Magistrates are calling for tougher laws on cannabis to halt a crime wave among children who are stealing to buy drugs and graduating to more dangerous drugs.
The demand for the Government to move the drug back to Class B from Class C for young offenders came yesterday as two reports showed that Britain’s drug problems continue unabated. The toll of hard drug abuse in England and Wales is now put at more than £15 billion a year in economic and social costs, according to Home Office figures. The number of addicts has risen to 327,000 and Britain’s illicit drug market is now estimated to be generating £5.3 billion for traffickers and dealers. Heroin and crack, seen as the most dangerous of the illicit drugs, account for about half of the market’s total value.
A second report published yesterday by the European Union’s main drug monitoring agency provided further alarming evidence of Britain’s inability to tackle its drug problems. It places Britain among the worst European nations for drug misuse at a time when prices are falling and addiction could rise further. Despite record levels of drug seizures, officials admit they are failing to hit the markets where users buy their drugs. Against this backdrop, the call for changes to the cannabis legislation came from 400 delegates at the annual conference of the Magistrates’ Association in Coventry.
Roger Davy, a West Yorkshire magistrate and a national spokesman on youth courts, said: “Children – and that’s what they are – as young as 12, 13 and 14 are coming before us for offences of theft and robbery, which they admit are to raise money to feed their cannabis habit.” He said that cannabis use did not automatically plunge children into a life of crime, but many children believed cannabis was now legal and that nothing would happen if they were caught with it. Mr Davy said that the downgrading of cannabis to a Class C category had sent out the wrong message to vulnerable young people and he cited the case of a 15-year-old boy who had come before Bradford Crown Court accused of murdering one of his brothers in a frenzied knife attack after drinking up to seven cans of lager and smoking several joints. Mr Davy said: “The message has been sent out that having cannabis is not a serious offence, so more people have started to use it – who knows how many. But I am convinced that for many of the vulnerable youngsters I see in court it is a gateway to harder substances.”
The magistrates voted for change as the Home Office report provided a fresh estimate on the total costs of Class A drugs, detailing the price of drug use linked to crime, healthcare and deaths. The report put the cost at £15.4 billion in 2003-04, or £44,231 for each problem drug user. It is an increase of £3 billion on the 2000 figure, but officials said the rise was due to changes in calculations of the costs linked to crime and victims.
Drug-related crime accounts for 90 per cent of the overall cost of Class A drug use. The overall illicit drug market in 2003-04 was £5.2 billion, a fall from the £6.6 billion estimated for 1998. The £5.2 billion drug market in cannabis, amphetamines, Ecstasy, powder cocaine, crack and heroin is one third the value of the tobacco market and 41 per cent the size of the alcohol market. The size of the drug trade is comparable to British Airways’ stock market value of £5.5 billion and the brick and cement giant Hanson’s stock value of £5.3 billion.
The Home Office report said that the decline in the size of the illicit market was a result of the sharp fall in the cost of drugs on the streets. According to last year’s report of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, published in Brussels yesterday, prices of cocaine, heroin, amphetamines, Ecstasy and cannabis across Europe have been steadily falling for the past five years. The report says that, although drug use may have stabilised in Britain and other countries, danger lies ahead, especially over cocaine use. The drug is now the second most popular after cannabis. It said: “In Europe, cocaine is at historically high levels and studies suggest it is a common pattern for increases in problems relating to a drug to lag some years behind increases.” The report shows that Britain is top of the league for cocaine use among 15 to 34-year-olds, with 10.5 per cent of the population of that age group trying the drug at least once. Britain also came top of the 15-24 age group, with nearly 6 per cent having used the drug in the past year.
In 2003, the latest figures available, Britain was also top for heroin seizures, second for cocaine and cannabis seizures after Spain and top again for Ecstasy seizures.
Vernon Coaker, the Minister responsible for drugs, said: “Record sums invested in tackling drugs have helped to cut acquisitive crime, which is largely drug-related, by 16 per cent in the last two years.”
But David Davis, the Shadow Home Secretary, questioned government policy. “This is the cost of Labour’s failure on drugs, and it is being met by the public. Labour must end its chaotic and confused approach and get an urgent grip on this problem,” he said.
Martin Barnes, chief executive of the charity DrugScope, said: “Despite encouraging signs that drug use overall is stable and for some drugs is falling, there is clearly no room for complacency.”