|Drug deaths spiralled after Labour downgraded cannabis, it has been revealed.|
The number of people killed by overdoses surged by almost 15 per cent in the next year.
Critics had warned that the decision to reclassify cannabis from Class B to C in January 2004, meaning simple possession was unlikely to lead to arrest, would lead to a surge in the use of all illegal drugs.
An internal Downing Street report later admitted that people trying cannabis had been lured on to deadly harder drugs.
As a result, deaths from heroin, cocaine and Ecstasy all rocketed figures from the Office of National Statistics showed yesterday.
The increase meant the Government failed to meet its target of reducing drug deaths by a fifth between 1999 and 2004. Before the reclassification of cannabis, it was on course to do so easily.
Tory spokesman Edward Garnier said: 'Labour continues to fail to deal with the scourge of drugs.
'Drugs take lives and tear apart communities. They also undermine all our efforts to combat crime. The Government needs to get an urgent grip on this problem but so far all we have had is a chaotic and confused approach that gives the impression it is OK to take drugs.'
Mary Brett, of the Europe Against Drugs campaign, said it appeared much more than simple coincidence that the alarming rise in deaths had followed the downgrading of cannabis.
She said: 'Cannabis is a gateway drug, most people agree that now. A person smokes it and they are then far more likely to go on to take a harder drug. The Government will no doubt come up with excuses as to why the number of deaths has increased, saying the drugs were stronger.
But that cannot be the whole explanation.
'It is a significant increase and how many of those who died were, for example, first-time users?'
In 1999, the Government promised to reduce drug deaths by 20 per cent over the next five years.
Following the pledge, the numbers fell each year, from 1,571 in 1999, to 1,255 in 2003. At this point, the target was hit a year early. But in 2004 the death toll suddenly shot up by 14 per cent, to 1,427.
The number of heroin deaths was up from 591 in 2003 to 744, cocaine from 113 to 147 and Ecstasy from 33 to 48.
The Health Department said last night that, despite the rise in deaths last year, there had been a nine per cent reduction overall since 1999.
Within the total, however, there was a 67 per cent increase in cocaine deaths, from 88 in 1999 to 147, and Ecstasy fatalities were up 85 per cent, from 26 to 48. Both figures reflect wider use.
The department has now reconvened its Drug Related Deaths Steering Group, a panel of experts which will produce a plan of action later this year on how to reduce the toll.