Headlines: May 26th, 1999

Cabinet Office Minister Dr Jack Cunningham has signalled a major change in the strategy to counter drug use. “More young people are experimenting with drugs” he told the Commons. The strategy would concentrate on reducing misuse by young people, reducing their access to drugs – particularly heroin and cocaine which cause the most harm, halving re-offending by drugs offenders and doubling drug users participation in treatment programmes. This represents a radical shift from punishment to promoting treatment. The Strategy is set out the first annual report and national plan on drug misuse in England and Wales by “drugs czar” Keith Hellawell.

The shift has been made because learning from pilot projects in the last year has shown more effective ways of responding to the misuse of drugs. Issuing Drug Treatment and Training Orders instead of simply jailing drug users found guilty of crime, dramatically reduced re-offending rates.

Drug users frequently resort to crime to finance their habit and they are responsible for 30% of crime, mainly burglary and theft. Addicts may need up to 20,000 pounds a year to fund their habit. Up to 90% who are jailed for drug related offences re-offend on release. It is estimated that for every one pound spent on drug treatment, three pounds is saved on the costs of crime. The New Treatment Outcome Research Study studied 1,000 drug users and found that criminal activity halved after treatment.

Drug agencies are also worried about the influx of crack cocaine into the UK. Research suggests the UK is facing a new epidemic of heroin and cocaine. In small towns across the country, drug agencies have noted a significant increase in hard drug use. Young people in the UK are reported to be taking up to five times more illegal drugs than their European counterparts – particularly amphetamines and ecstasy. The Standing Conference on Drug Abuse says use of illegal drugs has increased eight-fold among 15-year-olds in the last 10 years and five-fold among 12-year-olds.

The new strategy will focus on reducing the number of under 25 year olds who abused drugs and on lowering reoffending rates by extending Treatment Orders nationwide by April 2000. The switch from punishment to treatment will be backed by a 217m pound budget. A further sum of 6m pounds would be committed to research into drug misuse, an area which Dr Cunningham said had been neglected in the past.

Resources in the criminal justice system would be redirected from tackling the consequences of drug misuse to tackling the problem itself.

Tough targets have been set for reducing drug crime and it is planned to cut the 90% re-offending rate by a quarter within five years and a half within 10 years. The government has also set medium- and long-term targets for reducing drug use among under 25 year olds, particularly misuse of heroin and cocaine. It plans to reduce use by a quarter by 2005 and by a half by 2008. It says it will reduce availability of heroin and cocaine by 25% by 2005 and 50% by 2008. There are also short-term plans on drugs, including a 20% reduction in drug misuse by 11 to 16 year olds by 2002.

Partnership between voluntary and public sector bodies is seen as the key defeating drug abuse and anti-drug groups will get support from the Drugs Prevention Advisory Service. This closely co-ordinated approach will involve more joint working across boundaries.