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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 January 2005, 09:43 GMT
The failure of UK drug policy

By Phil Rees
Producer - BBC Drugland series

Twenty five years ago, President Reagan declared a 'war on drugs'. According to Whitehall sources, Tony Blair is planning to make it a key battleground for the forthcoming general election.

Yet in Britain and the United States,

the use of controlled drugs increases. A conservative estimate puts the number of people who regularly use illegal substances in the UK at five million.

Dr Russell Newcombe is the Senior Lecturer at the Drug Use and Addiction Programme of John Moores University in Liverpool. He is scathing about government attempts to control drug usage.

He said: "I don't think there's any other area of social policy where we would apply the same policy year in year out for decades only to show that the problem got worse every year, and yet still continue with it saying well if we keep doing it, it might work one day."

Public interest

Problem drug users are a very small minority of all our drug users
Dr Russell Newcombe, John Moores University

Drugs remain an issue that divides and polarises society. The debate about drugs is often ill-informed because politicians know that a 'war on drugs' can attract the votes of parents who are concerned that their children might be dabbling with potentially dangerous and illegal substances.

One of the most striking aspects of the debate is that 'drugs' are usually bundled together in one basket, as if they are simply different shades of one pernicious substance.

Yet the issues surrounding heroin or crack are quite different to those concerning cannabis or ecstasy.

The police are aware of this and have drawn a distinction in their anti-drug policy. They do not have the resources to target the clubbers who consume two million ecstasy tablets each weekend in Britain.

The police know where they are; they could arrest thousands by raiding any club in any major city in the UK. But the courts and jails could not cope. And would it be in the public interest to arrest students and working people who have bought the drugs with their own money and otherwise are law abiding citizens?

The police do not like to say this publicly but they largely ignore people who use drugs and commit no other offence. As much as the police can do is to deal with heroin and crack addicts who steal and mug people in order to feed their habit.

Recreational drugs

Drugland: London
Part one of a three part series
Tuesday, 4 January 2005

Already our prisons are brimming with these addicts; of the 75,000 in Britain's jails, nearly 50,000 need detox treatment for drug addiction.

Our criminal justice system can barely cope as it is, without adding to it the advertising executives or city slickers who snort coke or the millions who relax with a joint at home in the evening.

The majority of illegal drug usage is for recreational purposes. "Problem drug users are a very small minority of all our drug users," says Dr Newcombe, "When we look at particular drugs it's only heroin really and perhaps crack where more than half of users of those drugs actually develop problems and need help from different agencies.

"99 per cent of cannabis users don't appear to have any serious problems with the drug effecting their lives. We get to other drugs like ecstasy, speed and cocaine again still the majority of users probably 90 to 95 per cent use the drugs recreationally and never develop any problems with them , apart from occasionally being arrested by the police."

All drugs are toxic and like alcohol, are likely to be harmful to health. But alcohol has been part of our civilisation for hundreds of years and remains central to many social occasions in Britain.

Informed debate?

Heroin being smoked
Dr Newcombe says more than half of heroin users develop problems

Now, a generation has grown up surrounded by ecstasy and has developed a moral equivalence between recreational drugs and alcohol.

Many young people argue that smoking marijuana or using ecstasy or cocaine is a victimless crime. Mountain climbing or diving are dangerous activities yet they are not seen by the popular press as an evil that is destroying Britian's youth.

Much of the public debate about drugs is morally rather than evidentially led. It is very rare to hear recreational drug users speak publicly about their activities - they fear losing their jobs or being arrested.

Confidential surveys show that most people who consume drugs do so because they want to have fun rather than because they are addicted.

Most stories in the newspapers or on television are about the minority of drug users who seek help from rehab institutions. They have spoken publicly because their lives have broken down following their difficulty controlling their drug usage.

But these people do not reflect the overall pattern of drug consumption in Britain today. As a result, an informed debate is rarely held on the genuine risks involved in taking drugs.

Drugland: London was broadcast on Tuesday, 4 January 2004 at 2100 GMT on BBC Two

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