Drug addicts each drain Britain of £11,000 a year in health, court and benefit costs even though hundreds of thousands of "recreational" class-A drug users represent a burden on the taxpayer of only £20 each per year, Government research has found.
The annual economic and social cost of drug addiction has risen to up to £18.8bn, according to research released to MPs yesterday by the Home Office minister Robert Ainsworth. The figure is three times larger than previous estimates of the annual cost of addiction.
Researchers at York University found drug addicts cost the NHS, the state benefits system and the criminal justice system around £6.8bn a year. The social costs of drug addiction, mainly the cost to victims of crime, amount to a further £12bn annually. But the research into the use of class-A drugs – mainly ecstasy, cocaine and heroin – found that 99 per cent of the costs were racked up by as few as 281,125 "problem drug users".
More than one million people over the age of 25 and at least 400,000 people under 25 are believed to be using class-A drugs but costing society less than £20 a year each on average.
The findings, released by Mr Ainsworth to the Home Affairs Select Committee's inquiry into government drug strategy, prompted further calls for a differentiation in the law between ecstasy and more addictive drugs such as heroin and cocaine. A recent Customs & Excise report estimated two million ecstasy tablets were being consumed in Britain every weekend.
Roger Howard, chief executive of the charity DrugScope, said: "The Government seems to accept that over 95 per cent of drug users do not have a drug problem and account for less than 1 per cent of the total social and economic cost of drugs use to the country: yet it still persists in subjecting many to the costly and punitive criminal justice system." He called on the Government to concentrate on treatment and education.
Mr Ainsworth agreed that "treatment works" and said that every £1 spent in this way resulted in £3 savings in criminal justice costs. He promised spending on treatment would increase from £234m in 2000-2001 to £400m by 2003-2004.
But the minister told the committee that the Government would not be reducing the status of ecstasy to a class-B drug. He said there was "no safe dose" of ecstasy and not enough was known about its long-term health effects to justify reclassification.
Mr Ainsworth was also at pains to emphasise that the Government's recent proposal to reclassify cannabis as a class-C drug did not amount to decriminalisation.
He said an experiment in Lambeth, south London, where cannabis users are not arrested but merely cautioned had coincided with an increase in police confiscations of the drug.
Mr Ainsworth would not comment on a claim by the Tory MP David Winnick that unpublished research into the experiment by the Police Foundation had found that while the scheme had saved 2,500 hours of police time, it had led to a 19 per cent increase in arrests for class-A drugs. But the minister admitted policing of cannabis laws across the country had descended into "post code lotteries", which he hoped would end with the reclassification of the drug.
Mr Winnick asked the minister: "Isn't the Home Secretary concerned that the law will be put into disrepute even more if cannabis is declassified and possession of small amounts will not lead to prosecution, yet at the same time it is not legalised?"
Mr Ainsworth said possession of cannabis would still be illegal and could lead to police confiscating the drug and issuing a caution.
Mr Winnick asked if the reclassification of cannabis was a first step towards legalisation in "four or five years' time".
The minister replied: "I can only assure you that when we were considering this policy over the summer recess we didn't consider it as part of an on-going process.We considered it as a practical measure to be taken in itself."Reuse content