The real cost to society in lives and cash: Special report: the drugs explosion

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The Independent Online
UK illegal drugs trade is worth almost pounds 3bn a year

pounds 2bn of property crime is drug related

A quarter of children have tried drugs by 16

One in five adults has taken drugs

Most users are middle and upper class

There are 25,000 registered addicts

pounds 519m of illegal drugs seized last year

DRUG-RELATED crime is rising out of control: 12 people were murdered and attempts were made on the lives of 28 more in the past 14 months in London alone.

Police and politicians now accept that no one escapes the drug explosion as growing numbers of burglaries, muggings and thefts are committed to buy narcotics.

Police forces around the country estimate that addicts and users are responsible for between a third and a half of pounds 4bn of property theft a year. Those who escape break-ins and attacks face an increase in household insurance and a surcharge on goods.

The average heroin addict can spend up to pounds 29,000 a year, most of which is obtained through crime, according to a study by Manchester police. Their findings were supported by West Yorkshire police, who found nearly 93 per cent of young offenders admitted regular drug usage - some saying they spent between pounds 130 and pounds 600 a week; 60 per cent of those had been convicted of theft and burglary.

Despite massive resources going into law enforcement and rehabilitation programmes, there are other significant indications that the pounds 3bn drugs business is burgeoning: the number of drug addicts has increased five- fold in the past ten years to 25,000; seizures of hard drugs such as cocaine, crack and heroin have tripled; and the numbers of drug offenders have more than doubled to over 56,000.

A wide variety of drugs is readily available in schools throughout the country and children as young as 10 are experimenting with solvents, cannabis and hallucinogenics.

An unpublished Home Office survey of 18 to 25-year- olds in Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, reveals that more than eight out of ten men and women have taken illegal drugs. More than half use cannabis and one in four regularly or occasionally takes synthetic narcotics such as ecstasy and amphetamines.

While stereotypes of the drug user remain the heroin injector and the spotty youth with his head in a plastic bag, the most detailed Home Office study shows that the biggest users are the upper and middle classes, who indulge mainly in cannabis.

The alarming increase in inner-city violence and property crime has reopened the debate on decriminalisation or controlled legalisation. This is winning support from an increasing number of judges and police chiefs.

Yet two weeks ago Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, announced a five-fold increase - to pounds 2,500 - in fines for possession of cannabis.

Independent investigation, pages 2 and 3

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