How I lost my drugs war

While serving as Tony Blair's deputy drugs tsar, his enlightened policies were copied around the world. So why was Mike Trace hounded from his job, and vilified as a dangerous extremist? He tells his extraordinary story for the first time to Johann Hari
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The Independent Online

The story of Mike Trace's rise and fall is a parable of how drugs policy is formulated. He is one of the most widely respected narcotics experts in the world today. He has worked both at the Ground Zero of drug prohibition, with homeless addicts on the streets of London, and at the very top of the system, as Britain's deputy drugs tsar and as head of demand reduction at the United Nations.

When it came to formulating policy, Trace made a fatal error. His conversation is jammed with reference to academic studies and pilot programmes; he is a man addicted to evidence and hard facts. And there is no room for such a man in the distant corridors where drug prohibition is upheld today.

His story begins in Centrepoint on London's Shaftesbury Avenue in the early 1980s. "When I started working there, as a night worker, Centrepoint was basically the first place runaways to London ended up," he says. "We just tried to keep them out of harm's way for one, two, three nights. It quickly became clear to me that most of them were sufferers of abuse as children, and all of them came from classic multiply-deprived backgrounds. They were trying to escape their terrible experiences any way they could, usually with drugs.

"That time of my life gave me an attitude towards drug use that has always stayed with me. It's the symptom of other problems, especially social deprivation. Whenever I would hear people further up the system saying that drug use was a moral failing, evidence of degeneracy of some kind, I knew they were wrong. Once you've seen what happens on the streets, you aren't going to sign up to attacks on drug users."

Trace pioneered drug rehabilitation in British prisons in the 1980s, and turned the charity RAPT (Rehabilitation for Addicted Prisoners Trust) into a serious lobbying outfit as well as a provider of treatment. By the 1990s he was, in his own words, "the drug treatment, voluntary-sector type on all the government committees". When the Blair government, still humming "Things Can Only Get Better", decided in 1997 to appoint a drugs tsar to co-ordinate policy, Trace was an obvious candidate for the role.

"We all knew the Government had to appoint a policeman to please the Daily Mail readers, but to their credit the word went out that they wanted to balance that out with a deputy who was an expert from the field," he says. "They appointed me because they clearly understood that there is depth and complexity to the drugs issue."

At first, Trace insists, he was happy to work alongside Keith Hellawell, whose time as drugs tsar is now widely regarded as a failure - a period of ineffective, Draconian measures that were poorly thought through. But in the beginning, there was no clash of philosophies. "We both saw ourselves then as moderate liberals on drugs," he says. "We were both quite managerial about it: we believed that the best use of taxpayers' money wasn't to chase hundreds of thousands of cannabis users but to concentrate on addressing addiction problems and to offer treatment to users."

"During that first year, Keith was a pleasure to work with. We got on well," he says. "On the tricky political issue - what to do about cannabis - Keith and I were in agreement. He was quite liberal, and so was I. But we realised that the political situation in 1998 meant that the government didn't want us to move too fast on cannabis, because they were worried about a Middle England backlash. We agreed to put the issue on the back-burner for the first couple of years and concentrate instead on the drugs that do most harm."

Together they put together a broad policy document, "Tackling Drugs To Build a Better Britain", which was published in 1998. It advocates a harm reduction approach to addiction, and led to a considerable increase in the number of NHS prescriptions of methadone. The policy slashed crime rates. "I'm proud of that," Trace says. "It's now used around the world as a model. OK, there's a lot of mothering and apple pie in it, but it was a good plan. That was a good year. We were achieving things."

Everything seemed to be progressing well, but Hellawell's politics began to shift. "As the years went by, Keith obviously read the political runes and changed his mind. He was primarily motivated by politics, not policy. Somewhere along the line he decided that it would be better if he became a cannabis hardliner. He was gradually giving up on the principles we'd agreed to when we started, and I began to get quite cynical about his approach to the job."

Trace feels the change in government attitude towards drugs mirrored New Labour's drift to the right on a number of issues. "From 1997 to 1999, the discussions around the Cabinet sub-committee were quite good," he says. "They were about what resources we could invest to reduce the harm caused by drugs: sensible stuff. The New Labour enthusiasm in the early years was pretty genuine. We were sitting around with Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, and they were genuinely asking what the best way to reduce harm and reduce crime might be. Those were good years to be in government. People were open-minded."

"But then," he says, sipping hard on his coffee, "drugs policy drifted off and crime and punishment became an obsession, at the expense of harm reduction. They lost their nerve in 1999, and from then on it was all downhill."

Trace lost his job when the drugs tsar experiment was scrapped in 2000. Within a few years he was being accused of leading a dark internal conspiracy to subvert drugs policy at the very highest levels.

So what is his real attitude to drugs policy? Certainly, most legalisers I know do not regard him as one of their own. "To paint me as an extreme liberaliser - the way that the Daily Mail and other papers have - is just bizarre," he chuckles.

"All I say is we need to acknowledge a pretty basic fact: that it is not a good deal for the taxpayer when the police spend billions of pounds trying desperately to enforce the drugs laws against every last user. It's just not a good return on that investment. We've been trying that for 40 years, and it's clearly not working very well. I have to start from that premise."

"Nobody really knows what the best way to proceed is once you admit that," he says, "but I think the best route for Western democracies - who have high levels of drug use - is to admit that there is now a very large body of evidence that shows you aren't going to bring rates of use down through harsh penalties. Nor can education and prevention ñ no matter how good it is - end the problem. We just have to be honest about that. The evidence is overwhelming."

"You can't end drug use and you can't educate it away," he concludes. "If either of those tactics had a proven track record I would be a convert, but they don't work. What you can do, though, is reduce the harm that drugs do. So we need to move our investment away from enforcement and into harm reduction. The best use for our limited resources is targeted interventions on the most problematic use."

With this in mind he was approached in summer 2002 by Antonio Maria Costa, the new head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Costa wanted Trace to run his demand reduction programme, a position that would put him at the very heart of global drug strategy. It seemed, finally, that Trace had a real chance to effect radical change.

UNDOC had been a hardline prohibitionist outfit for decades, thanks to heavy pressure from America. The UN has had a formal commitment to reducing demand for drugs (and harm to users) since the late 1980s, but in practice all its efforts have been focused on policing, attacking criminal gangs and fumigating the drugs crops of very poor farmers in the Third World.

Trace's appointment seemed like a real turning point. Lauded by Costa as the new face of UN drugs policy, it seemed as though a small crack had appeared in the disastrous strategy of global prohibition. "I applied the same principles to the international scene that I applied at the British level," he says. "Indeed, it was even more stark at the UN. The organisation has invested hundreds of billions of dollars over the years in an attempt to eradicate a market in drugs. The market was small when it started and it's massive now. It didn't take a genius to figure out that it was time to reassess those tactics. To me, that didn't mean that we needed to dismantle the system entirely. It just meant that we needed an honest reassessment."

Just as it seemed that these sensible arguments were making headway, Trace was annihilated - by the Daily Mail. The newspaper published e-mails from the year before he started at the UN. It used them with characteristic sobriety. "Is This A Sinister Conspiracy To Get The World Hooked?", an entirely sane headline asked.

Trace, it seemed, was not an honest and internationally-respected expert concerned with reducing harm. No - he "was pulling the strings of a huge operation in which international activists were agitating covertly to manipulate government and public opinion... [and leading] a sinister liberal elite that has made a dope of Blunkett and [wants to] subvert UN laws".

The truth does not quite so closely resemble a Freddie Forsyth novel. After losing his job as deputy drugs tsar, Trace had been approached by billionaire philanthropist George Soros to put together plans for an international campaigning group which would lobby for the liberalisation of drugs policies.

"The Mail selectively quoted what I had said over the year I had been discussing this with Soros, to present it as some kind of conspiracy to undermine world order," he says. "Unfortunately my style gives ammunition to fire against me. I said jokingly in one e-mail to a friend - when I was trying to decide whether to take the UN job - that I might go for it so I could be a 'fifth columnist'. That was then quoted by the Mail as if it had been said seriously, as if there really was some organised conspiracy. It was completely insane."

Trace was gone within a week of the Mail's story being published. The idea that there is a liberal elite manipulating drugs policy is preposterous, the idea that Trace was masterminding it would be hilarious had it not had such devastating consequences for the "war on drugs".

"Basically, the truth is exactly the opposite," Trace says with weary exasperation. "I was a total exception. The vast majority of people behind the scenes are hardliners. At the top of the EU, at the top of the UN, at the heart of British government, I was the only person who had ever actually worked with drug users.

"At a typical UN meeting, four of the people round the table would be professional supply-side policemen or customs officials," he continues. "The other three would be diplomats. Not surprisingly, if you get people like that running the policy, they won't prioritise minimising harm for drug users and enhancing public health. The idea that they were all on side with me is science fiction."

Trace has not been replaced, and UNODC has been "restructured". The plan for a new world of has been indefinitely shelved. Costa's political capital is spent. The politics have reverted to what they were before: aggressive, all-out prohibition. "The people who don't want a review and don't want any reassessment of the current failing policies have won the diplomatic battle," Trace says. "We're back to the old mindset: anybody who questions the current policy is a friend of the drug dealer."

These days, Trace runs the Blenheim Project, a west-London centre for heroin addicts. Although he believes that incremental improvements in drugs policy will happen one day, he looks defeated.

The moral of Trace's story is stark: anybody with an interest in evidence as opposed to prohibitionist dogma, anybody with an belief in protecting drug users rather than screaming at them, is barred from formulating drug policy. If they get too close to power, they will be howled and beaten and bullied away. It appears that there is no place for rational thinking in the world of drug prohibition.