Fighting crime by treating drug addiction, interview with Mike Trace

The United Kingdom has one of the highest levels of drug use in the European Union, and this has largely remained unchanged for close to 40 years, with cannabis being the most prevalent drug used in the country. During the 70s and 80s the nation faced an acute heroin addiction problem, and with it a wave of petty crimes by drug users looking for cash to pay for their addiction.

This was one of the main challenges to face Mike Trace when he became the UK´s Anti-drugs czar in the 1990s, at a time when the Tony Blair government decided to stop jailing heroin addicts for petty crime and have them instead join drug rehabilitation programs.

Trace, who is currently the director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, came to Brazil to discuss his experiences with the emerging Brazilian Commission on Drugs and Democracy, describing the strategies the British government used to lower crime rates generated by heroin addicts in the 90s.

You mentioned heroin addiction boosted crime rates, what exactly happened?

What I mentioned is nothing like a wave of violent crime, neither do we have violent crime today. We do not have high homicide rates nor more serious crimes associated with the drug market, but we did have petty crimes committed by addicts to obtain the drug. A study allowed us to conclude that house break ins, street robberies, and car thefts were committed in their majority by drug addicts, so that drug policies at the time focused on moving these people out of the justice system towards the health care system.

What is the process?

Each police station in the UK has a person in charge of evaluating drug use, so that anyone who is stopped for drugs possession goes to the police station and receives an evaluation. Our police officers are the greatest recruiters of patients for the health care system, our police sends out over half the people undergoing treatment for drug addiction in the country.

Does that mean special training for the police?

It has now become part of their work. It’s the most gratifying part of their work, to send people with drug addiction to treatment, instead of arresting the same people over and over again. As a result the police has to deal with less street crime and also feels the satisfaction of having helped to rehabilitate drug addicts.

How well has the strategy worked?

We have lower crime levels. It is very positive to have the police and health services working together. The problem is that we still have a high level of drug use in our society; what we have been able to tackle are some of the consequences of using drugs.

Has drug use increased among youths?

It is stable for now, but it has always been high. We have one of the highest levels of drug use in Europe.

How many drug users are there in the United Kingdom?

According to recent surveys, approximately 5 million people have used drugs in the last few months. This does not mean that they are all frequent drug users, but that they have recently used one drug or another. Of these 5 million, 350 thousand are problem addicts, and half of these 350 thousand are involved in criminal behaviour.


How many of them are in government health care programs as an alternative to prison sentences?

Well, this has been our main concern, and it is what we have focused in our work over the past 10 years. Of these 350 thousand drug addicts, about 210 thousand people are being given social assistance. We have created a large treatment system capable of satisfying this demand, so that over half of the problematic drug users are being helped.

Where do the resources for these health care programs come from, and which experiences could be replicated in gathering funds for this purpose?

The funds come from the national government, this was at first a political decision taken by the national government, that of deciding to invest in this sector. Investments have tripled over the past 10 years. At first we invested 250 million pounds a year, starting in 1998, which was when we took office in the government. We currently invest 800 million pounds a year. It is a significant figure. We have created the budget, it was new money, and at the time the government had the resources to do it, but I believe this is no longer the case.

Now, if we want to make bigger investments, we will have to look for other financial sources. I am describing a period in which the government was very concerned with making social investments. As a consequence of such investments, we have been able to generate savings, because we have both less health and criminal problems resulting from drug use, so that the money that we would have spent on such problems has been saved.

When decriminalizing users was proposed for the first time, how did the public react?

The public received the basic principle very well, that is: that there are many addicts and it does not make any sense making their lives harder by throwing them in jail. The only way to improve the behaviour of these people is to give them some kind of support, and this approach was welcomed in many circles in society. It was the nature of the treatment offered that raised the most controversy. If the public thinks the treatment is not sufficiently demanding, that it is too permissive with addicts, it withdraws its support. In general people want treatment to send a message that “it is wrong to use drugs and it is not right for an addict to continue his or her lifestyle”. Public opinion called for treatment that was harsh and demanding.

Did this policy come at a political price for the Blair government, or for you and your team?

Not really. It was easy to approach the public and say “we will invest a lot of money in these programs with the goal of reducing street crime”, it was easy and positive. It has become more difficult over time because the budgets are tigher and each cent is evaluated, and that is fair. Even from the point of view of addicts – if we offer them treatment that is very demanding – it still makes much more sense than spending money on persecuting street crime and on jails. This pragmatic approach has already been assimilated by citizens in the UK.

Perhaps this pragmatic approach is easier for some societies than for others where the debate is still a moral one...

Well, I believe that one thing that can be done by the Brazilian Commission on Drugs and Democracy is to lead the debate on offering medical treatment to users, that not jailing addicts is does not mean being tolerant with drug use, that it is simply a more pragmatic way to use public funds to deal with health and security problems. I am sure that the Brazilian public would open up to this perspective, but it takes time and it is a process.

Did the process in the United Kingdom involve changing legislation to implement harm reduction programs?

We did not need to change any laws to direct drug users away from the criminal system and into the health care system. We are involved in reforming legilslation over the past 10 years specifically on cannabis, and on this subject it has been a mess, and it has not been a particularly positive experience.

Cannabis is heavily used in the United Kingdom, and of those estimated 5 million drug users I mentioned before, the majority use only cannabis, - that makes it a very big topic. Although there was no specific strategy for it in our drug policy, we soon found that we were spending a lot of resources arresting  cannabis users, which lead us to reform the law in 2004, downgrading cannabis and freeing the police to focus on problem addicts and drug sellers. Since then the cannabis classification issue has become ideologically contentious,with a back and forth in parliament comparable to a soccer match.

Those who would be harsher against drug use say that cannabis must be classified with stronger restrictions, while others think it ought be classified as a less problematic substance. The debate is around symbols.


Translated by Lis Horta Moriconi

Written by Andrea Domínguez

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