President Bush says a new study showing a dramatic decline in overall use of illicit drugs, including a 72 percent plunge in casual cocaine use, is evidence that his war on drugs is "paying off."

But Bush, referring to so-called crack babies, drug-infested neighborhoods and children threatened by narcotic pushers, also said, "A declaration of victory would be premature."The president released a survey of more than 10,000 Americans Wednesday that painted an improving yet still chilling picture of the nation's drug problem.

The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse showed an estimated 44 percent drop since 1985 in the number of people who use illegal drugs - from pot to crack - at least once a month, from 23 million to 12.9 million.

It also found a stunning 72 percent drop during the same period in the number of people who use cocaine at least once a month, from 5.8 million to 1.6 million.

In addition, it showed a 13 percent decline, to 1.6 million, in the number of teenagers who got high in the past year. It found a 49 percent drop, from 225,000 to 115,000, in the number of youngsters who used drugs at least once a month.

But the survey also found an estimated 15 percent rise since 1988 in the number of people who use cocaine daily, from 292,000 to 336,000.

In addition, it estimated that the number of weekly users of crack, an inexpensive form of cocaine, held steady at 500,000. An accompanying study found cocaine-related emergency room cases fell by nearly 10 percent.

Bush, seizing on the good news, said: "Virtually every piece of information we have tell us that drug use trends are are headed in the right direction - down."

Democratic members of Congress promptly accused the president of offering an overly rosy assessment, and said his drug war has shortchanged those who need the most help, people in drug-ravaged inner cities.

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., whose House Government Operations Committee oversees federal anti-drug efforts, said, "While the household survey is dramatic proof that the Reagan and Bush administrations have succeeded in reducing casual use, it's equally dramatic proof that they have failed terribly in reducing hard-core addiction."