Britain's drugs problem is the worst in Europe, according to a European Union report, one of the most exhaustive of its kind.
The report, which shows the UK to be ahead of the rest of Europe on almost every kind of drug-taking, will put David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, under increasing pressure to liberalise the UK's drug laws.
Senior police officers last week called for a policy rethink in the face of widespread recreational drug use.
Now the co-author of the new report, one of the EU's leading drugs specialists, has admitted that the decriminalisation of all drugs – including heroin and crack cocaine – would have little or no impact on the number of people taking drugs. Such a move would make the health and social problems associated with drug use "more manageable".
The study makes for shocking reading. Out of 7,266 deaths from overdoses of illegal drugs across the EU in 1999, 2,857 – close to half – were in the UK. Britain has the highest proportion of users of heroin, amphetamines, ecstasy and cannabis, while cocaine use, currently more prevalent only in Spain, is fastest growing in the UK.
The Netherlands, which is believed to have the most liberal drugs laws in Europe, had, in a 12-month period, roughly half the proportion of cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine users as the UK.
The report is by the EU-funded European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in Lisbon. Richard Hartnoll, head of the EMCDDA's drugs epidemiology department and co-author of the report, said: "There is no direct relationship we can see between a specific policy on drugs and the level of drug use in a country. Personally I doubt there would be much increase in drug use as a result of decriminalisation."
The EMCDDA's chairman Mike Trace, the UK's former deputy drugs tsar, said: "Britain has the worst drugs problem in Europe. It is clear the UK has a problem with drug-related deaths, and 2,857 mainly young people dying as a result of acute drug use is a national tragedy."
Mr Tracewill present his findings next month to the Home Affairs Select Committee, which has launched its own inquiry into the problem.
The report's publication adds weight to claims that prohibition merely encourages organised crime gangs, who make vast profits selling drugs, while forcing hardcore drug addicts to commit crimes to feed their habit. "Dirty" heroin also contributes to drug overdose deaths.
But Mr Blunkett, according to a Home Office source, is "completely against" liberalisation of heroin, cocaine and ecstasy. He has ordered a review of the classification of cannabis – indicating it should be downgraded from class B to class C – but only on the basis that it remains illegal. "His view is like that across the board," said the source. "He believes it is bad to do drugs." Mr Blunkett has also called for a limited increase in NHS prescription of heroin, but campaigners are demanding much more.
A Home Office spokesman the report was not all bad news, adding: "We have at least stabilised the picture in the UK. The problem is actually getting worse in other European countries."
The Association of Chief Police Officers last week called for ecstasy to be downgraded from a class A drug, and for the setting up of medically-supervised heroin "shooting galleries". Commander Brian Paddick, head of Lambeth police, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that recreational drug-users, who take small amounts of cocaine and ecstasy, were "low down my priority list".
Drugscope, the Government's senior drugs advisers, called for decriminalisation for possession of small amounts of all drugs and the legalisation of Amsterdam-style cafes, where cannabis can be bought and consumed.
Roger Howard, the chief executive of Drugscope, said: "We have to ask ourselves – with the UK having the most stringent penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs throughout Europe – why we are the only country where cocaine use has increased among young adults aged 16-29?
"We must question whether the law, rather than public health measures, is the best way to address small scale and recreational use."
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