The United Nations General Assembly first designated June 26 the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking back in 1987. The urgency of both issues has, if anything, increased over the years.
Where drug trafficking was once the preserve of organised criminals, a more sinister dimension has evolved in recent years, with terror groups in Latin America, Kurdistan, the Middle East and south-west Asia being bankrolled by illicit drug profits. Particularly robust is the al Qa'ida connection. Afghanistan is still the major source of opiate and cannabis products worldwide, despite the alleged destruction of a quarter of its opium crop this year.
American intelligence sources believe that Osama bin Laden has been involved in heroin trafficking activities to finance his terror organisation, as are Hezbollah and Hamas. One of the less appreciated consequences is the rising numbers of refugees and those from the indigenous local populations becoming addicted to heroin. But with sophisticated money laundering syndicates operating in that region and elsewhere around the world, these businesses are left to flourish with impunity.
In the eyes of the American Drug Enforcement Administration, the war on terror and the war on drugs cross dangerous paths in places such as Afghanistan, Colombia and the tri-border area of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, long a haven for Islamic extremists.
Drug trafficking occasionally shocks the world when people unwittingly caught up in it are apprehended. Just before Easter, a 12-year-old boy swallowed 87 packets of heroin before boarding a flight from London to New York, just a couple of days after a 13-year-old girl was charged with smuggling nearly pound;1 million worth of heroin into Britain. Increasingly, women and children are being used as drug "mules" by traffickers in the belief that they are less likely to be stopped by customs.
In this country, drug trafficking is not a major problem but the link between drugs and criminality is. In statistics collected in England and Wales in 1999-2000, two thirds of people arrested for burglary tested positive for opiates, including heroin, and one half had taken cocaine or crack. It was also found that the greater the drug use, the higher the involvement in crime.
But even without criminal and terrorist connections, the increasing level of drug misuse in the UK is a matter of concern. Cannabis, the most widely used drug in this country, has been tried by 44 per cent of 16 to 29-year-olds. While there has been a decline in the numbers using amphetamines, amyl nitrate and LSD and only a one per cent increase in those who have tried ecstasy, cocaine use has gone up 4 per cent among people under the age of 30. It appears to be viewed positively by users, who are as likely to be employed as unemployed, as a drug that is socially acceptable and easier to control.
Even though heroin use has remained low in recent years, the Keep Britain Tidy Campaign has reported that more than 20,000 discarded and potentially infected needles were found in public places around the UK last year, including parks, public toilets, churchyards, abandoned cars and beaches. The main dumping ground for the needles was parks and playing fields, where children could easily pick them up.
There is concern among drug educators that the Government is looking to follow America's example by adopting a "just say no" approach to drugs which, they believe, is just as ineffectual as shock tactics on their own. As Dutch research shows, the most effective way of reducing drug experimentation is by talking about drugs within the context of young people's lives and the problems they face, supported by factual information.