The Narcotics Menace: Prevention is key to drugs initiative: National campaign based on education and rehabilitation to target schoolchildren and addicts

THE Government's new anti-drug initiative is a tacit acceptance that the traditional methods of law enforcement and punishment have had only a minimal impact on the escalating drug menace in Britain.

Conservative estimates put the illicit business in the UK alone at about pounds 3bn. The numbers of people dabbling in drugs has burgeoned with one-third of all young men using one substance or another. Users have become younger with 3 per cent of 12- and 13-year- olds admitting trying them.

The number of addicts has risen fivefold in the last 10 years to 28,000.

Seizures of hard drugs such as cocaine, crack and heroin have tripled. The number of drug offenders has more than doubled, to 56,000. And a report by the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency yesterday put the cost of drug-related crime - users stealing to fund habits - at pounds 864m.

A nationally co-ordinated approach with the emphasis on prevention, rehabilitation and education - particularly among young children - is something that drug workers have long advocated. A variety of drugs are available in playgrounds and even children as young as 10 are experimenting with solvents, cannabis, sleeping pills and hallucinogens.

Yesterday, moving away from the Government's former shock tactics to deter young people, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, said the aim was to give children the confidence to say 'no' to drugs in the face of peer pressure.

The Green Paper acknowleded that as part of adolescence and maturing, young people may well experiment with drugs. Rather than encouraging expulsion of children caught using drugs it calls for schools to ensure they have access to advice, counselling and treatment. It also promotes closer links between schools, the police and all other agencies that work with young people.

Putting drug education 'firmly on the school agenda' the department will fund programmes to train teachers and start anti-drugs projects in primary as well as secondary schools, where drug education forms part of the National Curriculum. Concern has been expressed that teachers know less about drugs than their pupils.

Young people and parents are also the focus of the Government's new pounds 5m advertising campaign which will stress the dangers of drugs, while educating children to decline narcotics and underline their illegality. A new drugs helpline will be launched in April.

Aiming specifically at users and addicts, the Government will be promoting outreach projects which provide syringe and needle exchanges. And in a move to help get addicts off their habit, rehabilitation schemes, including the effectiveness of prescribing methadone as a substitute for heroin, will be re-evaluated.

One of the most ambitious projects outlined in the Green Paper is the setting up of 100 local drug action teams. They will be made up of education, police, health and prison officials and backed by funding of pounds 8.5m.

Health advice and access to treatment is to be improved alongside a firm overall policy to encourage abusers to kick the habit.

Stressing that law enforcement still had a major role to play in the fight against drugs, particularly at ports, where ever-growing consignments are being shipped in, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, said combating drugs would be a key objective for every police force. Each would be asked to draw up its own stategy.

While the drugs initiative was generally welcomed yesterday by opposition parties and narcotics groups, it was Mr Howard's other initiative - plans to introduce compulsory drug testing in prisons - which drew criticism.

About 60,000 random tests a year on inmates will take place, at a cost of about pounds 500,000. Prisoners testing positive risk serving an extra 28 days and the Prison Service may also reintroduce closed visits - where prisoners and visitors have no physical contact.

Jane Goodsir, chair of Scoda, the national umbrella organisation for drugs services in England and Wales, said: 'We do not see how compulsory drug testing of prisoners will lead to anything but disruption and unrest in an already turbulent prison system.'

The Government's key proposals are: One hundred Drug Action teams to tackle local drug misuse; A national drug helpline; Access to treatment for misuse; Training for teachers and guidance for schools; Tougher drug controls in prisons; Police, probation and prison service to develop co-ordinated strategies for dealing with drug misuse; Drug-related criminal activity to be targeted as key police objective.

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