I talk to Neil Woods, one of Britain’s most successful (ex) undercover police officers.
Neil’s personal experience as one of Britain’s most successful undercover officers deserves our respect and attention; he has played a key role in putting away numerous dealers for a collective total of over a 1,000 years. He survived the grave personal toll that brave officers can suffer in their losing fight against drugs gangs.
Having a knife to your throat, or being stripped naked at gunpoint can take a personal toll on the undercover officers who have tried to fight a war on drugs that can’t be won. Neil suffers from Post-Traumatic Street Disorder. Year after year the trade becomes more violent, as the police are more successful. The drugs war is an arms race. Police develop new tactics and drug gangs push back. Neil realised that the escalation by the gangs was a reaction to his work as an effective police officer.
County lines is the latest reaction by the gangs to that success. Use of children is another innovation – a result of police success. Not so easy for police to infiltrate using established means. Gangs see the children as very disposable. That is why some of the police want to increase the use of juveniles as police informants – child spies. Exposing this has been one of my big campaigns and is now the subject of legal action by a children’s charity.
Two things changed Neil’s personal view of the war on drugs. He got to know drug addicts and started to understand the traumas (often childhood abuse or neglect) that turned them towards drugs. He also realised that it was a war the police can’t win, despite all their success. In fact, the successes made things worse in the longer term.
Police now talk about ‘disruption’ not reduction. A stable market is less violent. Police often gather the low hanging fruit of dealers on streets, which thins it out, makes easier to create monopolies.
Drugs money has caused escalating violence on the streets and supports other forms of crime. It also provides the resources to finance endemic corruption within the authorities. Neil talks about how his instincts saved him from being betrayed by a fellow officer who had been planted into the police by a powerful gang.
Since prohibition started, the banned drugs have become stronger and cheaper. Neil had to take drugs on occasion as part of his cover. One packet “smelt like urine from a glue sniffing cat”. Legislation from the 1980s onwards has moved away from harm reduction towards a moralising agenda of criminality.
It’s no coincidence that Brixton Riots happened ten years after Misuse of Drugs Act. The police were given a war chest of powers that government Ministers expected them to use. Persecution of black people was driven by drug policy and a clamp down on cannabis. 90% of stop and search has been for drugs.
The police have been lumbered with this war on drugs. It’s a huge drain on resources. For example, it’s a big impact on murder detection rate since declaration of the war on drugs. Despite scientific and forensic advances, the murder clear-up rate is down.
Society is paying a big cost for the war on drugs. People in prison cost money. Authorities are damaged by the corruption of drugs money.
The way to win the War on drugs is to stop fighting. Regulate them. Treat each drug differently, so for example with Heroin you go to the doctor.
A recent survey shows that 59% of people want to decriminalise or regulate cannabis use. That shows how public understanding is running ahead of the politicians from the two main parties. A big change is urgently needed.