Leading Article: Even a tsar will find it hard to target drug abuse

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IN OCTOBER, 1997, Tony Blair appointed Keith Hellawell, a former Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, to the post of United Kingdom Anti- Drugs Co-ordinator (or, in newspaper-speak, the "anti-drugs tsar"). Yesterday, after a year and a half in the job, Mr Hellawell issued his first "annual" report on the state of addiction in the country. And it's not a pretty picture that he paints. Addiction to hard drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, is not only a harm in itself, destroying the health and psychological well-being of those whose usage goes beyond the experimenta; it is also intimately connected with crime. Put simply, addicts steal to finance their habit, with one-third of all proceeds from theft going to buy drugs.

What distinguishes Mr Hellawell's approach from past initiatives is his refusal to blame the addict; the convicted criminal whose crime is related to his addiction will, in future, be sentenced not to jail but to a "treatment and testing order", to be served in the community. "Treatment" is a vague word - with overtones that range from taking an aspirin for a headache to the behavioural rigours of A Clockwork Orange - and, in fact, only a few dozen offenders have been on trials in Britain. The Government has high hopes, however, for its efficacy.It has set itself ambitious targets that aim to reduce the problems associated with drug addiction by a quarter by 2005, and a half by 2008. (Both targets conveniently fall outside the likely dates for the next two general elections.)

It is curious that the targets have been set before the Government knows "what drugs problems and which initiatives are most effective in reducing drug misuse". None the less, it has allocated pounds 6m for research to find some answers. This is on top of the pounds 217m announced last year for the various departments of state to spend on drug-related programmes, and the several millions a year they plan to take from the confiscated assets of drug dealers.

Drug prevention is becoming a job-creation programme of its own, with the creation of Drug Action Teams, at local level, to be supported by a new Drugs Prevention Advisory Service; not to mention Mr Hellawell's own office. But all of this worthy work will pale beside the glamour of fashionable people taking drugs, as reported daily in the media (see this week's articles on Tom Parker Bowles and Lawrence Dallaglio).

People who take drugs know more about what they are doing than those who oppose it, and their reasons lie deeper than government action can reach. We hope that the Government can achieve its targets for reducing drug abuse and associated criminality, but it is hard not to fear that the combined actions of politicians, health workers and law-enforcement agencies will be like waves against adamantine sea walls. Much noise, little change.