Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Author: Nicholas Rufford - Home Affairs Editor
Contact:  Sun, 08 Mar 1998


THE government is preparing its biggest assault on drugs with a 50m plan
to take the anti-drug message to children as young as six and to segregate
addicted prisoners in Britain's jails.

The strategy will be unveiled in the spring by Keith Hellawell, the former
chief constable of West Yorkshire, who was appointed "drugs tsar" by Tony
Blair last October.

Key parts have already gone before ministers, including a nationwide
education programme in primary schools and the isolation of prisoners who
persistently offend from those who will go through "cold turkey" to kick
their habit.

Other measures include compulsory drug testing and treatment for burglars
and others who steal to feed their drug habit, and streamlining of
government initiatives to cut duplication of effort.

One of Hellawell's priorities is to target children before they fall under
the influence of youth drug culture. Research by the Home Office drug
prevention unit has found that young children given weekly classes in drug
dangers are far less likely to become drug users in their teens.

A study published tomorrow suggests that drug abuse is now as prevalent in
the countryside as in urban areas. Some 27% of 14 to 15-year-olds living in
the countryside said they had experimented with at least one drug, compared
with 21% of suburban youngsters and 18% of urban children, according to
research by Exeter University's school health education unit.

Hellawell also wants to tackle hardened drug-users, blamed for more than 1
billion of property crime a year in Britain. Under the government's plans,
expected to cost 7m, every jail in England and Wales will have a drug-free
wing where prisoners will be sent to wean them off drugs. Inmates will be
required to undergo regular testing in return for concessions.

Unpublished Prison Service figures reveal that one in five tested prisoners
shows traces of drugs despite efforts to halt the smuggling of narcotics
into jails. "We plan to have a voluntary testing unit in every prison,"
said George Howarth, the home office minister. "That is the key to a
drug-free environment."

The new strategy will also call for 40m funding for drug treatment and
testing schemes, which will coerce those who steal to pay for drugs to
undergo tests and treatment. Those who fail to follow the regime would face

Howarth will this week announce details of three pilot schemes to begin
this summer in Merseyside, Gloucestershire and south London.

Hellawell is expected to respond to ministers' concerns over
inconsistencies in the way that police deal with cannabis possession. A
report by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, a statutory body,
found that some police forces dealt punitively with offenders whereas
others gave warnings. Hellawell favours cautions for first-time offenders,
but insists this does not represent a softening of the government's policy.

He will also recommend the streamlining of the government's 500m-a-year
effort to fight drugs. The work of more than 100 local drug action teams
and a dozen regional drug prevention initiatives is expected to be merged.

Other measures being considered include tougher action by councils to evict
tenants convicted of drug-related crime and heavier sentences for drug
dealers. After five months' consultation, Hellawell remains firmly opposed
to any legalisation of drugs.

He has already discussed his ideas with the cabinet sub-committee on drug
misuse, chaired by Ann Taylor, leader of the Commons. The committee is
expected to approve his draft strategy within weeks.

Roger Howard, head of the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, praised the
proposals: "Britain needs a comprehensive strategy . . . and this addresses
all the main problems."

Thousands of people supporting decriminalisation of cannabis are expected
to take part on March 28 in what is claimed to be the first "pot rally" in
London for 30 years.