Blair launches war on drug abuse

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The Independent Online
The Government launched a new assault on drug abuse yesterday with the announcement of a heavyweight ministerial committee to tackle the problem.

At the same time the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said the courts would be able to prescribe drug treatment for offenders and that the scheme could be backed by random testing.

The new committee, chaired by the Leader of the Commons, Ann Taylor, will have the task of appointing a high-profile "drugs tsar" to lead a campaign against abuse and the trade in illegal drugs. It will also include Mr Straw, the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and the Secretary of State for Health Frank Dobson.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said: "I want to breathe new life into the battle against drugs. We will hit hard on drugs and the drugs trade."

Among the candidates tipped for the "drugs tsar" post is the former chief constable of Grampian, Ian Oliver.

Under the Crime and Disorder Bill announced in last week's Queen's Speech, the courts will be given powers to impose a drug treatment and testing order on offenders with a drugs problem.

Mr Straw said that the person against whom the order was made would be forced to undergo a programme of treatment which would include random testing.

"They would be in the community which is cheaper than prison but if it turned out they were not clean, they were carrying on taking their drugs there would be a series of sanctions and they could end up in prison," he said.

"This kind of approach has worked in the United States and we think it will work here."

Mr Straw said that while they could be imposed on people convicted of drugs offences they would be more typically used against burglars and robbers with a drug problem.

"The first thing is to really establish in the public's mind, particularly young people's minds, this profound link between drugs and crime," he said. "The police know that. They will say that almost all the serial burglars they pick up have got a very serious drugs problem."

Mrs Taylor said that over the next few months she would be taking a thorough look at current anti-drugs initiatives, particularly efforts to educate young people not to take them.

"Tackling drugs misuse is a priority for this Government. It is one of the biggest challenges we face," she said.

"Drugs wreck lives and damage communities and can corrupt the energy and vitality of our young."

Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium, welcomed the measures but said they would only work if resources were available for more treatment facilities.

"Research in America shows that for every dollar invested in drug treatment, the taxpayer saves $7 during treatment and a 12-month period afterwards."

The move came as a Home Office study concluded that one in five people arrested in the UK were heroin users.

If the findings of a 21-month survey of urine samples taken from people who had been arrested are correct, they would mean that 360,000 of the 1.8 million people arrested each year were using the drug. Because it stays in the blood for less than 48 hours, the true figure could be even higher.