Drug Abuse: Teach infants the danger of narcotics, says 'tsar'

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The Independent Online
Children as young as four should be taught about the dangers of narcotics, says the new drugs "tsar" in his first full interview.

Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, hears Keith Hellawell's plans for a new national drugs strategy for the millennium.

The problem of dealers who deliberately lure young people into addiction by selling them cheap heroin is among the new drugs tsar's most pressing concerns.

Keith Hellawell, 55, who takes over the post as UK Anti-drugs Co-ordinator on Monday, also wants more education in schools to tell children about the consequences of taking illegal substances. He told The Independent: "Some work should start as early as four.

"There are some young people who begin primary school who have a drug addict and regular drug taker in their family. [They] have a substantial knowledge of drugs and their effects at the age of four.

"There are others at nine years who do not know the first thing about drugs. It is because of that sort of complexity that we cannot give a blanket treatment. We are now starting to see that there's a need for young people to understand the effects of drugs on their bodies at an early age."

He said he was surprised at the naivety of some children he had spoken to, citing the example of a recent visit to two schools in which pupils thought it was legal to take cannabis and ecstasy. He argued that a better understanding could help children "delay experimentation with drugs".

Considered a controversial, but forward thinking person, Mr Hellawell, currently the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, will be aided by his deputy, Michael Trace, 36, currently Director of the Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners' Trust, and a staff of six. The drug chief will have direct access to the Prime Minister but no new money.

After 36 years as a policeman, Mr Hellawell has made a flying start to his new pounds 102,000- a-year job. Last month he met ministers to present preliminary findings about government spending on drugs.

He plans to propose a national drugs strategy in April. "I felt it was important we had something to take forward into the millennium," he said. "I'm not going to come out with motherhood and apple pie statements. It will be sharp and realistic and objective. You have got to deliver."

It will be followed in about a year with targets for agencies and departments. Mr Hellawell added: "The question is, what is the vision? Where do we want to go in five or ten years time?" And he called for a "holistic" approach to treatment. He said future strategies should include targeting homes, schools, colleges, and work and leisure places.

One of his greatest concerns is the rise in the popularity and availability of heroin. "It's becoming the drug of first choice among many young people and the cost in many of our cities is sometimes lower than cannabis, ecstasy and LSD," he said. "The dealers like heroin because young people get addicted to it relatively quickly, get hooked and keep coming back for more."

Mr Hellawell also wants to examine the expansion of the use of treatment centres and counselling for addicts.

He believes addictive drugs are one of the biggest problems. "In the first instance we need to look at areas where we can have the biggest pay-off - with crack cocaine and heroin users."

But, dismissing any suggestion that he supports the decriminalisation of drugs, he stressed: "This does not mean we should ignore other areas such as cannabis and ecstasy."