Blunkett unveils plans to hit pushers hard

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The Independent Online

Drug pushers who target schoolchildren or use them as couriers face tough new penalties, the Government announced yesterday.

Tony Blair and David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, set out measures - to be included in a Drugs Bill to be published within weeks - for combating the multibillion-pound drugs trade that include more compulsory testing of offenders.

The announcement coincided with the publication of a report which revealed that cannabis use by English teenagers was the highest in Europe.

Following police warnings that dealers were targeting schools, the Government promised that those caught selling drugs to youngsters will automatically receive a longer jail sentence upon conviction. Those who get youngsters to carry drugs in an attempt to avoid detection face a similar penalty. The Bill will also give the police powers to test anyone arrested on suspicion of such offences as burglary or theft for class A drugs and to offer treatment if they test positive. Currently tests are only done when a suspect is charged.

Anyone caught with more than a small amount of banned substances will be prosecuted for dealing rather than possession.

Magistrates will be able to order that suspected dealers who swallow drugs are held in custody for up to eight days to enable the packages to pass through their system.

Mr Blair said: "If you are a drug addict engaged in crime you will be offered a way out through treatment. If you refuse that offer it will be made more difficult for you at every stage in the criminal justice system."

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction reported yesterday that 42 per cent of boys and 38 per cent of girls aged 15 in England had tried cannabis, the highest rates in Europe and four times more than in Greece, Malta, Sweden and Norway. Just over 10 per cent of 15-year-old English boys reported heavy use of cannabis, defined as taking it at least 40 times a year, compared with the next-biggest group of 7 per cent in Spain and Belgium. Figures for Welsh and Scottish boys were far lower than in England.

Britain and Spain topped the table for taking cocaine, with 5 per cent and 7 per cent of people aged 15 to 24 in the two countries admitting using it recently, the monitoring centre reported.

Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, accused Mr Blair of talking tough on drugs, but added: "The reality has not matched his rhetoric."

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "These are constructive proposals, but with no date for a Bill they could fall by the wayside before the election."