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Britain 'deserves its drugs problem', says UN

Cannabis use has turned into a pandemic that is causing almost as much harm as cocaine or heroin, the head of the United Nations anti-drugs office says. He criticised governments, such as the UK's, which have downgraded the cannabis threat, saying that they have got the "drug problem they deserve".

Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, appealed to European political parties to agree a long-term strategy for reducing consumption of the drug, which he said was being used in 2004 by 164 million people worldwide. As well as being more widespread, the drug is "considerably more potent" than it was a few decades ago, he said.

Speaking at the launch of the World Drug Report in Washington, Mr Costa warned: "Policy reversals leave young people confused as to just how dangerous cannabis is. With cannabis-related health damage increasing, it is fundamentally wrong for countries to make cannabis control dependent on which party is in government.

"The cannabis pandemic, like other challenges to public health, requires consensus, a consistent commitment across the political spectrum and by society at large. Today, the harmful characteristics of cannabis are no longer that different from those of other plant-based drugs such as cocaine and heroin."

In January 2004, when David Blunkett was Home Secretary, cannabis was downgraded from class B to class C, meaning that possession of small quantities of the drug was no longer an arrestable offence. The decision was taken on the recommendation of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs. In 2005, the committee was asked by Mr Blunkett's successor, Charles Clarke, to review the decision, but it recommended against reversing it.

Without naming the UK, Mr Costa fired a shot at governments which have relaxed their cannabis laws. He said: "After so many years of drug control experience, we now know that a coherent, long-term strategy can reduce drug supply, demand and trafficking. If this does not happen, it will be because some nations fail to take the drug issue sufficiently seriously and pursue inadequate policies. Many countries have the drug problem they deserve."

His comments were seized on by the Tories. The shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, said: "The Government's seriously confused course of action on cannabis has led to chaos and confusion in the enforcement of drug laws. This in turn has led to a continuing failure to reduce this dangerous threat to lives."

Cocaine use is also on the rise in Europe according to the UN. The report estimated there are 3.5 million cocaine users in Europe and that the trend is rising, especially in the UK and Spain.

Meanwhile, legal loopholes and a surge in internet sales have fuelled a rise in the use of magic mushrooms, according to a report from the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

The report warned that, while changes to the law were dampening demand, they could also prompt an increased use of legal but toxic alternatives. Nearly 50 per cent of Britons aged between 15 and 24 have tried magic mushrooms, surveys found.The Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France and Belgium have the highest usage.

The report said: "Since 2001, six EU member states have tightened their legislation ... New legislation appears to have had an immediate impact on both the availability of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the UK.

"[But] the recent prohibition of psilocybin and psilocin-containing fungi appears to have provoked an emerging interest of retailers in alternative, legal, types of hallucinogenic mushroom such as Amanita muscaria (fly agaric). The active chemicals in these are known to carry substantial toxicity risks."