|Britain has a greater level of serious drug abuse than any other country in Europe, damning new figures show.|
The study reveals nearly one in every hundred people of working age in this country is a drug addict, a level unmatched anywhere else on the continent.
The United Nations report showed that rates of problem abuse here are more than three times those in Holland, nearly four times levels of serious drug-taking in Germany, over twice the rates in France, and nearly double the European average.
The number of regular heavy and regular drug abusers in Britain has shot up compared to the rest of Europe over the past decade, according to the figures.
The UN report drew a powerful contrast between Britain and Sweden, a country where the government has increased penalties for drug abuse and fought a campaign to eradicate drugs entirely.
This has brought down levels of drug use, the report said - while Britain, where the Labour has eased the laws on cannabis and helped heroin users - has seen its problems multipy.
Tory leaders and critics of the Government's liberal line on drugs warned that tolerance of drugs has produced a disastrous result. Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: 'This is a direct consequence of Labour’s failure to tackle the scourge of drugs and the British people are paying a very high price.'
The report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime is based on figures calculated by the European Union's Lisbon-based drugs agency but never publicised. They define problem drug abuse as 'injecting drug use or long duration or regular use of opiates, cocaine and/or amphetamines'.
Occasional use of heroin, cocaine or amphetamines does not count towards the figures, and nor are users of ecstasy or cannabis included.
Britain's 300,000 heroin addicts contribute to a rating of 0.94 per cent of the population aged between 15 and 64 as problem drug users - just under one in 100 working age people.
In all 18 EU countries where UN officials believe enough evidence exists to make comparisons possible, the level is lower.
Holland, where drug abuse is often considered rife, has just 0.30 per cent of its 15-64 population ranked as problem drug-takers. In Germany the level is just 0.25 per cent, in France 0.44. The EU average rate is 0.51 per cent.
Among major European countries, the nearest to Britain for problem drug abuse is Italy, at 0.75 per cent of the working age population. Only Latvia and tiny Luxembourg come near the British levels with rates at over 0.9 per cent.
Britain's number of problem drug abusers, the figures said, has gone up from under six per cent of the working age population ten years ago.
The UN report also confirmed that Britain is second only to Spain in Europe for levels of cannabis use among young people aged between 15 and 24, and that use of drugs other than cannabis among young people is highest in Britain and Ireland.
The league table makes uncomfortable reading for Labour, which has twisted and turned since the disastrous decision after the 2001 election to reclassify cannabis from class B to class A, a move that means people caught with the drug are no longer routinely arrested.
Ministers have accepted that the decison was made without taking into account evidence showing links between cannabis and mental illness, but say they will not change the law back because that would cause too much confusion among the young.
There have also been increasing signs that the Government wishes to be more tolerant of hard drug abuse. Public money is to be used to fund four experimental 'shooting galleries' in which addicts will be invited to inject legally-provided heroin. Yesterday North Wales Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom announced that addicts will be able to get clean needles from a machine set up at a police station.
By contrast, the UN report praised Sweden, where over the past two decades laws have been tightened so that drug abuse - not possession of a drug as in Britain - is a crime that can result in a jail term and where minor offences attract six month jail sentences.
The UN report praised Sweden's 'ambitious goal of a drug-free society' and added: 'The prevalence and incident rates of drug abuse have fallen in Sweden while they have increased in most other European countries.'
The Home Office yesterday questioned the UN comparisons. 'The way we gather figures in this country is different from everywhere else,' a spokesman said. 'The figures are not comparable.'
He added: 'Levels of use of Class A drugs in Britian are stable. Drug-related crime is falling. Increasing quantities of drugs are being seized, and record numbers of people are getting treatment.'
Earlier this year UN drugs chief Antonio Maria Costa signalled his disapproval of British drug policy, saying: 'Policy reversals leave young people confused as to just how dangerous cannabis is.'
Shadow Home Secretary Mr Davis said: 'Labour needs to get an urgent grip on this problem. Instead of peddling a confused message that lets people think it is ok to take drugs, they should start by securing our porous borders which allow hard drugs to flow into our country.'
Mary Brett of the Europe Against Drugs group said: 'This is saying that harm reduction policies and tolerance of drug use is causing great damage. The change of the law on cannabis and the other signals sent out by the Government have encouraged people to use drugs.'