Leading article: Our nation is hooked on the failed drug policies of the past

The ramifications of Britain's growing rates of drug addiction should not be underestimated
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The tragic death of Andreas Embiricos that we reported this week is a vivid illustration of the damage that hard drugs inflict. This death, when viewed alongside more than 700 others each year as a result of heroin, gives the lie to any suggestion that the authorities are loosening the grip of hard drugs on our society. When the Misuse of Drugs Act, which outlawed the provision of heroin on medical prescription, was passed in 1971, there were only 1,000 registered users in the UK. Today, the number of heroin addicts is estimated at 300,000. After three and half decades of policies designed to clamp down on the supply of narcotics and criminalise users, all we have seen is an astonishing rise in the number of people suffering addiction.

These figures should shame society into a more mature approach. Much greater resources must be invested in tackling demand for hard drugs, rather than just supply. Four years ago, a House of Commons select committee recommended establishing a pilot programme of public rooms for heroin addicts that would allow users to inject hard drugs without fear of arrest. And a newly released report by Lord Birt, until recently the Prime Minister's personal strategy adviser, recommended increasing the provision of free heroin by the NHS. There is no shortage of progressive ideas; the problem is a Government loath to implement them for fear of being labelled "soft" on drugs.

A more liberal approach has been shown to work. Trials of "shooting galleries" in the Netherlands, Germany and Australia have improved the health of heroin users and cut the number of overdoses. In such centres, health specialists provide users with access to methadone and treatment regimes to help them kick the addiction. There is every reason to believe that equally determined efforts to get people off hard drugs here in Britain would bear fruit.

We should remember that it is not just drug addicts themselves who suffer as a result of the Government's refusal to adopt a more progressive policy. It is estimated that £21bn a year in damage is caused by drugs users, whether though the destructive rages of crack addicts, or shoplifting by heroin users attempting to get enough money for their next fix. Some social workers reckon that every pound spent on treatment saves £3 in the court system.

Liberalisation has been shown to work for other chronic social problems. As the police are fond of telling us, most violent crime on British streets is a result of drink. Home Office figures released this week showed that the relaxation of the drinking laws, enabling pubs to stagger their closing times, has been accompanied by a reduction in violent crime on many of Britain's streets. Liberalisation of the drug laws would have a similarly profound effect on the quality of life in this country.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, this week accepted the need to reduce our record-high prison population. A more sensible drugs policy would go a long way towards achieving this. Offering addicts the option of treatment rather than jail would reduce, at a stroke, the number of prisoners and cut the number of re-offenders. While Mr Clarke's recent flip-flop over the classification of cannabis was disconcerting, he did the right thing in the end. Now that the Tory leader, David Cameron, has indicated that he will not adopt the hard-line approach of his predecessors, the opportunity to pursue a bipartisan way forward must not be missed.

The ramifications of Britain's growing rates of drug addiction should not be underestimated. It is in all of our interests that we ditch the failed policies of the past and take serious action to break the lethal hold of hard drugs over Britain.