Leading article: Grind on in our war against drugs

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a voyeuristic horror in watching the self-destruction of a minority of young people in ordinary British towns, but it is a fascination at a distance, informed by a feeling that heroin is nothing to do with us. We hope that in our series this week we have captured accurately and vividly some of the destructive power of the new wave of cheap heroin which is worrying the police and drugs agencies. But we also hope that we have shown how this is a problem which ought to worry the rest of us.

Drug addiction is not simply a problem which happens to "someone else": if it were, there would be no resisting the pure libertarian argument that people should be allowed to fill their bodies with whatever chemicals they choose. The use of drugs such as heroin affects layer upon layer of society, from the family of the addict, to the neighbourhood burgled to pay for the habit, to the taxpayer who has to pick up the final bill.

Tony Blair first caught the nation's imagination with his promise to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime". It was always the second half of the slogan that was going to be more challenging. But drugs are clearly a large part of the complex networks of causation, interacting with the conditions of social exclusion, joblessness and alienation. The police estimate that in urban areas 30 per cent of crime is drug-related, which suggests that an effective drugs strategy could have dramatic effects on crime.

The Government has certainly made a well-intentioned start, appointing a "drugs tsar", increasing the anti-drugs budget and bringing in new "treatment and testing" orders for young people brought before the courts. But the czar himself, former police officer Keith Hellawell, has proved to be an uninspired figure who is absurdly out of touch with youth culture - he seems to think the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is a morally corrupting influence today. The whole business of tackling drug use is hobbled by the dearth of research, and the lack of co-ordination or clear lines of management between the agencies responsible.

Above all, perhaps, it is hampered by ignorance and prejudice. The response to the heroin outbreak has to be separated from the very different argument over the legalisation of softer drugs: cannabis users, for instance, tend not to steal to fund their habit, or to contract hepatitis or to die of overdoses.

Education and information is important because too few young people understand the psycho-pharmacology of drugs. Too few understand, to take one example, that the effect of heroin depends on the speed with which it is taken into the bloodstream, which is why heavy use leads to injection. Too many, to take another example, believe ecstasy to be a more dangerous drug, although hundreds die of heroin overdoses every year and their deaths are directly attributable to their drug use.

Despite the new resources put into treatment, the latest heroin wave has already outrun existing centres, while the emergence of clusters of heroin use in areas with no history of drugs means that they have no back- up services at all.

What should be apparent is that the "war on drugs" cannot be some high- moral-toned crusade for the lost golden age of the Fifties. It will be an unglamorous grind through non-judgemental education, treatment clinics and back-up services. But it is one which should concern us all.