OPINION: Inject reality into drugs issue

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

It often feels that the chances of having an intelligent debate on drugs are about as likely as hearing the Queen fart in public. Reasoned debate is drowned out by those clambering to reaffirm the message that "drugs are bad"; salvation can only be brought about by increasing our intolerance. This message is perpetuated by policy-makers who fall over themselves to declare their anti-drugs strategy to be tougher than ever before.

But just occasionally there is a glimpse of a fuller picture. The recent inquiry held in Worksop - where the local MP has estimated that one in three of people have been affected directly or indirectly by heroin abuse - has provided some frank explanations for the escalating drugs problem.

According to the inquiry, the dramatic rise in drug taking in and around Worksop does not appear to have come about as a result of moral decay or economic exclusion. Rather it appears to have its roots in a profound loss of hope and aspiration among those living in an area that was once a thriving coal-mining community but has since lost its sense of purpose.

The gulf between the rhetoric and reality on drugs is familiar to many of those working in the voluntary sector. A more rounded and sophisticated view of Britain's drug problem will only be possible when the reality is able to surface more often. This is where the voluntary sector has an important role to play: to tell it how it really is.

For those working in the sector, such a role is not without risks. The jailing in 1999 of the "Cambridge Two", Ruth Wyner and John Brock, who were convicted in connection with heroin dealing at the Wintercomfort homelessness project in Cambridge - has increased the level of nervousness among those working with drug users.

But as the revamped Wintercomfort project opens its doors, it is as important as ever for the voluntary sector to be contributing to the public discourse on drugs. Because until some reality is injected into the debate, we will continue to fail to understand how to ensure that fewer lives are blighted by drug addiction.

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