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Saturday, 17 February, 2001, 18:24 GMT
The drugs debate

The debate over drugs continued throughout the last parliament - with many people, including some MPs, calling for changes in the law.


BACKGROUND

Official government research shows that a third of adults aged between 16- 59 in England and Wales have used illegal drugs at some point in their lives. In Northern Ireland the figures stands at 40%.

Drugs and offending
70%: Number of arrestees testing positive
129: Average weekly drug spend by offender
308: Average weekly spend on cocaine
5,535: Average illegal income of offender
2.4bn: Value of drugs seized in 1998
Source: Home Office
While the UK has the strictest laws on cannabis use in the European Union, it also has the highest number of regular users.

In many metropolitan areas, users know that their chances of being arrested are slim. And if they are arrested, the figures show that 60% are cautioned and released.

However, from the perspective of law enforcement, the problem is immense and getting worse as cheaper heroin and crack cocaine remain on sale in the UK.

Seven out of 10 crimes are drugs related according to one Home Office study.

The number of drug offenders has continued to rise - with nine out of 10 of them caught for cannabis possession. Less than 10% are jailed.

According to the latest available figures, drugs seizures rose by 8% in 1998 to 149,000 - the highest recorded figure.

Heroin seizures rose by 19% and cocaine and crack by just over a third.

A record 2,960kg of cocaine was seized in 1998. No one knows how much got through, but everyone knows the effect it's having.

According to Drugscope, a policy think tank, there are about 266,000 "problem users" in the UK.

The number of drug offenders increased by 13% in 1998 to 127,900 people and deaths are rising among Class A drug users.

But it takes something particularly horrific to make the news. Few have forgotten the ecstasy-related death of teenager Leah Betts.

But few will remember the tragic and anonymous drugs related deaths of 43 heroin addicts last year.


DRUGS CZAR

Labour said that its appointment of a UK anti-drugs co-ordinator, "the drugs czar", marked a new approach.


We need to discriminate between different drugs and the relative harm caused ... the focus is going to be on the drugs that cause the major harm

Keith Hellawell, February 2000
Taking the policy and approach of the US government, the czar, former West Yorkshire chief constable Keith Hellawell, aims to co-ordinate governmental drugs policy with work in communities throughout the UK.

Prime Minister Tony Blair charged him with coming up with a 10-year anti-drugs strategy to build on the 1995 (Conservative government) report "Tackling Drugs Together", Whitehall's first attempt to strategically deal with the problem.

While this strategy won cross-party support, critics say that it treated drug misuse in isolation from social factors and didn't have the funding to realise its ambitions.

The new strategy, published in April 1998, aims to:

  • Help young people resist drugs
  • Protect communities from the effects of drugs
  • Help addicts come off drugs
  • Stifle the availability of drugs

    The strategy's targets for reducing illegal drug use include:

  • A 25% drop in heroin and cocaine use among young people by 2005
  • Slashing drug related school exclusions by a third by 2002
  • Cutting addict re-offending by 25% by 2005
  • Reducing access among young people to drugs by half by 2008

    The government says that the targets are being matched with other developments including a National Treatment agency, treatment referral at the time of arrest and the ploughing of traffickers' confiscated assets back into the community.

    Scotland has already moved two steps further since devolution. The executive has looked to North America in setting up a US-style drugs enforcement agency and "drug courts", dispensing obligatory treatment programmes rather than jail terms.


    POLITICAL UNCERTAINTY

    Britain has experienced a sustained and growing campaign to decriminalise cannabis.


    I can say now cannabis is a gateway drug

    Keith Hellawell, November 2000
    It gained impetus when the Police Foundation, an independent think tank, recommended decriminalising cannabis and ecstasy use to concentrate the law enforcement fire power elsewhere.

    But the government's reaction was luke warm.

    Prime Minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary Jack Straw maintain a hard line on drugs - but the two ministers co-ordinating the policy, are known liberals.

    Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam has admitted trying cannabis at university but said that she disliked it.

    Her deputy, Ian McCartney, lost his son to a heroin overdose in 1999. He later called for a "new realism" arguing that if you cannot stop people taking drugs, it's better to make sure they can make informed choices.

    No legal proceedings for personal cannabis use (EU members)
    Denmark
    Netherlands
    Portugal
    Spain
    France
    Austria
    Germany
    Conservatives have been equally split. At the party's 2000 conference, Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe pledged to fine users 100 for even the smallest quantity of drugs found.

    Within days the policy was in tatters. Eight shadow cabinet members queued up to tell the media that they had all tried it at one time or another.

    Agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo stuck his neck out further than most to declare "I was offered it on occasion and enjoyed it".

    The policy was soon withdrawn for a "rethink".

    The Liberal Democrats remain the most radical on the drugs debate. Party leader Charles Kennedy has called for a Royal Commission - though his own position on cannabis has remained slightly more ambiguous.

    His 1999 call for a Royal Commission which would include examining the case for legalising cannabis was described by the head of a leading drugs-awareness charity as "an enormous moment" for a sensible drugs debate.

    Since then, Mr Kennedy has sought to clarify his personal position, saying that he does not believe cannabis should be legalised - though he still wants a commission to look into drugs policy.

    Nowhere has the political uncertainty been seen more than in the debate over decriminalising cannabis for medicinal use. Labour in government said that it would respond appropriately if a medical case were proven.

    In March this year the Lords' science committee upped the ante arguing that there should be no delay on helping people who have found the drug alleviates conditions such as multiple sclerosis.

    Keith Hellawell remains something of an enigma on the subject of cannabis decriminalisation.

    A known liberal thinker from his days as a policeman, he had been disputing the "gateway effect" argument (that cannabis leads to hard drugs and criminality) long before he joined Whitehall.

    And in an interview last year, he warned the government could miss its targets because too much time and money was being spent chasing cannabis users.

    "We need to discriminate between different drugs and the relative harm caused and then talk openly about the difference we can make," he said.

    "The focus is going to be on the drugs that cause the major harm."

    Confusion over policy continued throughout most of the year, with Dr Mowlam suggesting medicinal use of cannabis was close at hand and Downing Street saying it wasn't.

    And by the time he released his second annual report in November 2000, Mr Hellawell had come around to the hard line.

    Citing a New Zealand report, he said: "The pro-legalisers ... will have to look at this [report] hard and long.

    "I can say now cannabis is a gateway drug."

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