War on drugs has failed to stop rising tide of addiction

Britain's efforts to tackle drug abuse are simply not working. Despite millions being spent on campaigns, a drug "epidemic" is developing and a radical approach is needed. Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent, talks to the experts.
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One in three children will grow up addicted to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, the leading research charity Action on Addiction warned yesterday. But despite a massive investment in drug education - pounds 50m alone in the last three years - it is failing to change young people's attitudes and behaviour.

Rather than investing in "panda cars ... and pop propaganda" we should be putting money into studies to find out what will be effective in combating drug abuse, said Professor John Strang, of Action on Addiction and former head of the Government task force on drugs.

Launching a pounds 1m appeal for the charity, he warned there was an "epidemic still in development" with the number of heroin addicts doubling in the last three years. Despite policies to restrict supply, the price of heroin in real terms has halved between 1986 and 1996, suggesting significantly increased availability. At the same time, purity of the heroin has increased.

And in some areas of Britain drugs have become a way of life. A study of children in a deprived area of Glasgow found that nearly a third of 12-14-year-olds had experimented with at least three illicit drugs. Many of those questioned viewed their drugs activity as recreational and "it was common for [them] to be puzzled by the suggestion that their drug use was problematic or dangerous".

Professor Strang said yesterday: "It is disappointing that the new post of Drugs Tsar comes from the US. It is extremely an strange role model to choose when you look at the extent of the drugs problem, which dwarfs our own."

He said that the best way to deal with heroin was to apply market forces and treat it as another business. By cutting off supplies effectively, prices would go up and many occasional or novice users would be dissuaded from trying the drug.

"It works the same way as alcohol or tobacco. If you increase the price by 10 per cent in real terms [ the number of users will fall] 5 to 10 per cent over all." But he added that this would only work if it was coupled with help and rehabilitation.

"It's too simplistic and convenient to isolate drugs as a social issue and blight. The Glasgow study shows the extent of drug use amongst young people and many see this as a positive, recreational part of their lives. We need credible education initiatives which can compete against all the other sources of information, such as friends, newspapers, magazines, television, music and films."