Former star undercover officer: we need a fully legal drugs market

A decade-and-a-half at the sharp end of British policing convinced ex-undercover drugs officer Neil Woods that fighting the drugs war is a futile, self-defeating and horrifically destructive failure.

Neil Woods
2 November 2016
Cocaine seizure, Southampton docks, 2011. Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Cocaine seizure, Southampton docks, 2011. Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.I spent 14 years as an undercover cop, infiltrating some of the most dangerous and violent drug gangs in Britain. Over this time I was stripped at gunpoint, had swords held to my throat, knives stuck in my groin, and put my life in acute danger more times than I can count. I was also very effective. Combined, my drug operations put people in prison for a total of well over a thousand years.

This decade-and-a-half at the bleeding edge of British policing led me to a profound and shattering conclusion: that the so-called 'war on drugs' – which I had dedicated so much of my life to fighting – is a futile, self-defeating and horrifically destructive failure. It victimises the most vulnerable in society and corrupts everything it touches. It must be abandoned as soon as possible in favour of a fully legalised and regulated drugs market.

This perhaps sounds like an extreme position for an ex-cop to take. I do not take it lightly. In the book Good Cop, Bad War I trace my own journey from the youthful, naïve idealism with which I first joined the police at 19, to how, recovering from PTSD, I finally felt compelled to leave the force in order to completely dedicate myself to campaigning for this change in policy.

The first seeds of doubt that led to my shift in perspective were planted about seven years into my undercover career. It all began with Ali.  

When they realised that Ali really was penniless and couldn’t pay, they took him to an old warehouse, tied him to a chair and poured acid over his knees.

I was deployed in Leicester, working my undercover identity as a homeless heroin user. Ali was one of the homeless I saw around town. He stuck out because he walked on crutches, but also because he was an intelligent, charming guy, who did an excellent trade selling the Big Issue, chatting and flirting with passersby like a true salesman. I figured he was my best bet to infiltrate my way up the supply chain. As I gained his trust, he told me his story.

Ali had become addicted to heroin in his native Glasgow, but had tried to get clean by moving down to London. Within months he had fallen into debt with a nasty gang, and was forced to become a mule and runner. Not knowing the tricks of the trade, he was soon arrested holding £2,000 worth of smack. The police offered Ali every opportunity to walk away from serious prison time in exchange for informing on his criminal bosses. He didn’t take any deal. He kept his mouth shut and did his three years like a soldier.

Ali assumed that having kept his silence, his old gang would help him find his feet on the outside. But the moment he was released, they scooped him up and declared that not only did he owe them £2,000 for the heroin he’d been busted with, but the time inside counted as interest. The total was now £4,000. When they realised that Ali really was penniless and couldn’t pay, they took him to an old warehouse, tied him to a chair and poured acid over his knees. They stood in a semi-circle watching him writhe as it burned its way through his kneecaps and tendons. Eventually they untied one of his hands so he could call an ambulance. But they made sure they waited long enough so that he would never walk properly again.

At the time, it wasn’t just the sheer horror of the story that stopped me in my tracks. I’d seen enough horror already. There was something else here – a realisation about how the 'war on drugs' functions. Only a few years previously, Ali’s assumption would have been absolutely correct, his gang would have respected him keeping his mouth shut. Now the rules had changed. This confirmed a trend I had already been noticing in my own operations. My job had been growing steadily more difficult, and the criminals I was chasing more paranoid and violent. On each deployment I was having to work a little harder, to take extra risks, and manipulate even more vulnerable addicts for introductions to their dealer.

Over 50% of inmates in British prisons are there for drug-related offences. Read that statistic again. Let it sink in.

There is a simple reason for both Ali’s experience and mine. It is because the 'war on drugs' is an arms race. The police get smarter and develop new tactics, and the only response for the gangsters is to get ever more savage – to instill more fear in potential witnesses, to take control of entire communities, to burn people with acid. There is never any potential for de-escalation. There is no other way this dynamic can play out. This is not incidental to the 'war on drugs', not a matter of tactics or strategy  – it is written into the source code. As the dealers learned our tactics, they responded in the only way they could – by becoming more violent, by spreading ever more terror and intimidation. 

Over my years undertaking undercover operations, I saw the arms race of the 'war on drugs' play out over and over again. In every new town or city I was deployed, I could trace, month-by-month, the downward spiral of police intervention, and the gangsters’ inevitable response. When beatings weren’t enough, they turned to murder. When our operations kept working, they instituted gang rape as a mode of punishment. Anyone who accidentally introduced a cop to a dealer would know that their girlfriend or sister could pay the price.

On every battlefield on which 'war on drugs' is fought, from the inner cities of Europe and the US, to the poppy fields of Afghanistan or the coca zones of Central America, this is how the conflict is structured. If you want a vision of the end game, just look at the dystopian brutality of Mexico, where every level of civil society has been corrupted by the 'war on drugs'.

This process is inevitable, and it is qualitatively different than any other aspect of organised crime. It’s a simple matter of economics. The global trade in illicit drugs is worth £347 billion a year, £7 billion in the UK alone. No other branch of criminality comes anywhere close. In fact, one could add together all the revenues of illegal gambling, racketeering, prostitution, and so on, and not even scrape the drugs trade. There is no way the gangsters are going to give this ground away without a fight – it is just too valuable. They will go to any length, stoop to any violence, to protect this market.

Simply put, the 'war on drugs' is very bad for law enforcement itself.

The drugs trade is the foundation on which all other branches of criminality rest. The drugs arms race has progressed so far that by now there is virtually no organised criminal activity that isn’t in some way drug-related. Leading my team of detectives was an endlessly repeated story: scratch the surface of a murder, you’d find a turf war between dealers or a gang protecting their supply chain; investigate a burglary, and nearly every time it will be a user stealing to feed their habit.

50% of all acquisitive crime in the UK is committed by problematic heroin users. Over 50% of inmates in British prisons are there for drug-related offences. Read that statistic again. Let it sink in. Every one of those prisoners means a family without a father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife or friend. Drugs policing in the UK alone costs £7 billion a year, yet it has proved consistently ineffective, counter-productive and inhumane. The costs, both human and financial, are too great – the policy must change.

But there is another way that the drugs war degrades society as a whole, one that as an ex-cop is particularly painful. Simply put, the 'war on drugs' is very bad for law enforcement itself.

The 'war on drugs' must end. It is a failed policy, an unjust policy, and a fundamentally immoral one.

In the late 1960s the clearance rate in murder cases in the United States was 90%. Then came the 'war on drugs'. By the mid-1970s murder clearances had dropped to 64% and have flatlined ever since – and this in an era of vast leaps forward in surveillance, digitisation and DNA technology. Put simply, one in three of America’s killers are getting away with murder. The key problem is that it’s simply much easier for police departments to chase stats by busting low-level users and dealers, than by hunting down real gangsters and solving serious crime. Not only does this serve to actually protect the big organised crime groups – but cops forget how to do real police work.

And the arms race of the 'war on drugs' has another, even darker effect on policing. I had several brushes with outright corruption over my years undercover – including spies in my own department who had been specifically recruited to join the police, go through the training, and pass on information about investigations. In every instance, the attitude I saw in my superiors was the same: “with this much money involved, how can corruption not happen?” Said money comes from one source only: the drug trade.

In the UK, there is a standing order from the Home Office to chief constables across the UK that their top priority must be to maintain public confidence in the police. The reasons are obvious: the moment people lose faith in the police, society breaks down. As a result, there are constant hushed rumours in police circles of stories of corruption being buried and soft-pedaled. My instinct is that if the public were to ever learn just how often the police are forced to shrug and say, "well, how can this not happen?" then support for drug prohibition would disappear very quickly.

The 'war on drugs' must end. It is a failed policy, an unjust policy, and a fundamentally immoral one. The drug war corrupts everything it touches. It corrupts the addicts who are forced to live in the shadows; it corrupts the gangsters whom the arms race forces into depths of brutality even they wouldn’t otherwise stoop to; and, most painful to me, it corrupts the police. Each day that politicians continue the 'war on drugs', it is not only a choice to make the vulnerable suffer for political convenience – it is a direct betrayal of the police themselves.

Legalise and regulate the supply of illicit drugs and you deprive the most vicious gangsters in the world of the £375 billion annual income that funds their operations.

Legalise and regulate the supply of illicit drugs and, at a stroke, you deprive the most vicious gangsters in the world of the £375 billion annual income that funds all of their operations. At a stroke you allow some of the most vulnerable people in society to seek help for their addictions, instead of being shoved into prison cells. And, at a stroke you allow the police to get back to doing the vitally important work they are actually trained for and can take real pride in.

I spent my professional life fighting on the frontlines of the 'war on drugs'. I know the harms that addiction can cause; I detest the cartels and gangsters. I also know that fighting to end the 'war on drugs' through my work with LEAP UK will do far more harm to these criminals than anything I ever accomplished as a cop.

Is Britain breaking up?

With Scotland voting on Thursday in an election that could lead to a second independence referendum and increased talk of a 'border poll' in Northern Ireland, could the United Kingdom be on the verge of breaking up? And why? Where does England fit in this story?

Join us for this free live discussion at 5pm UK time, 6 May

Hear from a panel of experts from across Britain's political divides about the union's past, present and future:

  • Sarah Creighton Writer and lawyer from Belfast
  • Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party MLA for South Belfast
  • Adam Ramsay openDemocracy main site editor
  • Richard Wyn Jones:Professor of Welsh Politics, Cardiff University
  • Chair: Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy UK investigations editor and author of 'The People's Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never be the Same Again'
Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData