Blunkett to abandon drug targets

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Fresh doubts about the Government's strategy for curbing illegal drug use have been raised after David Blunkett signalled he was ready to abandon "unrealistic" targets such as halving heroin and cocaine use among the young.

The Home Secretary's tacit admission that the key objective of the Government's drugs strategy may be out of reach will fuel calls for hard drugs to be decriminalised.

Mr Blunkett reveals in a memorandum to a Commons select committee that he has ordered a "stocktaking review" of the Government's drugs strategy to see "whether there are any gaps or weaknesses".

The Home Secretary also makes plain he will use the findings to bid for an increase in the estimated £1.2bn Home Office budget for tackling drug abuse in the Chancellor's spending review.

Experts believe this will pay for an expansion of drugs rehabilitation for users who commit crime to pay for their habit. It could mean more doctors prescribing heroin or drug substitutes on the NHS.

The strains put on the existing prohibition policy were highlighted in recent days after claims by British authorities that one in 10 passengers on jets from Jamaica are acting as cocaine-smuggling "mules". Mr Blunkett is under increasing pressure to announce the introduction of visas for Jamaican visitors.

The Home Secretary is determined to avoid being accused of "going soft on hard drugs" and is holding to the line that prohibition is the best policy – in spite of increasing pressure from police chiefs to change tack. He told the Home Affairs committee: "In the Government's view, the existing range of criminal sanctions, applied with due discretion, are preferable to decriminalisation."

However, he has already softened the policing of cannabis possession, and colleagues of the sidelined drugs tsar Keith Hellawell believe Mr Blunkett could use the committee's report on the drugs strategy in February as cover for a shift in policy on combating hard drugs.

"Blunkett is in denial about decriminalisation, but there is widespread acceptance that the targets were completely unrealistic and plucked out of the air by Hellawell," said one source.

Mr Hellawell's former deputy, Mike Trace, admits to the committee in his own memorandum there were a number of "flaws" in the targets. He says the main weaknesses were in the headline objectives, which included halving the number of young people using heroin and cocaine by 2008.

He says the strategy of achieving this objective by a concerted programme of education in schools backed up by more intensive programmes aimed at socially excluded children and teenagers was "thin at the time and looks thinner now".

Mr Trace claims that some aspects of the Government's drugs policies are forcing up the price of drugs and may actually be contributing to the problem of social exclusion.

"The existence of money-making opportunities in the drug markets in every part of the UK is a strong disincentive to large numbers of young people to work in the mainstream economy," he says.

Mr Trace also warns that current efforts by the police, customs and excise, and prevention officers to bring down the prevalence of illegal drugs "are unlikely to achieve the key objective".