The government's anti-drugs strategy has received almost universal praise - except that few believe it will work, writes Paul Stephenson

So what do you want - the good or the bad news? Drug czar Keith Hellawell has both. This month, his second annual report gave the government's anti-drug strategy a big pat on the back.

The good news for the government is that the drug agencies and charities agree that things are much better than they used to be.

There is more funding, while access to treatment, education and inter-agency co-ordination have improved.

The bad news? No-one seems to believe that the strategy will significantly reduce the level of illegal drug usage. What drug workers are clear about, but mainly prefer to say off the record, is that the strategy's targets are simply not achievable within 10 years.

The main targets are: halving the numbers of young people using illegal drugs, especially heroin and cocaine; halving the levels of re-offending by drug-misusing offenders to protect communities from drug-related anti-social and criminal behaviour; doubling the numbers of drug misusers in treatment; and halving the availability of drugs, especially heroin and cocaine, on the streets.

Just how difficult a reduction in usage will be to achieve is clear from Mr Hellawell's report, which says that there are 'signs of increasing consumption of cocaine' and that 'overall drug misuse among young people appears to be rising at a slower rate or levelling out'.

Harrogate and district drug and alcohol reference group chair Rob Hughes believes the great thing about the strategy is that 'everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet'.

And this appears to be true: drug workers and public health officials flag up the same issues in praise and criticism of the strategy.

Roger Howard, chief executive of leading national drug charity Drugscope (formed from the merger of the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency and the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse), is very positive about why the strategy is the right way forward.

He says: 'If we look at drug treatment and people who have serious problems, I think more money is very good. The government and the drug czar have listened to what the NHS and drug treatment agencies have been saying for years and they have responded with more money.'

Mark McPherson, operations manager at national drug charity Turning Point, believes the strategy has 'freed resources for people like ourselves'.

He says: 'It has a clear criminal justice focus and tackles the most problematic people. From that point of view it is an excellent strategy.'

Mr McPherson believes one of the important changes in policy had been that the use of drugs in prisons is now officially acknowledged.

But he is worried that existing community services for those leaving prison might not be able to cope with increased demand.

He says Turning Point is already starting to notice increasing demand in this area.

But he believes that the creation of the National Treatment Agency, due to be set up in April 2001 with a remit to expand treatment provision and co-ordinate delivery of high-quality services, will make a difference.

Jerry Stokes, director of operations for Midlands and the North at national drug charity Addaction, welcomes the extra money but says: 'If we have a criticism, there is a perception that it could be more joined-up. Much of the investment has been into frontline services and we need to ensure that investment reaches community services.'

Norfolk health authority drug action team co-ordinator Stuart Minto points to the improvements in inter-agency working already in place.

'The health authority used to sit in their building and talk about how they would tackle the problem, and social services would sit elsewhere and talk about it and they might not match up. The big difference now is that people are not doing things in isolation.'

Oxfordshire director of public health Dr Sian Griffiths agrees: 'I think things are better. There has definitely been an increase in awareness and I think the climate is more co-operative.'

One of the main problems identified by nearly all the agencies was the emphasis on the criminal justice element of the strategy and what it means for those who do not have a criminal record.

Mr Howard says there is 'growing concern that the majority of the new treatment money is being directed through the criminal justice system'.

He says this leads to worries about what happens when somebody seeks voluntary treatment.'

But despite the positive talk, those working in the field strongly reject hopes that drug usage can be cut significantly.

Mr Howard says: 'Some people are worried that we are running to keep still. The evidence seems to be that we are seeing some levelling off in drug use, but it is uncertain whether that is a cultural and cyclical trend.

'I think there are major social, cultural and generational causes that are very difficult to disentangle. Public information campaigns have not had a very good track record of significantly shifting behaviour, and it remains questionable whether the targets for drugs such as Ecstasy will be achieved.'

East Sussex, Brighton and Hove HA public health director Dr Graham Bickler reports that the major cause of premature deaths in young men in East Sussex is drugs.

A confidential enquiry into drug deaths found that 25 per cent of the cases were not known to any agency. The HA is now to fund a co-ordinator post to ensure that information is shared better between the various agencies in the area.

Dr Bickler says: 'One of the effects of the strategy is a greater ability to focus on the more vulnerable groups.

'However, there are limits to what we can do. We thought smoking was difficult, but the pressures for drug usage are bigger and deep and worldwide. We can be positive, but it is a big problem.'