Britain aims to cut drug-related crime in half by 2008

Antidrug initiative announced Sept. 26 includes mandatory testing for suspects

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Echoing worries elsewhere in Europe and in the United States about the link between illegal drugs and crime, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has signaled major changes in British law. The proposals are meeting opposition from civil-liberties groups.

Citing concern for his two teenage sons and the peer pressure to use drugs, Mr. Blair used his Labour Party's annual conference Sept. 26 to announce the new measures, which will include forcing all criminal suspects to undergo a drug test at the time of arrest. It will be the first time a British government has proposed compulsory testing before cases reach court.

New laws will also require criminals on probation or serving community sentences to be tested randomly for drugs.

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Blair said that when Queen Elizabeth II reopens Parliament next month, "There will be a crime and justice bill, and drugs will be its main focus." He added, "We will be looking at some of the key issues that all governments have ducked for far too long."

Home Secretary Jack Straw said government statistics showed the link between illegal drug use and crime was "huge and very disturbing." He estimated there were some 200,000 "problem" drug users in England and Wales, and that 60,000 were arrested each year. "Each of those will have been committing scores, if not hundreds, of crimes in order to feed their habit," he said. If an arrested person was found to be using hard drugs, the police in future would oppose bail.

Mr. Straw said the government's "ambitious" target is to reduce drug-related crime by 25 percent by 2005 and to halve it by 2008.

Straw has experienced the problem of drugs in his own family. Last year, his teenage son was arrested by London police for purchasing marijuana in what turned out to be a case of entrapment by a London newspaper.

Drug abuse is of rising concern across Europe. The Lisbon-based European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction announced Sept. 28 that it was joining forces with European governments in a coordinated campaign to confront the narcotics problem.

In the past two or three years, the Netherlands has begun backing away from its earlier readiness to tolerate the sale and use of marijuana. Marijuana growers can now be prosecuted, and the city of Rotterdam has developed a program to rehabilitate hard drug addicts.

And under pressure from France, members of the European Union in the last three years have tightened border controls in an attempt to curb cross-frontier narcotics trafficking.

But the Blair government's determination to tighten the screws on drug abuse by targeting suspected criminals has drawn strong opposition from civil-liberties advocates. John Wadham, director of Liberty, Britain's leading human-rights group, says mandatory drug testing would be "wrong in principle." It would also probably breach the European Convention on Human Rights, Mr. Wadham adds. "The link between drugs and crime needs to be closely examined, but eroding rights won't end crime."

Blair is under pressure from Conservative opposition leader William Hague, who called earlier this month for automatic life sentences for dealers found guilty of supplying illegal drugs to children.

Mr. Hague used Home Office statistics to underline his insistence that drugs are an increasing threat to Britain's youth. The statistics show that 50 percent of 16-year-olds have tried marijuana at least once. One in 10 has tried Ecstasy, an amphetamine often associated with the dance-club scene. One in four 14-year-olds has experimented with marijuana. Around 2 percent of both groups have tried heroin or cocaine at least once.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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