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Cocaine madness

Why do our politicians always use the word "scourge" when they talk about drugs? It derives from the Latin corrigia - a whip used with some relish for self-flagellation - and its connotations of personal punishment seem appropriate for those who suffer from addiction.

It also sits well with the government's moralistic and judgemental approach to drug policy, exemplified by the angry rebuke early this year by Jacqui Smith, the then home secretary, of the chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. His offence? He had expressed a scientific opinion on the harmfulness of Ecstasy.

It may be unwelcome news to ministers, but many young people take drugs for enjoyment, not to feed an addiction. UK drug policy, however, speaks predominantly to the parents of users and their simmering fears.

Anti-drugs campaigns in Britain usually focus on cannabis use, an obsession that owes more to ministers' "increasing concern" than the steep decline in cannabis use by young people, down by 33 per cent since 1998. But the recent British Crime Survey showed a worrying leap in cocaine use by 16- to 24-year-olds - a 27 per cent increase in just one year. Early this year, the government's anti-drug campaign Talk to Frank launched a belated anti-cocaine project starring Pablo, a dog-cum-drugs mule. I doubt if many young people's experiences of cocaine involve witnessing a dog being sliced open by dealers.

Predictably, this futile attempt to invoke guilt at the suffering of cuddly animals backfired; the film became an instant hit on YouTube, treated by its target audience with bemused contempt.

The accompanying leaflet also makes the most preposterous assertions about sentencing. "For dealing - including selling and giving to your mates - it's life imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both." In reality, cocaine dealing may attract a sentence of perhaps two years; giving it to friends may result only in a caution.

Claudia Rubin, of the drugs charity Release, said: "Frank has lost its way. It has become a tick-box exercise for ministers, aimed at reassuring Middle England voters." However, the UK government still has some way to go to match the US's evangelical approach of the 1980s, when hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into campaigns whose only impact was a small increase in drug use.

The Home Office insists that "harm reduction underpins every element of our approach to tackling this complex issue". Harm reduction maybe, but there is also something of an honesty deficit. The implication of the advertising is that young people are taking drugs without knowing their physical effects and other impacts, and then suddenly find themselves addicted, or psychotic, or both.

A very strong trend in British Crime Survey figures shows that people often decide to stop taking drugs by their late twenties. There is a compelling case for the government to fund research into what persuades people to stop, and feed that information into its education messages.

But to do so would acknowledge that drug users are self-aware and able to manage their drug use, and so would run counter to the outlook espoused by minister and tabloid editor alike. Only false portrayal of the scourge and the misery works for them.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads