Big. Conservative estimates put the UK's illegal drugs trade at about pounds 3bn a year. According to yesterday's study by the Institute for Drug Dependency, the "deviant" young of the turn of the century will be those who have not tried cannabis, LSD, Ecstasy or some other pill or drug cocktail - not those who do. Drugs are now part of youth culture, embedded in music, fashion, language and magazines. The three-year study of 14- to 16-year-olds in the North-west found half had taken some substance or another and that, since 1992, the number going to places where drugs were offered had risen to 76 per cent.
Is the problem confined to teenagers?
Far from it. A Home Office survey of 18- to 25-year-olds in Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, revealed that more than eight out of 10 men and women have taken illegal drugs. Another Home Office study showed the biggest consumers of drugs were young white males from the professional and middle classes - not schoolchildren. The latest figures for recorded drug addicts - 34,000 people hooked primarily on heroin and cocaine - were men aged 20-30. Other studies have shown that one in five adults has used or continues to use drugs.
How long has it taken for us to reach this level of use?
Drug use and abuse have long been part of our history. Keats and Byron used opiates to enhance their creativity. The 19th-century poor used them as a cure-all and path to oblivion. However, it is in the late Fifties and Sixties that the current youth drug culture has its roots. What has happened since is a huge increase in the amount and variety of drugs available and consumed.
But hasn't "drug culture" changed along with that expansion?
Yes. As drug quantities and qualities have changed so, too, has the identity of the consumer and supplier. We have moved on from the "peace and love" message of the dope-smoking, acid-tripping Sixties hippies. Headlines today tell of children dying from glue sniffing; of policemen being shot by drug gangs; of arms caches and huge drugs finds. As yesterday's study confirms, drug takers are getting younger - the youngest person counselled by a specialist team was a boy aged seven. Unemployment has also played a part: dealing, even on a small scale, provides a means of making a living, earning peer group respect and rites of passage into adulthood - the things normally achieved through work. But, as yesterday's study makes clear, such stories are far removed from the reality of most young people - and millions of adults - for whom drugs are purely a recreational and social experience.
What is being done about the problem?
Since the Fifties and Sixties, legislation has been introduced and amended to make prohibition and law enforcement the main weapon against drugs. For example, the cultivation of cannabis was not outlawed until 1964. Although no exact figures are available, the Government spends about twice as much on policing and prosecuting as it does on education, prevention, and rehabilitation.
But hasn't enforcement had an impact?
Minimal. Enforcement, worldwide as well as in the UK, has failed to stem the growth in drug use. The United Nations reports that new trafficking routes are opening up all the time; some inner cities are witnessing drug- related violence on unprecedented scales; and police estimate that addicts and users may be responsible for more than one-fifth of the pounds 4bn of property crime - stealing to feed a habit or have enjoyment. The number of registered addicts - the tip of the iceberg - rose by 20 per cent last year to 34,000. (In 1958, there were only 333, and 99 of those were doctors, dentists and nurses.) That failure has been tacitly accepted by the Government which, in its recent white paper Tackling Drugs Together, puts more emphasis on prevention, health care and education.
Won't that provide the answer?
No. The fear is that its effect will be limited, because the Government is not backing the proposals with the funding and resources needed to run efficient educational, rehabilitative and treatment centres. The complaint is that resources are too centred on registered addicts. Further, the proposed changes still advocate that schools call in police whenever there is suspicion of drug use, thereby deterring pupils from voluntarily coming forward.
What is the answer?
A growing number of influential people, including police, judges and youth leaders, believe the only solution is legalisation or decriminalisation. Earlier this year Janet Paraskeva, a magistrate and director of the National Youth Agency, publicly recognised the risk of alienating children by continuing to criminalise them for their lifestyle - ie, the use of drugs. She called for the legalisation of cannabis, saying it gives young people the same social prop that the more fatal alcohol and cigarettes provide for their parents.
There are several arguments in favour of legalisation. It would reduce associated crime, thus freeing up police time and resources. Citing alcohol prohibition in the US in the Twenties, which saw an explosion in organised crime and violence, proponents of legalisation argue it would undermine the black market and get the problem out in the open. It would ensure greater health and safety of users, because it would allow the Government to take control of licensing, the purchaser's age and drug quality - and people would not be frightened to come forward for help. Tax would provide income for the Treasury and generate more effective health controls and treatment for hard drug users.
That sounds a reasonable argument?
Indeed. But some argue one cannot consider legalising drugs that cause serious health risks and even death; that to legalise even cannabis is to embark on a slippery slope. They also argue that illegality is a crucial form of deterrence. The availability of alcohol and tobacco has led to millions of deaths and is a drain on our health resources. Another argument is that the United Kingdom could not go it alone and ignore its commitment to the UN convention which outlaws these drugs.
But shouldn't the issue be debated?
Yes. But even though some MPs are privately in favour of legalisation and some smoke cannabis, the main parties are frightened of tabloid headlines and their effects on votes. Look at the outcry when decriminalisation - not legalisation - of cannabis was suggested at last year's Liberal Democrats' conference. Look how Labour, during the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, has sought to demonise the Lib-Dem candidate, Chris Davies, because he supported the motion. Far from easing up on those caught with cannabis, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, last year announced a fivefold increase in fines to pounds 2,500.
Is the drug problem likely to get worse?
If the example set by the US is anything to go by, yes. Unless, of course, the politicians start listening to their children.