Britain is the drugs capital of Europe

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The British have developed a predilection for illegal drugs which is unrivalled throughout Europe. Ian Burrell finds that an EU report out tomorrow will put pressure on Britain's policy-makers to re-think their whole approach to drug education.

The British tourist authorities will happily concede that this country introduced the world to the delights of whisky and gin: they may not be quite so ready to promote the fact that we also lead the way in our appreciation of other more illicit substances such as cannabis, amphetamines, LSD and ecstasy.

Tomorrow the European Union will publish a report which will show just how deeply ingrained drug culture has become in British society. It shows that we use considerably more illegal drugs than any other member state.

Cannabis, in particular, impacts more on the national mood than the Government may hitherto have realised. One in eight Britons aged under 40 admitted to having used the drug in the last year, more than any other country.

Young British adults also use more amphetamines, ecstasy and LSD than citizens of the other EU countries.

More than half of the EU seizures of these so-called "dance drugs" were made in Britain, according to the survey carried out for the EU by the Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

Professor Martin Plant, head of the Alcohol and Health Research Group in Edinburgh, admitted last night: "The UK is the drugs capital of Europe."

The rave culture, which originated in Britain a decade ago, has been exported to all corners of the EU, helping to make drug-taking acceptable among a wide cross-section of young people.

Georges Estievenart, who led the EU research team, said that dance drugs are on the increase across Europe and the stereotypical image of drug users as drop-outs on the margins of society was no longer relevant. "These drugs are used more and more by young fairly well-to-do people. They're often students or they have jobs, but at the weekends they like to take part in rave parties and techno concerts which involve the use of these synthetic drugs."

The EU report found that 13 per cent of Britons admitted using cannabis in the last year, putting it ahead of Spain (11.6 per cent), France (8.9 per cent), Germany (8.8 per cent), and Denmark (7 per cent). Some 29 per cent of Britons under 40 had tried cannabis, a proportion only exceeded in Denmark, where 43 per cent have experimented.

The use of "dance drugs" in Britain was unparalleled. Some 11 per cent of under-40s have used amphetamines, 4 per cent in the last year, and 4 per cent have tried ecstasy, half of them in the last 12 months. Only Spain comes close: 3.8 per cent have tried amphetamines, while 3.1 per cent have used ecstasy.

Seizure figures underline the widespread availability of dance drugs. In 1995 Britain accounted for 69 per cent of all seizures of ecstasy across the EU, 59 per cent of amphetamine seizures and 48 per cent of LSD. Britain also seized 27 per cent of the EU's heroin haul.

Only in use of cocaine does Britain lag behind some of its European neighbours, with 3 per cent admitting that they had tried it, compared with 5.7 per cent of Spaniards and 3.7 per cent of Germans. Heroin use is low across the EU, says the report.

The drug-using habits of British schoolchildren give even more cause for concern. The EU found that 12 per cent of British 15- and 16-year olds had tried LSD, compared with 4.5 per cent in Spain, the next closest; 37 per cent of British teenagers have tried cannabis.

These findings will be compounded by a survey of teenage drug abuse in 26 countries to be issued by Professor Plant's department on Thursday. He said the time had come for a thorough re-examination of Britain's drugs policy.