Cocaine use triples as Ecstasy loses its appeal

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More than 750,000 people take cocaine at least once a year as its price falls and ecstasy loses its popularity among clubbers, according to a wide-ranging study of drug abuse in Britain.

Official attempts to stem the use of illegal substances have failed, with cocaine soaring in popularity and addiction to heroin remaining stubbornly high.

The report delivers the bleak warning that Britain has the worst levels of drug abuse in Europe and the second highest rate of drug-related deaths.

Cocaine use among young people has tripled since the late 1990s to more than 750,000 in 2005-06, the study for the new UK Drug Policy Commission says. Nearly 5 per cent of people entering drug rehabilitation programmes say their main problem is with cocaine, the average street price of which has dropped from £69 to £49 per gram during the past six years.

"From being an exclusive drug, used only by the wealthy and some dependent drug users, it has now become part of the menu of psychoactive substances that young people use to enhance their leisure time.

"It may have come into fashion among these people as ecstasy reduced in perceived quality," the report adds.

It says a quarter of people aged 26 to 30 have tried a class-A drug, such as heroin, cocaine or ecstasy, at least once in their lives.

The number of heroin users has risen from just 5,000 in 1975 to an estimated 281,000 in England and 50,000 in Scotland. It has now stabilised at "levels that are very high by international standards".

With about one-fifth of people arrested dependent on heroin, the cost of drug-related crime in England and Wales is estimated at more than £13bn.

Drug use is now a common experience for people born since 1970, although most only try cannabis only a few times with a small minority going on to be problematic users of harder drugs. Nearly half of young people have experimented with cannabis, with levels of use apparently unaffected by its reclassification from a class-B to a class-C substance.

The estimated 0.85 per cent of the population with a drug problem is twice or more than that in comparable countries such as France (0.4 per cent) or Germany and the Netherlands (both 0.3 per cent).

The report, written by Professor Peter Reuter, of Maryland University in the United States, and Alex Stevens, of the University of Kent, says years of government anti-drugs campaigns have only had a minimal effect on levels of use.

It finds little evidence that longer jail sentences, more arrests, education and treatment have cut the number of addicts or the availability of drugs. The number of people jailed for drug-related offences rose by 111 per cent between 1994 and 2005 and the average length of sentences increased by 29 per cent. Taken together, the courts handed out nearly three times as much prison time in 2004 as in 1994.

The Commission is beginning a three-year investigation into drug policy.

In the Commons yesterday, Tony Blair said drug misuse was down 16 per cent since 1998 and down 21 per cent among young adults, while class-A drug use remained "relatively stable". He added: "We have doubled the amount of money for the treatment of people on drugs. I appreciate we've still got a very great deal more to do but it simply is not the case that we are not making either the investment or the changes that are necessary."

The rising tide of drugs

* One-quarter of those aged 26 to 30 have used a class-A drug at least once. The percentage of young people who have used cannabis is decreasing, but is as high as 45 per cent. Their use of cocaine has tripled since the late 1990s.

* There are an estimated 193,000 recent users of crack, with a large overlap with heroin use. There are 281,000 dependent heroin users in England and 50,000 in Scotland. Use of LSD, amphetamines and Ecstasy is falling.

* There were 1,644 drug-related deaths in the UK in 2005 - the second highest in Europe.

* 1.6 per cent of injecting drug users are HIV positive; 42 per cent in England and 64 per cent in Scotland are infected with hepatitis C.

* The size of the UK drug market is estimated at more than £5bn. The cost of drug-related crime is thought to be £13bn.

* The number of drug-users jailed rose by 111 per cent between 1994 and 2005. The average length of sentences increased by 29 per cent - it is now 37 months for dealing.

* The price of a gram of heroin dropped from £70 in 2000 to £54 in 2005. Some drug dealers report an average weekly profit of up to £7,500.