The outgoing advisor to the Government on drugs, Keith Hellawell, used his final report yesterday to warn that cocaine use was on the increase and that new research had uncovered worrying evidence of increased drug-taking among children aged 11 to 15.
Mr Hellawell said that he had not been sacked as the United Kingdom's anti-drugs co-ordinator by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, as has been suggested, but had asked to step down from the office. He said: "I was happy to move on. I had been 40 years in public service."
Mr Hellawell, who was receiving a £106,000 annual salary, will negotiate a part-time advisory role when Mr Blunkett returns from holiday in Majorca.
The Home Secretary indicated soon after the election that he wished to take charge of drugs matters. The anti-drugs role will now be filled by a Home Office minister.
Mr Hellawell, who was only three years into the 10-year anti-drugs strategy that he had drawn up for the Government, defended his record yesterday on tackling the problem of drug-taking and abuse.
He said a "framework and common agenda" for tackling drugs had been set up and that the Government could be "proud that these are in place".
He added that drugs treatment programmes had been successful in that they were "massively" reducing crime, and that drug misuse in prisons had been cut by half.
In his final annual report, Mr Hellawell said the authorities had seized Class-A drugs to the street value of £410m last year, an increase of 4 per cent. He also said there was a 17.5 per cent increase in the number of people dealt with for supplying Class-A drugs.
But he said: "Although drug use among the general population appears to be fairly stable, there are worrying signs that cocaine use is becoming more common."
Mr Hellawell said that cocaine was no longer associated only with "pop stars and models" because suppliers were targeting a wider market. He said the challenge for the Government was to explain the dangers of cocaine to "young people and clubbers who believe this is the clean drug".
Mr Hellawell also signalled his disappointment at evidence showing growing drug experimentation among schoolchildren. The drugs tsar had previously claimed that young people were becoming less attracted to drugs because they were being given more information about their effects.
But in the annual report he said: "The small but consistent increase in the numbers of 11 to 15-year-olds who report taking drugs is of particular concern." He said he had been given "conflicting evidence".
Earlier research by Exeter University showing a fall in drugs use by schoolchildren was at odds with new findings in a Government schools survey showing increased drug-taking in the past year.
Mr Hellawell said he could "see nothing wrong" with a pilot project being conducted by the Metropolitan Police in the south London borough of Lambeth to allow people found in possession of cannabis to escape with a verbal warning.
But he insisted that there was no prospect of cannabis being legalised, except where derivatives were proved to have medicinal value. Mr Hellawell also said that people calling for a reform of the law on soft drugs were from a "fairly limited quarter" and that international commitments would ensure that "cannabis for the foreseeable future will remain an illegal substance".
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