As anyone who's ever failed a drug test knows, the things we put in our bodies—everything we eat, drink, smoke, snort or shoot—eventually comes out in some form or another.
What works for the individual also works on a much larger scale. Scientists in 2005 and 2006 were able to detect major drug abuse in the sewage in London, Milan and Lugano, Switzerland. Londoners, for instance, used twice as much heroin per capita as residents of Lugano. Cocaine use in Milan rose on the weekends. And a whole lot of dope was getting smoked in all three cities.
Inspired by the European study, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the agency headed by White House Drug Czar John Walters, tested 100 facilities in 24 areas across the country for the presence of cocaine metabolite.
Though the data from the study hasn't been published, the Los Angeles Times somehow learned that there was more cocaine in Los Angeles County sewers than in London, Milan and Lugano.
There's no way of knowing how San Diego fits into this picture. The city refused to participate in the Walters' voluntary study. Fred Sainz, a spokesperson for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said the request smacked of “Big Brother.”
“In a way, it felt like people's privacy was being invaded,” Sainz said. “We wondered what useful information could come from this other than people being left with a bad taste in their mouth.”
Jennifer de Vallance, a spokesperson for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the testing was a pilot program to see whether it could produce useful information at a low cost.
“We were encouraged by what we found,” de Vallance said. “We happen to think it could have tremendous public-policy and public-health value.” Her office has recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency implement a nationwide program that could serve as a sentinel system for future drug epidemics.
When the sewer drug tests were conducted in 2006, Sanders had recently taken office. Sainz said there were other priorities and the city didn't need the “added workload.” According the White House drug office, the sewer testing involved almost no effort at all. The Office of National Drug Control Policy mailed out a Nalgene bottle. Each facility filled it up and dropped it in a prepaid FedEx mailer. “Cooperation was very high,” de Vallance said. “It was free to the facilities.”
There's another reason that might explain San Diego's reluctance to participate. Part of the problem may lie with Walters himself. Walters, an anti-marijuana zealot, once described pot growers as “violent criminal terrorists.” Even in normally law-enforcement friendly San Diego, Walters managed to rub people the wrong way.
“This is a man who thinks beer is a gateway drug,” said a city source who asked not to be identified.