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IT IS DISMAYING but perhaps predictable that Colombia would undercut its war on drugs by negotiating with drug barons and forsaking the punishment they feared most: extradition to the United States.

Colombians simply got tired of fighting a battle whose main beneficiaries they saw as American users.

But that country's decision to scale back its war only intensifies the need for the United States to escalate its own effort to cut demand.

Some encouraging news on that front can be extracted from the federal government's latest Household Survey on Drug Abuse, which showed that casual use of cocaine has dropped 72 percent over the past five years.

Also encouraging was the fact that the number of people using other drugs -- such as marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes -- also appears to be declining.

But the news is not all good, and even the positive figures have a downside. While casual use of cocaine -- defined as at least once a month -- dropped, the number of daily users rose by 37 percent.

And congressional critics point to other studies to show that the survey's estimate of 662,000 people who use cocaine at least once a week may be only a quarter of the real number because the household survey does not tap many high-use populations. For example, it does not query the homeless, prison inmates, or those in shelters and treatment programs.

Taken together, the survey results and the criticism point up what Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., properly characterized as the "two-tiered" nature of the drug problem. And they show why more must be done.

The fact that the government survey may have grossly understated the actual number of drug users should not obscure the fact that the survey has been conducted the same way since 1971. That means that even though the numbers themselves may be suspect, the trend it shows is not.

But it means the trend may well be in effect only among the well-educated, who are most likely to be swayed by the massive publicity given the anti-drug effort in recent years. Everyone from athletes to pop idols to medical experts has bombarded the public with the same message: drugs are dangerous and -- even more importantly to some -- no longer "cool."

The culture of intolerance that has resulted in workplace treatment programs, school-based educational efforts and a fear of losing a job, a car or a good chunk of money if caught appears to have had its intended effect on those capable of ingesting the message.

But the problem will not be solved until a way is found to reach the hard-care users who are not susceptible to peer pressure and educational efforts because they have much less to lose. And a failure to count those groups in a survey will not make them -- or the crime, poverty and other social ills they create -- go away.

With Colombia's willingness to negotiate with its drug producers possibly giving them more freedom to export drugs -- despite promises to quit and spend nominal time in special prisons -- the onus is on Americans to say no.

And it's on the government to find ways to help those who won't get the message from a simple slogan.

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