“It’s pretty unguarded, pretty open,” says Brian Paddick, looking at the Dictaphone as it is switched off. His eyes are still reddened. After decades of giving politically careful, personally bulletproof interviews, his self-control has in the last hour snapped.
“So treat me gently,” he says.
Paddick was once the highest-ranking gay police officer in Britain, the commander of the London borough of Lambeth who became the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police — one of the most senior roles in policing. But in 2007 he switched stripes for robes, running twice for mayor of London before being made a baron in the House of Lords.
Today the uniforms are all gone. Paddick, 60, sits at a table in a long-sleeved grey T-shirt, ravines sunk into his cheeks, describing in full, for the first time, losing his former partner to the chemsex drug GHB.
He worries about doing so, about the family of the man he lost, about what people might assume about him — that maybe he too was caught up in this extreme sex and drugs scene — but refuses to let this stop him.
In the years of press attacks on Paddick — for being “soft” on drug enforcement (thanks to his policy of not bringing charges against cannabis users), for being open about his sexuality (“an icon of our moral decadence,” said the Daily Mail), for acting at times entirely unlike police officers and politicians are expected to — not even homophobic tabloid newspapers ever called him a coward.
“I’m rapidly approaching the stage where I couldn’t care less what people think of me,” he says.
What Paddick does care about, however, is an issue that is escaping the attention of the authorities: the number of gay men dying from GHB, the drug that killed his ex-boyfriend. He wants people to know how it devastated his life by ending his ex’s, and how many more there are like him. How urgent the need is for action.
GHB (and GBL, its other formulation) is usually referred to simply as G, and is used alongside crystal methamphetamine and mephedrone to euphoric and disinhibiting effect, heightening sex between two or more people, often at private chemsex parties.
But G is unlike other drugs: The potent anaesthetic is the easiest to fatally overdose on; the difference in dose between a high and death is minuscule. It can be used to rape and to kill. Yet despite it being illegal and evidence suggesting hundreds if not thousands have died, no one knows the total number of fatalities.
“The whole system, whether it’s the law, the police, or the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service], needs to be focused on saving people’s lives rather than social control,” says Paddick, “because if we’ve learnt anything about the so-called war on drugs it is that it doesn’t work.”
In the two hours before the recording device goes off, Paddick reveals so much it is as if in this tragedy every part of his life meets: why the behaviour of the press prevented him speaking out properly before; why he never felt good enough because he was gay; which public figure advised him not to come out; and how, when his personal life kept crashing, he could rely only on his public, professional one.
All of which is what brings him to talk, finally, about one man: Michael.
They met on a tube train in the late 1990s. “I got off a stop before I should have done because he got off, if you know what I mean,” says Paddick, eyes flashing with knowing mischief. This was in the days before Grindr and internet dating, when street cruising — strangers’ eyes locking in mutual understanding – led to a million brief encounters.
It was years before they met again. In 2001, when Paddick was commander of Lambeth and Michael was working for a fashion label, they were both swimming at the same pool in central London. “Things developed,” he says. “He was a lovely guy.” They quickly moved in together.
Michael was a party boy: beloved on the club circuit, endlessly sociable and fashionable, with drugs never far away, but which never became an addiction.
“Michael knew everything there was to know about drugs,” Paddick says. As an aside, he mentions a night they spent in the now-closed club Action, in Vauxhall — for years the epicentre of the gay drug scene. “We were standing in the corner of this big room and a friend of his came up and said to him, ‘Darling, do you mind moving your boyfriend? This is where the dealers operate and he’s putting all the customers off.’”
Paddick avoided drugs completely, the risk being prohibitive for someone so high profile and high ranking in the police. (It was Paddick who spoke on behalf of the police service when Princess Diana died; Paddick too when terrorists exploded four bombs on London’s public transport system in 2005). But it was while they were together that a former boyfriend of the police commander sold his story to a newspaper, accusing Paddick of smoking cannabis.
It was, says Paddick, a lie that led to the Mail on Sunday, which had bought the interview for £100,000, then having to pay him damages. But the damage to his reputation and career, including being sidelined into a desk job during a disciplinary investigation, was substantial. Michael supported him throughout.
“It was a great relationship,” he says. “To have someone who you can talk to about anything without worrying is rare. And that’s who Michael was.”
But the stress from the kiss ’n’ tell story led, in part, to them breaking up in 2005, after four years together. After the split, once the ensuing acrimony had dissolved, something else arose from it: They became best friends. “Although we weren’t intimate in the second phase of the relationship, we were even closer emotionally,” he says.
For the next eight years, as Paddick left the police for politics, there were just two people he relied on for support: his mother and Michael. “I spoke to Mum every day on the phone, and I spoke to Michael about everything you can’t talk to your mother about.”
As Paddick’s career and personal life bloomed — meeting and marrying his new boyfriend, Petter Belsvik, in 2009 — Michael’s wilted. His job became part-time, and then redundant. He never found another job. He never found another boyfriend.
“He was always very bubbly,” says Paddick, “but underneath... I can’t imagine he was in a good place.”
It was Michael’s twin brother who phoned Paddick one day in early summer 2013. Michael and Paddick had seen each other only a few days before.
“Do you want to come and say goodbye to Michael?” the brother said. Paddick had no idea what he was talking about. “I said, ‘What do you mean, come and say goodbye?’ And he said, ‘He’s on a life-support machine in University College Hospital.’”
Paddick raced to the hospital, where he found Michael lying in the intensive care unit with his brother and mother at his side.
“He was brain dead,” he says. “Tubes everywhere. There was a debate about when do you turn the machine off and should he donate his organs. We didn’t really know what had happened until the inquest.”
“I was just very angry with him — for being so stupid.”
Paddick is talking quickly, rattling through the events of that day, avoiding alighting on a moment or memory. He stops only when asked what he thought when he received that call.
“I guessed it might have been drugs,” he says, “and I was just very angry with him — for being so stupid.” Paddick’s voice starts to crack. He inhales and continues.
Within 12 hours they jointly decided to switch the machines off. “The doctors said there was no hope,” he says. What was that like, to see him die — to lose him?
Paddick tries to speak, beginning a sentence twice before attempting another. “You start thinking, ‘Would he still be alive if I was still with him?’”
At this, Paddick breaks down. He fights to regain composure.
“You start blaming yourself: ‘Was he going to sex parties because he wanted to escape from the reality he was in?’ And, ‘It would have been a very different reality if we’d stayed together.’ All of that stuff. You try to protect yourself by saying he was just stupid. It wasn’t the first stupid thing he had done.”
At the inquest several weeks later, at St Pancras coroner’s court, the story emerged of what happened that night.
“He’d gone to a sex party. One of the people hosting the party gave evidence at the inquest: Michael had turned up and said he was going to the bathroom to take some G. Having taken it, he came back into the room and said that he’d made a mistake and had forgotten that he’d already taken some before he came out, but that if he made himself sick he’d be OK.”
Michael went to the bathroom to regurgitate the second dose of GHB, before returning to the party. “He said he had thrown up and would be OK.” But he wasn’t.
He lay down on a sofa and started snoring, prompting the other men at the party to move to another room. As the party’s host described this to the inquest, Paddick says, the coroner interrupted the evidence and told the hearing: “For future reference, if someone has taken GHB and they start snoring, that’s when to call the ambulance, because that’s a sign their respiratory system is shutting down.”
The coroner, says Paddick, seemed so used to hearing cases of gay men who die in this way that it was now “routine”.
The other men at the party did not know that snoring was a telltale sign. They thought he was sleeping. When they returned to the room he was lying in, Michael had stopped breathing. They phoned an ambulance.
“The ambulance worked on him for half an hour at the scene and managed to get him restarted and got him to hospital, but they reckon he hadn’t been breathing for about an hour,” says Paddick. “There’s no way back from that.”
“He hadn’t been breathing for about an hour. There’s no way back from that.”
Even now, he struggles to accept what happened; how someone so knowledgeable about drugs could have made such a rookie mistake — forgetting, double-dosing, thinking that you could simply make yourself sick.
“It just shows how dangerous the drug is,” says Paddick. Indeed, the few statistics available suggest most of those dying are not young, naïve users, but men in their thirties, often in conjunction with other drugs. Connoisseurs.
The loss is more than Paddick seems able to explain — but he tries to describe what Michael meant to him. “I still loved him; I relied on him,” he says. “Things haven’t always been easy for me and to have someone like that who understood me, knew me so well, for so long, and who was gay, to be able to sit and talk to him was a very important part of my life, which I’ve never got back.”
Paddick didn’t allow himself time to grieve. He says he distracted himself with work; he was made a baron and introduced to the House of Lords a month later. “I tried to carry on as if nothing had happened,” he says.
Three months after Michael died, Paddick lost his mother. The shock was too much.
“I’d lost my support network,” he says, “and I’ve never really got it back. It’s left me vulnerable. I probably need some help working through that, even though it’s been five years now.”
The problem was not only the double loss, or that Paddick avoided dealing with it; it was also that he didn’t feel he could talk about what happened to Michael.
“Because of the shame around it, because of the illegality,” he says. “Having been through that kiss ’n’ tell story of being accused of being a drug user, you’re wary about admitting your association with someone who died from a drug overdose. People think, ‘Oh, he must have been a drug user then if he was living with this bloke for so long.’”
Now, however, Paddick feels such remorse over his silence that when asked what he would say to Michael if he could talk to him, he says: “I should apologise to him for not doing something earlier, not standing up and speaking about it before to prevent the same thing happening to someone else.”
So what should be done? First, he says, is education. The government should launch a “massive publicity programme” to inform people of the dangers of GHB, specifically surrounding the dosing problem. One that conveys the perilous spike as doses mount: “one portion, ecstasy; two portions, in and out of consciousness; three portions, death.”
“I tried to carry on as if nothing had happened.”
“I think the solution is for there to be honest, objective information made available as early as possible,” he says.
The trouble, he acknowledges, is that some of those who died did know the dangers, and many in this demographic keep silent.
“The difficulty with the LGBT community and drugs is people have felt we get enough stick as it is without admitting that we have a drug problem as well,” he says. GHB use, meanwhile, continues to soar. “When I go dancing and people ask for a swig of my water, they always ask me if it’s only water. That’s how prevalent it is and that’s how dangerous it is, because if I had GHB in the water and didn’t want to admit it and the person had already taken some, then that could prove fatal.”
Others are actively concealing its effects, he says. “Nightclub owners have not wanted to lose their licences and would rather drag unconscious people from their clubs and dump them on the pavement outside than have medics in the building or call an ambulance to the venue.”
Instead, he says, what is needed is more information — specifically, data on the numbers of people dying. This information is currently absent because toxicologists do not routinely screen for GHB after a sudden death. When they do, it is because they have had to specially request the test. Even then, if it is too long after the death the chemical can disappear from the body, untraceable.
“It’s a nightmare,” he says. “And we don’t know how big a nightmare it is. Until you know the extent of the problem you can’t take effective action.”
The law surrounding GHB doesn’t help either, he says. Currently GHB and GBL are both classified as class C drugs, the lowest rung, along with steroids and sedatives: lower than cannabis, which kills almost no one.
“Why on earth is GHB a class C and ecstasy a class A?” he says. “The whole thing is a complete mess. I don’t know anybody who when considering what drug to use on a night out looks up to see what class it’s in and therefore what the potential penalty is.”
But on the question of legality itself, Paddick is stumped. He says that in general “prohibition doesn’t work” and mocks his own former police force for pretending otherwise. When a huge seizure of narcotics is made and emblazoned across the media, it is, he says, “a PR stunt” that is merely a “morale booster for the police and a shot in the arm for those in government who advocate that prohibition is the only way”. It does not reduce the amount of drugs, he says. “The country is awash with drugs and the activities of the police to try to curb it is [King] Canute versus the incoming tide.”
GHB, however, is so uniquely dangerous that Paddick wonders whether there could be a case for it being the only illegal drug, before suggesting that regulating it could enable efforts to reduce its harm. “You could potentially see a solution where if you legalised all drugs and you got your GHB from a pharmacy that you [the authorities] could colour the liquid, so that you could see if there was any GHB in the water, and what sort of concentration.” He also hopes that someone creates a safer alternative to it.
“I don’t have all the answers around legislation,” he says. But what he is sure about is what the government needs to do to shift the police into better managing the problem. Currently, many gay men who use GHB and experience a crime within a chemsex setting (in particular sexual violence) don’t report it for fear of being themselves subject to a police investigation for using an illegal substance.
The Home Office, therefore, needs to instruct the police and CPS to “say [publicly] that our priority is to look after victims of sexual assault and save lives rather than prosecute people for the possession of drugs,” he says. “Then the police and the CPS will change.”
But even then, he says, there is a huge amount of work that community policing still needs to do to quell the “history of animosity” between police and LGBT people. When approached by BuzzFeed News, the Metropolitan police said, "Chemsex is a lifestyle choice and the Met does not condone the taking of drugs," but that since the 2016 trial of serial killer Stephen Port, who used GHB to rape and kill his victims, "the Met has taken steps to enhance understanding amongst officers." This includes a "toolkit", a "checklist document" and extra training.
Paddick remains unconvinced. Do the police today understand the LGBT community?
“No,” he says, sighing, and suggests that simply having high-ranking police officers who come out isn’t enough. “They need to be part of the community.”
Which leads directly to Cressida Dick, the commissioner of the Metropolitan police: Britain’s most senior police officer, who is an out lesbian.
Before Paddick came out in 2001 they discussed it. “We were on a six-month residential course together and I was debating whether to go public about my sexuality,” he says. “I was already open within the [police] service by that stage. And she was telling me not to.”
This was, he says, at a time when he also knew that she was a lesbian. So why did she tell him not to? He says she told him he would “just be known as the gay police officer rather than for anything else you’ve done”.
“And to some extent she was right,” he says. “I did the press conference following the 7/7 bombings and the next day, a box in the Daily Mail [said]: ‘Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick, most senior openly gay police officer whose ex-partner made allegations that…’”
The chain of events Paddick then describes arches right round to Michael’s death.
“The kiss ’n’ tell story wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been openly gay,” he says, suggesting that it is unlikely the newspaper would have revealed his sexuality because to do so would be a breach of privacy laws. And it was this story, accusing him of drug use and linking him to drug users, that contributed to Paddick keeping quiet about Michael’s death.
There was something else swirling around this, however: Paddick’s own shame about his sexuality. As he talks more about losing both Michael and his mother, about self-worth and its connection to chemsex drugs, he admits something few out public figures do.
“She was very proud,” says Paddick about his mother, citing her seeing him being sworn into the House of Lords, “but I was always thinking at the back of my mind that I was never really good enough for Mum because I was gay.”
Paddick summarises his sense of how his mother saw him. “For things to be perfect,” he says, “I would have been straight... So no matter what I did, no matter what I achieved, I couldn’t be straight for my mum.”
This recent realisation unlocked, he says, “the nub of all of the lack of self-esteem” he feels.
To unlock the same across the LGBT community would transform its relationship with drugs, he says — and therefore with chemsex. “There needs to be a lot more put into helping particularly gay men with self-esteem, self-worth issues.”
Despite all the legal and political victories for LGBT people in recent years, a fundamental deficit of self-worth persists, he says, that “draws vulnerable people into that [chemsex] scenario. It’s a perfect storm.”
“I was never really good enough for Mum because I was gay.”
But those left by its wreckage, like Paddick himself who did not want photographs or identifying details about Michael in this article, like families across Britain who receive a call like his, often stay silent for fear of speaking ill of the dead.
What, then, would Paddick want people to also know about Michael?
He smiles, his angular face suddenly enlivened. “Michael was always positive,” he says, as if seeing him in the room now. “You always felt better having met him.”