By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. crime statistics show illegal drugs play a central role in criminal acts, providing new evidence that tackling drugs as a public health issue could offer a powerful tool for lowering national crime rates, officials said on Thursday.
An annual drug monitoring report, released by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, also showed a decline in the use of cocaine since 2003, a sign that drug-interdiction efforts and public education campaigns may be curtailing the use of the drug's powder and crack forms.
The rate of overall illegal drug use in the United States has declined by roughly 30 percent since 1979.
But Thursday's report, based on thousands of arrestee interviews and drug tests, showed that on average 71 percent of men arrested in 10 U.S. metropolitan areas last year tested positive for an illegal substance at the time they were taken into custody.
The figures ranged from 64 percent of arrests in Atlanta to 81 percent in Sacramento, California, and were higher for nearly half of the collection sites since 2007.
U.S. officials held up the data as evidence to support President Barack Obama's strategy aimed at breaking the cycle of drugs and crime by attacking substance abuse with treatment rather than jail for nonviolent offenders.
"Tackling the drug issue could go a long way in reducing our crime issues," Gil Kerlikowske, head of the office that issued the report, told Reuters in an interview.
"These data confirm that we must address our drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue."
The arrest figures included men taken into custody on more than one charge as well as those arrested in drug busts.
The data showed that on average about 23 percent of violent crimes and property crimes, including home burglaries, were committed by people who tested positive for at least one of 10 illegal drugs including marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines.
Charlotte, North Carolina, had the highest proportion of drug-related violent crime offenses at 29 percent, while New York City had the highest for drug-related property crimes at 32 percent.
DECLINE IN COCAINE USE
Cocaine was the second-most common drug found among arrestees after marijuana. But the report said cocaine use, with crack the most popular form, has declined significantly since a decade ago, dropping by half in major cities like New York and Chicago between 2000 and 2011.
The report said methamphetamine use was strongest in the West Coast cities of Sacramento and Portland, Oregon, with no evidence that its use has grown appreciably in areas east of the Mississippi River.
U.S. health officials says the link between drugs and crime is socially complex. But the effect drugs have on human behavior can seem more straightforward.
"Drugs impact things like inhibitory control. And our ability to weigh risks and consequences of certain behaviors is severely effected by drug abuse," said Dr. Redonna Chandler of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Drug enforcement experts say the evidence strongly supports wider use of drug courts, which seek to impose treatment regimens instead of prison sentences on repeat criminals that are dependent on illegal drugs.
West Huddleston, of the Alexandria, Virginia-based National Association of Drug Court Professionals, said a convicted criminal who successfully completes a court-imposed treatment regimen is nearly 60 percent less likely to return to crime than those who go untreated.
There are more than 2,600 drug courts operating in the United States. But they reach only a fraction of drug-addicted offenders.
According to Chandler, 5 million of an estimated 7 million Americans who live under criminal justice supervision would benefit from drug treatment intervention. But only 7.6 percent actually receive treatment.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)