Rosie Cowan

``The new measures will make sure courts are taking into account the vulnerability of young people when punishing those who target our schools .''

London: Drug dealers in the U.K. who target schools or get children to act as couriers will face stiffer jail terms under a new law which came into force this week. Police have also been given powers to request x-rays from suspects they believe may have swallowed cocaine or heroin to avoid detection. They too could spend more time in prison if it turns out they did ingest drugs or tried to hide them in their body cavities.

Under the U.K.'s Drugs Act 2005, which came into effect on January 1 2006, officers can hold suspected drug ``mules'' for 192 hours, as opposed to the previous 96 hours, to allow extra time for drugs to pass through their systems.

The Government says the tougher measures are part of a clampdown on those selling illegal drugs on the streets of Britain.

``The damage caused to individuals and families by drugs can be devastating,'' said Paul Goggins, the minister responsible for drugs policy.

``Drug misuse can ruin lives and we're determined to tackle this by putting more drug dealers behind bars and getting more addicts into treatment. The new measures will make sure courts are taking into account the vulnerability of young people when punishing those who target our schools to sell drugs to children and crack down on those who swallow or hide drugs to escape justice.''

The new legislation amends the U.K.'s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act to enable judges to view as aggravating factors the sale of drugs near schools during school hours or use of under-18s as couriers.

Police say pushers often use younger teenagers to carry drugs, and in some cases primary schoolchildren.

In Gloucestershire, south-west England, officers came across one case where a dealer sent his four-year-old daughter out of the house with a bag of heroin to drop for an addict. Detective Sergeant John Roberts, head of a Gloucestershire policing priority unit tackling the drugs problem, said the involvement of such a young child was rare, but dealers routinely used 12- or 13-year-olds, often their own children.

It was also becoming more common for dealers to carry small wraps of heroin between their buttocks, known as ``plugging'', or in their mouths, so they could swallow them if stopped by police. Police now have the authority to request that the suspect has an x-ray or ultrasound scan, and courts will be able to draw their own conclusions if a defendant refuses.

Huge quantities of drugs are smuggled into the U.K. every year by mules paid to swallow dozens of packets of cocaine and heroin, and the new law allows 192 hours for these to be flushed through their systems.

But campaigners urge the authorities to bear in mind that many of the women in British prisons for drugs offences are of Caribbean and African origin and have acted as mules at great risk to themselves because of poverty at home. -

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004