LONDON — Soon after Keith Hellawell became his country's first "drug czar" a little more than a year ago, Britain was tagged as having Europe's highest percentage of teenage drug-users.
And when he began to ask high-schoolers what they thought was the maximum penalty for being caught with a dozen mood-enhancing "ecstasy" tablets, he found them "surprisingly ignorant."
"Answers ranged all the way from 'a slap on the hand' to two years in prison," Mr. Hellawell says. "They were visibly shaken when I told them they could get life."
Such experiences compelled him to quickly come up with Britain's first government-backed antidrug strategy, and it's catching the eye of other nations for its cutting-edge ideas.
Some of the most useful insights, says this former coal miner and chief constable from West Yorkshire, have come from addicts and drug users.
He's criticized celebrities such as pop stars who promote "recreational drugs." And he's targeted "rich-kid" addicts who aren't "members of any deprived group."
And he's asked teachers to stop using the term "soft drugs."
Citing drug use as a "scourge" on British society, Hellawell hopes to put antidrug advisers in every school and police station. And as national antidrug coordinator (he doesn't like "drug czar"), Hellawell plans to have a wide range of British agencies - police, probation officers, social services, and particularly schools - adopt "common performance indicators" for measuring the extent of the drug problem and the success or otherwise of attempts to combat it.
A long-term battle
Since 1969, when as a policeman he first set up a special drug squad in West Yorkshire, Hellawell's perspective on the problem has "changed greatly." Three decades ago it seemed possible that the problem could be solved through "a high level of prosecutions," he said in an interview. But drug-taking began to reach "epidemic proportions" in the Yorkshire region. Hellawell began to see a link between drugs and crime, and the difficulties of individuals breaking the habit without help. He started to appreciate the need for agencies to "work together in a coordinated way."
"If a local police force sets as its target the reduction of burglaries by a certain percentage, and we already know large numbers of burglaries are committed to pay for drugs, it makes sense to address the root reason for those break-ins. That means there is a need for drug-testing at police stations and, where necessary, treatment in prison," he says.
A lifelong teetotaler and nonsmoker, Hellawell admits he is in an uphill battle. He is increasingly concerned with statistics showing that 16 percent of people killed in British road accidents had taken illicit drugs. Ten years ago it was under 4 percent.
And a 1998 report by the European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon shows that 35 percent of British teens regularly use marijuana, compared with 26 percent in France and 21 percent in Germany. Britain is also ahead of other European nations in use of the experience enhancer "ecstasy."
Stopping the 'drift into drugs'
"Among young people there seems to be a prevailing sense of boredom and nonfulfillment. Too many just drift into using drugs," he says. "This growing pattern can be found in America and other countries as well as Britain. With this group we stress the medical, legal and social consequences of drug abuse.
"We have made progress. Instead of resisting, people nowadays tend to ask for treatment." But he says it will take "two or three years" before "a full national strategy" can start to operate successfully.
Recalling a recent meeting with the headmaster of a secondary school, Hellawell says: "He told me some of his brightest pupils were losing their edge as a direct result of taking drugs.
"To avoid that kind of thing, we have to ensure that drugs education and treatment programs are properly funded and are no longer a fringe activity. Those involved in antidrug work must accept the need for high common standards, which means accurate monitoring and answering tough questions about the effects of what they are doing."