to the Adriatic. The research covered a section of the Po from the industrial city of Turin to Pavia; it excluded Milan, which the scientists said deserved a separate study. The findings were published by the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research and posted on a British health Web site. The method used - analysis of river water to monitor community drug abuse - has caught the interest of drug experts. The researchers discovered that water samples collected along one section of the Po indicated that around 40,000 doses of cocaine per day were being consumed in the surrounding catch basin of about five million people. Based on this data, the study estimates that 2.7 percent of Italians aged 15 to 34 use cocaine every day. This greatly exceeds official national figures indicating that 1.1 percent of the same age group uses cocaine at least once a month. To arrive at the numbers, researchers at the institute in Milan measured the amount of benzoylecgonine, cocaine's main urinary byproduct, found in water samples collected at Mezzano, a town on the Po near Pavia, and from waste treatment plants in four medium-sized Italian cities. The method is believed to be trustworthy because benzoylecgonine is produced only by cocaine use. Howard Stead, chief of the laboratory and scientific section at the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, said the study's findings were not a surprise. "I think it's solid science, and the general approach is good," he said in a telephone interview from Vienna. "Where I would disagree is that they're surprised that the results are as high as they are." Data acquired by the agency suggest, he said, that "that part of Italy has a higher-than-average number of drug users, compared to the rest of the country." A major drawback, he said, was that the researchers used an "expensive method that couldn't be applied around the world" and that, if it were to be used in the future, "some tweaking would be required to take variables into account." The authors of the study are promoting their method as an evidence-based tool to gauge the extent of a phenomenon that is difficult to measure. Current methods typically rely on medical records, criminal statistics and consumers, who do not always tell the truth, for their data. Doctor Isidore Obot, a scientist at the World Health Organization, said that the picture emerging was that cocaine was no longer used primarily by the wealthy in urban areas. "Cocaine use is being democratized," he said. "It's becoming more widespread than you would expect. It's worth taking another look at how we measure consumption." Italian experts like Pietro D'Egidio, a drug abuse expert and a board member of FeDerSerD, an organization grouping substance abuse operators, said that monitoring drug use is always hard because no method actually measures the frequency of consumption. However new methods were useful as points of cross-reference. The wealth of the Negri report, he said, "was to have opened a new point of observation".