Ministers pledge to halve UK drug abuse

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AN AMBITIOUS programme drastically to reduce heroin and cocaine abuse, stop schoolchildren taking drugs, and wean addicts away from their criminal lifestyles, was unveiled by the Government yesterday.

The strategy for the next decade concentrates on treating users at clinics and rehabilitation centres rather than punishing them in jail.

Under the plans, the Government hopes to halve the reoffending rate for drug addicts by 2008, and to achieve the same reduction in the number of young people using heroin and cocaine. The number of children aged 11 to 16 using class A drugs should be reduced by a fifth by 2002, and the number of treatment places will be doubled to about 100,000 by 2008.

About pounds 15m of assets seized from drug-dealers are to be ploughed back into preventive work during the next three years, to fund the proposals.

Drugs agencies, however, were startled at the scale of the targets set by the Government and questioned whether the proposals were feasible without massive additional funding. The issue was further thrown into confusion when it emerged at the launch of the national strategy that the Government had not compiled statistics to measure its strategy against. It will therefore be impossible to calculate whether the cuts promised have been successful.

The multi-stranded strategy targets heroin and crack cocaine abuse and the rising level of drug-taking among teenagers. New research has identified outbreaks of heroin use in smaller cities, towns and rural areas throughout the United Kingdom. Crack cocaine and heroin users are responsible for a vast amount of crime - with a typical addict's habit costing between pounds 10,000 and pounds 20,000 a year.

Surveys have also found that children are experimenting with drugs at an increasingly young age, with around a quarter of 14- and 15-year-olds having taken illegal drugs.

Keith Hellawell, the Government's anti-drugs co-ordinator, published his first national plan to tackle the problem yesterday, and it included a proposal to double the number of drug abusers in treatment programmes by 2008. There are around 30,000 people currently being treated in the UK, but an estimated 200,000 people have serious problems.Assets seized from traffickers could be used as funding along with some of the extra pounds 217m the Government has pledged for anti-drugs initiatives.

By 2002, all schools should have special anti-drugs programmes, under the proposals made yesterday. These will include "life-skill" teaching, and education for parents. The strategy also aims to reduce within three years the number of 11- to 16-year-olds who use class A drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and ecstasy.

Jack Cunningham, Minister for the Cabinet Office, who helped launch the plan, explained that the switch in focus to treatment programmes was to try and prevent addicts from returning to a life of crime.

He said during 1999-2000 the number of people arrested and referred to drug treatment programmes would be doubled.

Asked his opinion about the recent series of public figures who have been accused of cocaine taking, Mr Cunningham said: "It's deplorable, it's giving an abysmal, appalling example to young people. There's no glamour in drug-taking. It wrecks lives, it wrecks health and ruins families."

The Government is particularly keen to reduce the level of repeat offending by drug users. Mr Hellawell said new Home Office research showed that 30 per cent of crimes were drug-linked, and the strategy aims to cut offending by a half.

Last year more than five million crimes were reported to the police in England and Wales, more than 100,000 of which were for drug offences. Mr Hellawell admitted, however, as with all the targets, that there were not any accurate figures to calculate how many people were responsible for drug-related crimes. In an attempt to gain a more accurate impression of the scale of the national drug problem, pounds 6m is to be spent on research.

Roger Howard, chief executive of the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, said he was "concerned that drug services on the ground will find themselves under substantial pressure to meet such ambitious objectives".

Paul Cavadino of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said: "This is the most significant package of measures to divert offenders from crime announced in the last decade."

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