In 1998, Prime Minister Tony Blair's newly appointed drug czar, Keith Hellawell, rented the glittery Trocadero Center theater for the unveiling of Labor's new drug strategy. In a major media event, Hellawell announced a 10-year plan to "stifle the availability" of illicit drugs and enable young people and former drug users to lead "healthy and crime-free lives." Hellawell's plan, known as "Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain," vowed to cut the number of young people using heroin and cocaine in half and to reduce the number of repeat drug offenders by a like amount.

More broadly, the Hellawell plan had four goals: to reduce drug-related crime, to reduce the overall availability of drugs, to educate youth on the dangers of drugs, and to increase the number of people receiving drug treatment. But almost five years in, the only Hellawell goal to achieve anything like what he promised is increasing drug treatment, with the number of people in drug treatment expanding by 8% annually since 1998. During the last four years, ecstasy use has soared to an estimated million users each weekend, and the British Home Office now reports that some 85,000 people are using crack cocaine, a drug that was barely visible in Britain in 1998.

Taking note of those depressing numbers, the Blair government moved last week to align drug policy more closely with British reality. On December 3, Home Secretary David Blunkett announced the government's Updated Drug Strategy 2002, which formally abandons three of the four Hellawell-era targets. The Hellawell targets were "not credible," said Blunkett, criticizing the former drug czar for picking numbers "out of the air."

The new strategy has much more down-to-earth goals. On the prevention front, the strategy calls for improving the quality of primary and secondary school drug education programs and expanding them to all of the nation's schools, launching "a major new communications campaign" to warn young people about the dangers of Class A (heroin, cocaine, ecstasy) drugs, and "clamping down on dealers who prey on the young" by increasing the penalties for the sale of Class C drugs.

That last point, however, has engendered controversy. Blunkett approved the rescheduling of marijuana as a Class C drug earlier this year, and numerous critics now accuse him of backtracking on the easing of marijuana penalties. Under Blunkett's proposal, marijuana sellers could face up to 14 years in prison.

The new strategy also calls for a hefty 50% increase in anti-drug spending by 2005, from approximately 1 billion English pounds now to 1.5 billion three years from now. Some of that money will go to expanding drug testing and treatment referrals for people arrested on drug charges, paying for drug courts, and increased treatment costs. But funds will also be increased for law enforcement efforts to reduce supply, the strategy says.

Rather than set unreachable goals, the new strategy more modestly aims to go after "middle level" dealers, keep drug use among young people at or below current levels, and assist the Afghan government in its efforts to suppress the opium and heroin traffic. The government will also unveil a National Crack Strategy later this month. "Policing to disrupt crack markets will be intensified in the areas most affected," the strategy promises, pointing to recent high-intensity enforcement efforts in Lambeth, where police have made over 100 crack house raids since June. The strategy reports "33% fewer robberies reported, 90-plus people arrested, 564 searches made, 148 abandoned vehicles removed, and 118 prostitutes arrested and referred to treatment." But the heavy-handed police presence in heavily-minority Lambeth has also lead to rising tensions between the community and the police, according to British press reports.

But despite all the emphasis on enforcement, prevention, and treatment, the government is also taking some harm reduction steps. The strategy says that "heroin should be available on prescription to all those who have a clinical need for it" and should be provided in "safe, medically supervised areas with clean needles."

That measure, at least, won support from British drug reformers. A spokesman for DrugScope, an independent drug policy foundation, told the Independent (London) that the British government had erred in ending the "British system" of physician-prescribed heroin in 1968 and that the announced new policy of prescribed heroin and safe-injection rooms would rectify that mistake. The Transform Drug Policy Institute's Danny Kushlick pointed out to the Independent that the 1,000 registered drug users in the program in 1971 had now mushroomed to 250,000 registered drug users.

Overall, the Home Office estimated that some four million Britons use illicit drugs, with some 250,000 of them described as "problem drug users," whom the government blames for "99%" of all drug related social costs.

For British drug policy, it once again appears to be a case of one step forward, one step back, and one step sideways.

Read the new drug strategy online at

-- END --
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Issue #267, 12/13/02 DRCNet Needs Your Help! | Editorial: O, Canada! (Oh, the Embarrassment!) | Canadian House Drugs Committee Calls for Cannabis Decrim, Safe Injection Sites, Heroin Maintenance | Canadian Justice Minister Calls for Cannabis Decrim "Early Next Year" -- US Opposition Could Pose Obstacle | Britain Drops Old Drug Strategy Targets, Goals Were "Not Credible" -- New Strategy a Mixed Bag | Michigan Legislature Repeals Draconian Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences | New Jersey Court Declares State's Civil Forfeiture Funding Scheme Unconstitutional | Newsbrief: Santa Cruz Deputizes Medical Marijuana Providers | Newsbrief: Massachusetts High Court Blocks Arrest of Needle Exchange Participants | Newsbrief: Colombia -- It's Drug War -- No, Oil War -- No, Terror War | Newsbrief: British Ex-Minister Calls Ecstasy Law "An Ass" | Newsbrief: Israeli Green Leaf Party Eyes Knesset Seats | Newsbrief: Illinois Supreme Court Limits Use of Drug Dogs in Traffic Stops | Newsbrief: Paramilitary Drug Raid Tactics Anger Eugene Residents | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Newsbrief: SAMHSA Says Treat Drug Abusers' Mental Illness | Media and Resources: Medical Cannabis Conference Tapes, WOLA Report, Jacob Sullum in Reason, Deborah Saunders in SF Chronicle | Action Alerts: Rave Bill, Medical Marijuana, Higher Education Act Drug Provision, Tulia, Salvia Divinorum | The Reformer's Calendar

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