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Britain's Drugs Crisis: The drug culture: Rise in deaths through experimentation by young and explosion in violent crime are signs of escalating use and abuse

KEATS and Byron used opiates to enhance their creativity. The 19th- century poor used them as a path to oblivion and a cure-all because they could not afford a doctor.

Drug use and abuse has long been part of our history. But it is from the late Fifties and Sixties and the emerging youth culture's experimentation that the current drug problem and our prohibitive laws have largely evolved.

We are now a far cry from the 'peace and love' message of the dope-smoking, acid-tripping, hippies of the Sixties. Headlines today tell of children dying from glue sniffing; of policemen being shot by drug gangs; of ambulance crews being forced to wear flak jackets; of arms caches and huge drugs finds.

Home Office statistics support the stories. In 1958, there were 333 registered addicts (99 of whom were doctors, dentists and nurses); by the early 1970s, there were 1,500; but today there are 25,000.

In 1958, seizures of cannabis amounted to 114 kg, and its cultivation was not outlawed until 1964. Fifty-four tons were seized by Customs last year.

The use of cocaine gathered pace through the Eighties. In 1982, 18 kilograms were seized; last year seizures amounted to 748kg, worth pounds 110m. The number of seizures of crack, recorded for the first time in 1988, has risen from 30 in that year to 878. Last year, more than a ton of synthetic drugs like ecstasy and amphetamines were found. But these represent only a proportion of the amount of drugs being consumed.

Not only has the nature of the drugs changed - heroin, cocaine, crack, speed, LSD, cannabis, ecstasy, amphetamines and solvents are all easily available - so too has the identity of the drug-taker. In some inner-city areas very young children are experimenting. The youngest person counselled by a specialist team was a boy aged seven. Research shows that today's 14-year-olds have ready access to a variety of drugs, with one major study in Manchester showing that more than one in three 14- and 15- year-olds had experimented.

Unemployment among young men has also brought a change in culture. Dealing provides a means of making a good living, earning peer group respect, and rites of passage into adulthood - the things normally achieved through work.

It is largely because drugs are now such serious business that people can no longer argue that they are untouched by the problem. It is not just drug gangs killing off competition or settling debts. For along with the drugs explosion has come an explosion of crime which everyone from police through to government officials now accept is related.

It is not that a large number of people are committing crime because they are high, but rather that they are funding their habits through theft and burglary. Earlier this month, using figures from Greater Manchester Police - which showed a serious heroin addict could spend about pounds 29,000 a year on drugs - Labour estimated that half Britain's pounds 4bn property crime could be drug related.

But while others believe those figures an over-estimation, they accept that when a house is burgled or a car stereo taken, it may well have been to fund a fix. That inevitably means an increase in household insurance. Meanwhile, the Government has been criticised by drug workers and opposition leaders for inactivity, cuts in preventive work and lack of any co-ordinated policy.

It is accepted that there have been very successful initiatives both at national and local level, but their effectiveness is largely unmeasured.

Drug enforcement policy has been evolving at grass-roots level with some police forces referring addicts to clinics rather than to courts and using cautions; while others maintain a tougher approach.

Drug education at schools - although now part of the curriculum - has been criticised for aiming at too old an age group and concentrating on inappropriate drugs like heroin. Rivalry between the Home Office and Department of Health, which share the bulk of drug prevention, rehabilitation and enforcement work, is said to be hampering funding and co-ordination on the ground. Community care changes have meant many homeless addicts have fallen through the safety net.

Similarly, the multi-million pound worldwide effort to stop drug cultivation and trafficking have - according to the United Nations - failed with new trade routes opening up all the time.

The stark message is that despite the massive investment in the war of drugs and law enforcement - the battle is being lost.

For that reason senior police officers, judges, and lawyers have added their voice to those of the drug rehabilitation campaigners to call for more radical solutions, such as decriminalisation and/or controlled legalisation of drugs. Last year, Raymond Kendall, the head of Interpol, called for the decriminalisation of drug use - saying resources would be better targeted at drug dealers and in increasing drug treatment and education programmes, in other words ing a reversal of current spending priority which is 65 per cent enforcement, 35 per cent education, prevention, and rehabilitation.

Those calling for controlled legalisation of harder drugs say it would reduce associated crime, ensure greater health and safety of users and destroy some of the lucrative black markets. They cite prohibition in the United States in the 1920s, which saw an explosion in violent crime directly related to the black market in alcohol - a parallel with today's crack gangs.

One of the main arguments against any form of legalisation is that the United Kingdom could not go it alone and ignore its commitment to the United Nations convention which outlaws all these drugs. It is also argued it would lead to far greater addiction.

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