Battle against drug abuse targets schoolchildren

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SCHOOLCHILDREN are to be the focus of a multi-million-pound drugs initiative that puts prevention alongside punishment as the favoured weapons in the Government's desperate effort to tackle the problem.

In implicit recognition that existing measures are failing to stem a rising tide of drug abuse, ministers yesterday set out a three-year programme to tackle the problem.

Its consultative Green Paper, Tackling Drugs Together, outlines a comprehensive drugs policy to reduce demand with the emphasis on education in schools - primary and secondary - and on treatment and health care in the community.

Teachers, often thought to know less about drugs than their pupils, will be given special training in drug education, schools will be issued with a new set of guidelines and a national drugs helpline will be set up. The Government will invest pounds 5m in an advertising campaign - aimed not to shock, but to inform - and spend pounds 8.5m on founding 100 local action teams to co- ordinate local drug policy. Needle-exchange schemes are to be developed alongside a firm overall policy of encouraging abusers to kick the habit permanently.

Faced with statistics showing that one in three young men have used drugs, and that children as young as eight and nine are experimenting, ministers have, for the first time, acknowledged the merits of the debate on legalisation as a means of tackling the problem - although they firmly reject any relaxation of the law.

The Green Paper follows a 10-month review conducted by Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, of the work of 10 government departments which together spend pounds 500m on anti-drugs policies. It came in the wake of mounting criticism that government policy towards drugs and drug-related crime was so fragmented as to prove useless. Yesterday, Mr Newton said: 'This is a new emphasis in our approach. Enforcement in itself is not enough to fight drugs.'

But the liberalisation of policy in schools - steering pupils towards counselling rather than expelling them - is coupled with a clampdown on drug use in prisons. Next year, prisoners will be subject to random drug-testing and face longer terms of imprisonment if they fail.

While the paper was widely welcomed, there were fears that there would be insufficient funding and that resources may be switched back to law enforcement during the wait for the desired change in behaviour.

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