Pubdate: Tue, 30 Mar 2004
Source: Independent  (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Author: Johann Hari


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

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

"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
n 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

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

"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. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake