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Tuesday, June 8, 1999 Published at 10:58 GMT 11:58 UK

UK Politics

The drug czar answers your questions

Keith Hellawell, the government's anti-drugs co-ordinator, answers questions sent by BBC News Online users.

Q. You say that you will cut the availability of heroin and cocaine by 50% in 10 years. Given the lack of success of policies throughout the developed world to limit drug supply, what makes you feel that your policy will succeed?
Jacob Dix

A. I think in terms of a number of approaches. One is by getting to children in schools so that they understand the nature and consequences of these drugs and that has been proved to make an impact. And, secondly, to increase the degree to which we're internationally addressing this problem and through the enforcement agencies.

We're getting into schools from the age of five and there is more money going into schools to train teachers. The results of the early programmes are certainly very encouraging.

Q. As long there is big money in drugs there will be drugs, how do you want to solve that?

A. I think we'll tackle it in two ways. One, by decreasing the demand through education and, two, by addressing the financial issues at an international level. We're looking more at how we can attack the financial base of many of these institutions, because we find that might be more impactive than dealing with individuals. For the first time last year, the government announced that moneys seized through such seizures will be put back into the system, so there's an incentive for people operating within this drug field to increase that amount of money.

Q. How can we expect to gain the respect of teenagers for our stance on drugs when we positively encourage the consumption of alcohol - which I know from personal experience can be far more damaging than "dope" or ecstasy? Not to mention the legality of cigarettes. I have tried drugs and they don't do a lot for me. Take away the illicit thrill and you take away a lot of the thrill.
Yours, Rupert Stubbs

A. I think people say that - I would disagree with him that we positively support the use of alcohol. I think that the health measures that have been circulating in schools for the past couple of years have combined with all the advice and guidance that comes on these measures.

I don't think that's the case, because the attraction to alcohol and tobacco is there and they are legal substances, so I think he's hoist by his own petard.

Q. Having been employed in the area of Policing for over 15 years I find it disconcerting that the government still do not appreciate, or fail to hear people knocking on their door, about the subject of my Email. Living in and working in North Yorkshire one would think this area of the UK would not be tainted with a drugs problem. However it appears to me (and this is a personal point of view) that the majority of crime is drug related. I am not complaining about my forces ability to investigate this problem, but the lack of government initiative in trying to overcome the plague that is gradually covering our country. Is the reason for lack of true publicity about the drugs problem because the politicians are frightened to admit their historical failings in trying to combat this crime wave? Or have they already admitted defeat and have left the nation's police forces to do their best, whilst still rebuking them publicly for poor management in various areas?
John Field, York

A. I think that's unfair now because the government has given an additional £217m to almost quick start the process of prevention and increasing and improving treatment to reduce the vicious cycle between addiction and illegality. The spending will be reviewed again at the end of the current three-year process and I think therefore it's unfair to say the government isn't putting money into it.

You could say in any social policy there's never enough money, but I chaired the cross-departmental spending review, which made those recommendations and I didn't recommend we had any more in the first instance. Throwing money at the problem, until we know what are the best solutions, isn't the answer.

Q. In my view, the difference between recreational drug 'use', and clinical-habitual drug 'abuse' must be made crystal clear. Do you not credit the argument that occasional use of ecstasy, powder-cocaine, and cannabis, is usually indicative of a clear individual choice similar to smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol?
Adams Mitchell

A. I think that's difficult to say. Drug use by individuals is an individual thing and the reasons for people using drugs are almost as many as there are people using drugs. I don't think you can categorise. You cannot say somebody who would casually use a particular drug would not get involved in the downward circle and the vicious cycle associated with some drugs. I used to be able to say I'd never met a heroin addict who hadn't started with smoking cannabis. That's now not the case. Especially around the rave scene and dance scene there are many people using quite dangerous drugs, admittedly on an occasional basis, as there first choice drugs. Some of these drugs can have quite substantial negative consequences even if used only once.

Q. If currently controlled drugs had never been made illegal, would you be calling for them to be made so?
Duncan Drury

A. That's a hypothetical question and it is almost impossible for me to answer.

Q. When will cannabis finally be legalised? Recent research (eg the Lancet) has finally proven what users have always known: cannabis isn't just not bad for your health, but actually it has numerous healthy qualities.
Serge Groven

A. It will not be legalised within the international community in the foreseeable future. All the signatories of the United Nations reaffirmed their resistance to legalising it for recreational use, that includes Holland. However, for medical purposes, derivatives of cannabis are used in this country and we have issued licences to see if that use could be extended.

I don't think we would follow the Dutch model, that's very localised to Holland and it's not followed anywhere else on the mainland of Europe. Really, I don't see any benefits in following the Dutch model. The circumstances in Holland are different than from here. What they choose to do within the international limits, which is that cannabis remains illegal, is up to them. We have a system where the police are able to caution people rather than take them to court, that is not the case in Holland or in other countries. So each country deals with it in its own way.

Q. Alcohol is the most commonly abused drug in our society, and the cause of many health and psychological problems for users, their families and the wider society. Surely the prevention of inappropriate or excessive alcohol consumption should demand the majority of any drug prevention budget and the central thrust of interventions by the 'drug czar'?
Richard Ogden

A. Well, I think it does. My remit isn't just illegal drugs. If you look at the educational programme we're putting forward for schools, they include legal drugs as well as illegal ones. We're developing treatment programmes and the underlying causes of people that perhaps have an addictive nature, they do not discriminate between legal and illegal substances.

Q. Dear Mr Hellawell,
What do you think motivates people to use drugs? Why not respect that motivation?
Yours, Frank Drop

A. As many reasons as people are motivated to use substances. They go from experimentation, to copying, to desperation.

Q. Greetings! I believe that my children will be safer growing up in a society without a huge criminal economy on the go alongside the general economy. Have you a strategy that might achieve this? (hint; first step, legalise and tax cannabis -just a thought)
Regards, Tom Donald

A. I don't think it would be. If we take Holland the restricted use of drugs in Holland has not undermined the drug economy. They have got substantial problems with drugs dealers who deal in other substances. There's a myth that if we legalise a substance it would somehow take the illegality out of it. Unless we legalised all these substances and made them freely available to anyone who chose them, we would still have an illegal market in those substances. I give as evidence for that some of the major problems with amphetamines and Temazepan in Scotland, people have had massive problems with those drugs, even though they're legally available drugs.

Unless all drugs were freely available to those who choose them, you will still have a marketplace to those who didn't have legal accessibility to them. The underage drinking, the underage purchase of cigarettes, that is a legally available substance but with constraints and therefore there is a market in that substance. The availability of methadone on prescription, there's quite a market, which were closing down, for the transfer and sale of legal substances. So, the only way you could do it, which would be catastrophic and even the most fervent legaliser has ever suggested it, you would take all controls off and have anyone who wanted to access it could.

Q. Mr. Hellawell,
If the decision was solely you're own, and you didn't have to answer to Jack Straw/Tony Blair, Would you legalise cannabis?
Good Luck, JSW

A. Not at all, I advise them, my position is adviser to the prime minister and the government of Great Britain so they're following my advice.

I never did suggest cannabis should be legalised. I was asked the question, if it could be shown that if cannabis was legalised it would ease the problem, would we rule that out and I said we should not rule that out, but I did add that I have not seen any evidence yet that that's the case.

Q. How much cash do you reckon it will take to 1/2 the amount of heroin coming into this country? If the government were to regulate the supply (ie quality and strength) and distribution of class A drugs, how many deaths less each year from overdose would you expect? If the sales of these drugs were taxed, how much revenue could be raised and to effect would it be put? What is the total expenditure of keeping people convicted of possession of Cannabis, Amphetamine and MDMA in prison each year?

A. I think you can't operate like that. I mean the international community has set its targets on eradicating or reducing substantially the coca grown in ten years time. So, therefore, probably billions of dollars is going into addressing that problem. There's huge bucks as it were going into the system. Domestically, the amount of money we_re spending is quite substantial. However, what we do know is that certainly in terms of our philosophy is prevention rather than cure. We will see how effective many of the new policies are and see if we need to spend more money on them.

Q. If you fail to hit your 10-year targets, will you quit?

A. I'm on a three-year contract anyway and I'm 15 months into it. I don't know - I don't know what will happen at the end of that three years. I think you can judge me now on what_s happened. There's been a sea change, there's a new strategy, there's money to go with it, there are targets set for 10 years, five years and three years. Now that might appear that it's getting worse. One of our targets is to get more people into treatment - so that will go up.

What is crucial is that the policy of drugs in this country does not depend on an individual, it depends on us all. The government can provide the leadership in terms of the vision and strategy and give the money, but it's the agencies down on the ground, the teachers, the parents, who will change this. My job on behalf of government is to advise them on co-ordinating that, it's not to deliver it personally, but I can advise and help the government create that environment in which they can do more. That change in environment is already very apparent and does receive a great deal of applause.

My view is that we set those targets dispassionately, they were set on an objective basis and they were set on the best evidence we have of what we're currently doing and what the trends are. The evidence that we have got in many of these areas show that when the policies that the government is supporting and recommending are in place, those are achievable.

Q. Dear Mr Hellawell,
My question is simple: Why do you want to brand me as a criminal? I am a hard-working university researcher. I pay my taxes. I help others. After a long day I like to smoke a joint to unwind. I know that this is far less bad for me than alcohol, and that the cannabis counteracts the effects of the tobacco. What is so ethically wrong about that?
Yours, Gary Stimson (MSc)

A. Well, he chooses to be a criminal, nobody else forces him to be a criminal. The law says it is illegal to do that and he has a democratic right to convince sufficient others to vote and get governments to change their laws. But the idea that he's doing no-one else harm doesn't necessarily hold water. If he drives, and he'd probably say he doesn't, he has the potential to endanger others. If he is passing on his own views and habits to the students, he could well be affecting their behaviour in the future, which isn't harmless. The other thing is, somebody in a position of influence ought to recognise that they are in a position of influence and it's obviously to his own conscience but the idea that he isn't causing any harm I would take issue with.

Q. Can you sort out the cannabis problem? It's like this. - People who need it (cannabis) are being treated as criminals. Eric Mann for example. - he only wanted to make himself feel better. He's got arthritis.
Best regards, Barry Diston

A. We're leading in this country in supporting medical and clinical research to see the effects of cannabis derivatives in the treatment in a broad range of ailments and we are the world leader in that. I think the jury is out quite frankly on what effects these have and I think the clinical trials will give us a much better idea. There is no suggestion anyway that cannabis would be smoked. The way in which cannabis would be used would be in a clinical way, which would take it away from smoking, which is more dangerous than the effects of smoking cigarettes. So, there is an argument, it is the effect of smoking and taking all this stuff in that is valuable or is it an element of cannabis. I've been to see the cannabis farm and funnily enough the element of THC, which is the one people use recreationally, people tell me that is not the most beneficial element of cannabis. The cannabis strain they are developing is one which is low on THC. I feel we all need to be very comfortable before we speed up the process and take any shortcuts. I support the use of cannabis on medical grounds, I also have a great deal of sympathy because I've met a lot of people who have got genuine illnesses and feel that this substances can help them. We're doing all we can within the constraints of any testing of medical substances for general release to get the tests done as quickly as we can.

Q. Dear Mr Hellawell,
I live in the inner city (Bradford) in West Yorkshire, where we have a considerable problem with the use of drugs and associated crime linked to this problem. In particular I run a company in Bradford, and we have seen over the last few years a rise in the number of break-ins to cars and property crime rise, which I am told is the result of a 80% drug offenders committing these offences. As a resident and director of a company located in the inner city we have seen our insurance rise and security costs increase as a direct result of drug crime and associated offending behaviour by drug users, I would like to know what response the government and your office is giving to drug related crime and tackling the causes within the inner city, and what reassurance can the public have that drug abuse and crime is being dealt with?
Yours, T.E.Cooper, Cooper & Thompson, Internet Design, West Yorkshire

A. If you look at the figures over the last four or five years, actually crime has come down within this country. One crime that causes people lots of pain is burglary and that has come down particularly. There have been some particularly good examples. Those have largely been where the police have targeted the prolific criminals and where they have recognised that prolific crime is related to needing money to buy drugs and dealing with the underlying causes. Breaking that link between drugs and crime, not just stopping people while they are in prison, but stopping them forever, is a major part of abuse strategy, actually breaking that link between drugs and crime. You can be assured there is a recognition of that link and a focus on stopping it.

Q. Thank you for the opportunity to ask you questions related to the drugs problem through BBC. I am a PhD student in Keele University conducting a research on international security and drugs trade. In this context, I want to make you the following questions: a) Why the drugs trade is considered a menace by the international community? b) Do you consider the drugs trade represents a threat to international security? Why?
Sincerely, J.L. Delgado-Crespo, Department of International Relations, Keele University

A. I think there are a number of issues in relation to the drugs trade. It's estimated that it is 8% of world trade and therefore if it is bigger than tourism and bigger than the gasoline industry then all of that money that would go into world economies is going into a criminal fraternity. So, we're all losing by that. I think also there is a great deal of exploitation at both ends of the spectrum. The people who actually grow and harvest those drugs are largely very poor people who are on subsistence levels, so there is exploitation at that end and of course I believe there is also exploitation at the other end where these drugs are sold and distributed, sometimes on a try one get one free basis to attract younger people. So I think we all suffer.

Q. Dear Mr Hellawell,
Why don't we give the confiscated drugs to the addicts free, gratis and without penalty - albeit with a message about the health risk?
Mark Mercer, West Yorkshire

A. We do actually. Firstly many of the drugs we seize are quite dangerous in themselves and have been cut with unknown substances so I couldn't advocate giving this stuff away. What we do is we burn it and we destroy it. What we do do however, in terms of people who present themselves for treatment, we do give them what we regard as the best substances for them and that's a medical decision but that could include heroin, diamorphine, the legally prescribed heroin. So in fact of somebody desperately needs it, that's a decision for the treatment agencies. A lot of people don't know that. We have been doing that for a long time.

Q. Mr Hellawell
Will you give consideration to adopting harm reduction measures as the core of your policy toward recreational drug use, including allowing the testing of pills using the Marquis reagent in clubs, coupled with a full testing service along the lines of the Dutch DIMS project.
Derek Williams

A. I disagree with that, you condone it. I think that chill out rooms and free supplies of water and advice and guidance on drugs is good, that's a healthy and proper regime. I think when you are testing drugs you're almost authenticating them you're almost giving them a stamp of approval and that's going too far. Interestingly in Holland they're stopping doing that because of the problems they can have if things go wrong. The other thing is the nature of the test. Many of these substances are made up of a conglomerate. The table testing that takes place in clubs is fairly superficial. The only true way to do it is to send to a forensic science laboratory, which is expensive and takes time. So, I'm against this in principle, I think it's misleading and a step too far. I also think it has dangers for those who take drugs, so I'm firmly against it.

Q. I have recently been involved with the new drugs treatment program in Gloucestershire that the government announced last week that would be launched nation-wide. I have a 24-year-old step daughter going through that program and I thought you would be interested in my experiences. She stopped taking drugs for six weeks and then restarted, the probation offer or counsellor just appeased her, told her to stop and started the order all over again, this happened multiple times, each time taken back to court and given an extended probation order to start again. My point being is when she messed up, theft and so forth to start her habit again why is she not taken to task and punished for doing wrong rather than being told, its ok this time, but next time you mess up we will punish you and then when she does it no action is taken again.

A. It's difficult for me to comment on an individual case because I don't know the background and circumstances. What we're trying to do is have that clarity of ways in which the interface between the criminal justice system and rehabilitation programmes so that we don't have people almost mixing and matching between the two systems. One of the problems we've got at the moment is also not just the chaotic nature of drug users but the chaotic access to drug programmes.

Q. You have six grandchildren yourself what would you do if you found out that they were regular drug users?
Chris Thompson

A. Very disappointed and I think that I'd be sad for them. We've discussed this issue amongst the family for some time and in the family we've got doctors and policemen and therefore people who understand the nature and consequences of the problem besides myself. And therefore from a very early age my children and grandchildren have been aware of it and the problems and issues associated with it.

It may not be a tragedy. I don't think it's a normal part of growing up. I do take issue with this idea that drugs are normal for young people. I speak to a lot of audiences of young people and they'd get very cross if I said that because the majority of young people still do not use drugs. A high proportion of them will have been offered drugs, a substantial proportion will have tried them in an experimentative kind of way and that will be the end of it and they will in no way regard themselves as drug users. It's still a relatively small proportion of young people who use drugs on a regular basis and the testing is on the last month, not the last day. So the normalisation aspect is that it's not seen as abnormal in a classroom if somebody does use drugs, but that doesn't mean that normally people do use drugs and sometimes these terms become terms in themselves when you use it in an academic sense.

I don't believe in the slippery slope. For the majority of young people who try drugs, they try them, they experiment with them and then they grow out of them. So it need not be a tragedy, but it has the potential to be a tragedy if as we know from some high profile cases the first time a child tried it, he's dead. I had a parent I spoke to in Manchester in a treatment centre who said, my son was always the sensible one who gave advice, who didn't smoke, didn't drink and was very religious. But somebody persuaded him to try it to see what it was like and it killed him and she was certain it was his first time.

Q. Do you think the coverage of drugs in newspapers helps the debate?

A. I think you're talking about people with influence over other people. I think there's a huge spectrum of people and consequences. At the one end, you've got almost people who are proud of it and will openly flaunt it that they've done it and they're above the law and I think that says a lot about them. If they don't understand the consequences that could have for other people then I think that obviously they don't have a social conscience. Through to the other end of the scale where you've got an exposé where it's discovered. How people deal with those sorts of exposés, that's a matter for the public. As far as I'm concerned, I would like people who have that influence to exercise it in a responsible way.

I was asked by Paxman on Newsnight recently if I had taken drugs and I said, no. And he said, if you had would you have disclosed it and I said I would because it's better in my situation to disclose it than it would be to deny it and for you to find out.

Q. Do you think you could have got the job if you had admitted to ever having taken drugs?

A. I don't know, that's a hypothetical again, because I haven't. It was an open competition, if I'd have said years ago I had done this, which I hadn't, I don't know if they would have automatically excluded me.

Q. Did they ask?

A. I can't remember. I think it was a question, but it was such a long time ago now. I don't think they needed to ask in a way because I have always made it clear that I haven't, so they didn't need to ask.

Q. I have an observation for Mr Hellawell: Making hard drugs less available without removing the demand will surely make them more profitable, and thus enrich and embolden the evil people that peddle them. We need separation of hard and soft drugs in legal terms, to focus resources and education programs within a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy to combat the root causes of drug-taking; ignorance and despair.
Gideon Bellini

A. I think we've made that clear that firstly by getting into schools by the age of five there's a very full and comprehensive educational programme. The strategy also is extremely clear, you've seen that distinction between drugs that cause the most harm and we're focusing on drugs that cause the most harm. It doesn't mean we're ignoring the others, but our view is just that that we don't lump them all together but we look at the consequences to individuals and you deal with the ones with the most severe consequences in the first instance. That's what the government is saying. I think our policy is perceived by others as sophisticated.

Q. I'd like to know which train you catch from Yorkshire at 07:30 that gets you into London at 09:10, perhaps you really do need more sleep!

A. I'll check my timetable. It leaves at 0737 and gets in at 0916, so there you go.

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