New crackdown on heroin users

Blair considers forced rehabilitation for anyone taking hard drugs
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Tony Blair is to consider making heroin use a criminal offence on a par with possession in a controversial move that underlines the widening chasm between the Government's approach to soft and hard drugs.

In a radical departure from the current law, which is based on possession or dealing, a confidential Downing Street report recommends the introduction of an offence of drug "use", which could lead to a sentence of up to seven years in jail.

Police would be given a new power to test suspected heroin users and, if they tested positive, they would be forced either to enter rehabilitation or face prosecution and a jail sentence. Their names would also be placed on a heroin users' register. The recommendations are included in a report submitted to Mr Blair, drawn up by Lord Birt, the Prime Minister's "blue skies thinker" and a former director general of the BBC, and other Downing Street strategists. It was discussed by Mr Blair this week.

The proposals emerged as Labour and Tory politicians clashed over the Government's decision to downgrade cannabis to a Class C drug. The dispute erupted after Michael Howard disclosed in The Independent yesterday that the Tories would reverse the change.

The hardening approach towards Class A drugs is in marked contrast to the Government's policy on cannabis. The Downing Street report recommends the introduction of "drug treatment and registration orders" to force heroin addicts to quit the habit. It has also been sent to David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, who is considering whether to push ahead with it.

The report also proposes prescribing heroin to addicts instead of methadone in pilots across the country.

The No 10 strategy unit report, known in Whitehall as "the Birt report on drugs", has already met stiff resistance among Home Office officials. They believe the proposals are "authoritarian", and would burden the police with huge amounts of extra work and fill already overstretched prisons with drug addicts.

The report is seen by some as "interference" by Lord Birt, who they fear is using his personal links with the Prime Minister to intervene in drugs policy. One government insider said: "We don't like the way this report has been handed out as if from on high and if they have all the ideas." The report also recommends a dramatic shift in drugs policy away from targeting drug suppliers to targeting addicts who commit crimes, including dealers.

"The police would be tasked to capture all the high harm-causing users, including drug-using dealers," the report says. Police who suspect that a member of the public may have taken heroin would be able to order them to give a drugs test, usually a urine sample.

"They would have to have a reasonable belief that an individual was taking heroin before arresting and testing them," the report says.

MPs last night criticised the proposals to further criminalise addicts. They warned that compulsory police tests and the new offence of user would drive addicts underground and stop them seeking help voluntarily.

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "The appropriate place for heroin users is a clinic not a cell." Dr Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat MP and a former GP, said: "Drug use should be a medical issue, not a criminal one. This will drive the problem further underground with devastating impacts on the health of users and their families."

Drugs charities said there was a shortage of places in rehabilitation centres.

Last night the Prime Minister's strategy unit refused to comment on the report, which it said was private. A spokesman said Lord Birt was the "Prime Minister's strategy adviser who works across things".

Mr Blunkett, who challenged Mr Howard to say whether he had ever smoked cannabis, said the new approach to cannabis would bring in a "transparent, non-variable, understandable policy across the country". He argued that politicians had to take responsibility for "whether the police go for Class A dangerous drug pushers or whether we go for small possession of cannabis".

As the Home Office began a £1m advertising campaign to explain the change, Mr Howard warned that the Government's decision would send a "confused, muddled signal" and result in increased drug use.