Drugs: the theory; Drugs: the reality

At the ICA, they talk decriminalisation ...; ... on the streets, they search for a high
"I SPEAK AS an unrepentant opiate user," said a young woman called Andria. "Gay and black people have risen up and said, `We're not going to take this any more'. The new victim of persecution is the drug user."

She was speaking from the floor at the beginning of The Ultimate Drugs Weekend, a two-day programme of events at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) exploring the nation's attitudes to narcotics. The views of the ICA speakers - the former drugs trafficker turned hash celebrity Howard Marks, looking and sounding like Keith Richards' posher brother, and Alice Nutter of the anarchist pop band Chumbawumba - were quite plain. Decriminalisation is the solution, and the very illegality of drugs the problem.

Far beyond the confines of the ICA and the Sixties survivors who gathered there yesterday, attitudes are very different. There is little sign of any acceptance among parents in the clubbing cities of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool or Sheffield that they want drugs made legal; the Drugs Tsar, Keith Hellawell, continues his crusade, and the police keep pursuing users of hard drugs.

Take a look around Britain's cities, though, and it is clear young people perceive drugs as as much a part of a night out as two cans of lager.

Only hours before the conference at the ICA began, the Independent on Sunday was on the streets of Newcastle discovering just how easy it is to lay your hands on any drug you need. Just moments after stepping into a taxi in the city centre, our reporter was offered amphetamines for pounds 50 and a gram of cocaine for pounds 60. "That's a tenner cheaper than London prices," enthused the cabbie as he tried to set up a deal on his mobile phone, in eager response to our enquiries.

Newcastle's nightlife has changed dramatically in recent years, but the Bigg Market area is as lively as ever. The Quayside is now awash with designer pubs, clubs and bars. Most have doormen - and since the second Summer of Love in 1987, they have been known as the best source of ecstasy and acid.

At one of the city's trendy gastropubs we were told that the allegedly resident dealer Wayne was not around. However, an obliging member of staff told us the right nightclub to go to if we wanted coke. Our friendly cab driver Terry called on the mobile to say he had arranged some speed, but cocaine would take longer as the dealers appeared to have migrated north.

"A gang of them have gone up for the England v Scotland game," said a Grant Mitchell- look-alike doorman at another bar on the quayside. "They are the only ones who can afford the tickets."

However, we watched in the ladies room of one of the city's glitzier hotels as a woman snorted cocaine from a cistern, through a rolled-up pounds 20 note. Coke is still known in the largely working-class city of Newcastle as the plaything of rich people such as football stars, but the city's drug problem has a far less glamorous side, too. Within a mile of the city centre, on rundown estates, unemployed youngsters become addicted to any substance they can get their hands on, from glue to ecstacy tablets bulked up with speed and talcum powder.

Regardless of the effect this has on their bodies, it does great harm to crime rates, because for many the only way to pay for a habit is to steal.

According to a recent report by Keith Hellawell, there may be up to a million teenagers using illegal drugs. In July, psychiatrists at University College London suggested that nearly half of all secondary-school children had taken drugs. In an average secondary school of 1,200 pupils, they said, 480 might be taking cannabis, 240 sniffing glue or other solvents, 156 taking LSD and 150 speed.

The Labour MP Paul Flynn, an ex-chemist who has long campaigned for the decriminalisation of cannabis and other drugs on the grounds of safety and better public education, told the ICA conference about a visit he had just made to a project in Rotterdam. He had watched addicts inject themselves with a mixture of heroin and cocaine. "They were in a hygienic room, using clean needles with which they had been supplied, and with people there to support them afterwards. We don't see what happens in our own towns, when an addict does the same thing, probably alone in some foul back alley."