Illegal drug use figures do not suggest UK law is 'working'

Calls for change have fallen on deaf ears as leaders have deemed it too toxic to tackle

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The Independent Online

According to policing minister Mike Penning, the Government’s strategy in the war on drugs is working because long-term levels of the abuse of illicit substances are falling. Whether you agree depends on how you interpret the word “working”.

Figures issued on 23 July suggested illegal drugs are used every day by 220,000 adults in England and Wales and every week by a further 800,000 people.

Another 1.8 million acknowledge taking a banned substance at least once a year, bringing the total number of drug users to around 2.8 million people, or one in 12.

That proportion might be markedly lower than a peak in 2004, but still represents significant numbers of people who knowingly disregard Britain’s long-standing drugs legislation.

More than one-third take the most harmful class A substances, such as heroin and cocaine – a rate of use broadly unchanged in two decades.

Cocaine use in the UK has remained largely unchanged for the past two decades

Distinct trends emerge from beneath the headline numbers. Regular cannabis use has fallen over the past 20 years, while Britons are among Europe’s heaviest users of cocaine following a leap in its popularity.

LSD is falling out of favour, while use of magic mushrooms fluctuates.

The popularity of ecstasy has surged to a 10-year peak, with 5.4 per cent of young adults dabbling with the clubbers’ drug last year, compared with 3.9 per cent in the previous 12 months. That equates to 95,000 more people taking ecstasy.

So-called “legal highs” have a small but significant foothold on the drugs scene, with an estimated 174,000 young adults trying chemicals designed to mimic illicit substances.

The figures indicate that people in their late teens or early 20s are the group most likely to experiment with drugs and that they use them less as they grow older. They also suggest that drugs go in and out of fashion as young adults shun the substances once preferred by their parents.

The changing pattern of use is at odds with the unshifting attitude of governments to the issue since the UK’s drug laws were put in place 44 years ago.

Calls for the legislation to be overhauled have generally fallen on deaf ears as political leaders have deemed the subject too toxic to tackle. Incredibly there has been only one Commons debate on drugs laws in that period.

Home Secretary David Blunkett’s decision to downgrade cannabis from a class B to class C substance in 2004 was swiftly reversed by Gordon Brown when he became Prime Minister, and David Cameron has long since abandoned the liberal stance he had on drugs when he was a humble backbencher.

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett

But the instinctively cautious approach of senior Conservative and Labour figures to the subject might not be mirrored in the country at large.

A recent poll found a majority of the public supported the decriminalisation of cannabis – presumably a view shared by the 2 million people who have used it in the past year.

“There’s a marked dissonance between public opinion and the risk-averse Tory and Labour parties. They are out of sync with the public,” says Danny Kushlick, director of the drug reform campaign group Transform.

The United Nations will hold a three-day general assembly session on combatting the global drugs trade next year. Since it last sat, several countries in Europe and South America have modified their attitude to drug use by approaching it as a health rather than a criminal justice problem.