£50 million has been allocated by the government to take the anti-drug message to children and to deal with addicted prisoners. These measures are part of the strategy which Keith Hellawell will announce this spring. Mr Hellawell, the former Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, was appointed 'Drugs Tsar' by the Prime Minister in October, 1997.
A nationwide education programme for primary schools has already been shown to government ministers. Children as young as six will be targeted in an effort to establish resistance to the temptation to use drugs. In gaols, the intention is to isolate persistent drugs offenders from those who wish to tackle their addiction. Mr Hellawell's deputy (Tsarevitch?), Mike Trace, came to his post from RAPT, the Rehabilitation of Addicted Prisoners Trust, where he was Director. He has wide experience of working with prisoners to help them kick the drug habit and, it is hoped, avoid the crimes which, in many cases, were necessary to finance addiction. Compulsory drug testing and treatment are proposed for anyone who falls into this category.
One of the main priorities of Mr Hellawell and his team will be to influence children before they have been exposed to the blandishments of the so-called drug culture. The Drug Prevention Unit of the Home Office has found that children given weekly classes in the danger of drugs are markedly less likely to become users when they reach their teens. This is a message which drug education agencies have been preaching for years.
The threat of drug use amongst young people in the countryside, evident to those working in the area for some time, is emphasised in a new report produced by the school health education unit of Exeter University, headed by John Balding. This shows that 27 per cent of 14-15 year olds living in rural areas have experimented with at least one drug, whereas the figures are 21 per cent for young people from the suburbs, and 18 per cent for those in an urban environment. The research was carried out among 23, 317 children in 122 schools. There is some good news in this same report. It indicates that young teenage drug use is falling for the first time in five years. 25 per cent of 14-15 year olds tried drugs last year as compared to 33 per cent in 1996. However, despite this drop, the long-term trend is upwards. "The percentage of youngsters of 12 to 13 in 1996 that recorded experience of illegal drugs was greater than that of 15 to 16-year-olds in 1987."
Hardened drug users are also on Keith Hellawell's agenda. These are believed to be responsible for £1 billion of property crime every year in the United Kingdom. At an expected cost of £7 million, the plan is to provide every gaol in England and Wales with a drug free wing. These already exist in a number of prisons where organisations like RAPT have units for the rehabilitation of addicted prisoners. Inmates will have to undergo regular testing in return for concessions. At the moment, according to unpublished Prison Service figures, 20 per cent of tested prisoners show traces of drugs despite the effort being put into preventing the smuggling of illicit substances. George Howarth, the Home Office minister responsible for prisons, said, " We plan to have a voluntary testing unit in every prison. That is the key to a drug-free environment."
The new strategy shortly to be unveiled by Mr Hellawell's team will call for £40 million funding for drug treatment and testing schemes. These will force those convicted of crimes related to the financing of a drug habit to undergo rehabilitation treatment and tests. Those who fail would face imprisonment. Pilot schemes in South London, Merseyside, and Gloucestershire begin this summer.
As far as cannabis is concerned, Hellawell is in favour of cautions for first time offenders. He is adamant that this does not indicate any softening of government policy. He intends to meet concerns expressed by ministers about the variations in the way police forces deal with possession of cannabis: some merely give warnings whilst others bring offenders before the courts.
The whole tenor of Mr Hellawell's proposals is towards a comprehensive national strategy on drugs and the elimination of duplication of effort. He hopes to streamline the £500 million-a-year fight against drugs, merging the work of the 100 or so drug action teams and the 12 regional drug prevention initiatives. Drug workers on the continent have envied the relative success of the local initiatives that have been in operation in the UK for a number of years. Whilst making the work more efficient and avoiding unnecessary duplication, Mr Hellawell will not want to lose these perceived strengths.
Mr Hellawell has already put his proposed strategy before the cabinet sub-committee on drug misuse which is chaired by the Leader of the House of Commons, Anne Taylor. Approval from this committee is expected within a matter of weeks.