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Britain Girds to Attack Old Problem: Drug Abuse

Government said last week its spy services will be drafted as part of comprehensive plan.

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1997



LONDON

Britain's new government is launching an all-out assault in its war on drugs.

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Seeking to fulfill its election promise, the Labour government is launching a twin-pronged attack to tackle the problem both in Britain and at the sources abroad.

The move comes at a time when use of narcotics is escalating, especially among young people. National surveys indicate that roughly 1 in 4 people aged 16 to 29 has used illegal drugs.

Home Secretary Jack Straw, who is responsible for law and order, has suggested that heroin alone accounts for 1.3 billion ($2.1 billion) of property crimes. "One out of 5 people arrested by police is using heroin," Mr. Straw said in a public statement.

A Home Office health survey of 1,100 addicts revealed that they had committed a total of 70,000 crimes to finance their habit.

Studies carried out by the Home Office, however, suggest that younger Britons are becoming more tolerant toward the use of some drugs.

The Home Office says statistics show that two-thirds of people under 25 want the use of marijuana to be legalized.

The government's assault on drugs will be backed by strengthened legislation, giving courts greater power to order mandatory drug treatment and tests for convicted burglars suspected of being addicts.

The full resources of the country's intelligence services are to be mobilized to confront the international activities of drug lords.

'Drug czar' to be named

The involvement of MI6, Britain's secret overseas intelligence service, was announced by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook on a visit to the Far East last week. MI6 has an estimated 800 intelligence officers at British embassies. One of their main tasks will be to monitor the activities of drug producers and traffickers.

At the same time, Prime Minister Tony Blair has taken a page from America's book. He has formed a Cabinet task force that will soon appoint an US-style "drug czar" to head a nationwide campaign against the widespread use of "recreational" drugs in Britain.

A Downing Street spokesman says he hopes that the new "drug czar" will be in place before the end of the summer.

"We want to give this problem the priority across government it deserves," he says. "It will be a valuable weapon against one of the great evils of our time."

In a separate move, the Prince of Wales Trust, a charity headed by the heir to the British throne, will help to fund an independent inquiry into Britain's drug laws, which have remained substantially unchanged for 26 years.

The inquiry, expected to last two years, will be organized by the Police Foundation, Britain's leading law-enforcement think tank, and will include two of Britain's most senior police officers as well as a range of leading narcotics experts.

Ian Oliver, police chief of Britain's Grampian region and a candidate for the new post of drug czar, says he hopes the committee would examine the need for more treatment for drug users.

'Changing a whole culture'

"We have got to look at changing a whole culture. We now have an acceptance and a tolerance of drugs among young people," Mr. Oliver says. "We must address that as a fact."

Currently, Britain's narcotics laws are based on the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. It sets stiff penalties (convicted sellers of Ecstasy tablets, for example, can expect a mandatory jail term of up to six years) but has been widely criticized by police for being inflexible.

Government-funded publicity campaigns designed to discourage the use of narcotics have made little impact on young people, the Home Office acknowledges.

Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the London Times and a member of Prince of Wales Trust committee, says the 1971 law has "failed dismally.... Nobody can visit city centers in Britain and conclude that the Misuse of Drugs Act is working effectively."

Mr. Jenkins says a change in the law is "urgently necessary" and insists that it must take account of a "social divide" between "an older generation which believes the current law is too weak and a younger generation which believes the opposite."