What’s it like to be on the front line of the ‘war on drugs’? To be the one who enforces the punitive policies? What must it be like to later realise that you’re whole career did not help win the war on drugs, but actively added to the compounded mess that lays heavy on communities?
As a police officer for 23 years, Neil Woods spent 14 of those deep undercover, posing as someone with addiction problems. He now dedicates all of his time to raise awareness to the colossal failures of our global drugs laws and advocates that we treat those with dependency problems with care, respect, and with health-based interventions over punishment.
Neil Woods has released his memoir, Good Cop, Bad War, and hopes to start a conversation on the need for drug law reform from an undercover police officer’s perspective.
I first met Neil Woods at a drug law reform conference. Knowing an undercover drugs detective was watching me give a speech, I scanned the audience, trying to spot who it could be. What kind of character chooses a career of gang infiltration, treading an encumbered path, losing your own identity in efforts to catch gangsters?
I was surprised when Neil came forward to introduce himself. Far from the storybook cop that I expected to meet, Neil struck me as a quiet and obviously humble individual. He had an understated charm and blisteringly apparent knowledge. Neil was keen to begin his journey of what he would possibly describe as atonement. I was acutely aware that Neil’s story was fascinating to the point of unfettered intrigue and voyeurism.
It was clear that Neil’s allegory should be heard, and it didn’t take long for community interest groups and the media to take an interest in his story. Culturally, we seem to be fascinated by works of fiction such as The Wire, Trainspotting, Breaking Bad, we’re enthralled by drugs and the overlapping cultures – but does real life differ from dramatisation?
In his career on the streets, he witnessed beatings, stabbings, had swords held to his own throat, and was in grave danger on a near daily basis, all in the name of policing our drug laws. This is not the kind of work you train for; it’s the very definition of ‘on the job’ and one mistake could well be your last. Not to mention the rather taboo subject of police corruption. Where there’s money, there’s corruption, and with a global trade of around $320billion per year, it’s easy to see how drug money permeates every level of society.
Unprecedented insight comes from being at the coalface of the ‘war on drugs’ – Neil witnessed first-hand that 90 per cent of drug use is non-problematic, a figure which the UN also recognises, and yet we wield a rather large stick at those who consume certain drugs. Costing around £7 billion per year to the British tax payer, efforts to criminalise our way out of a problem are only made worse by the punitive polices which we try and apply.
With an intimate understanding of those who use drugs such as heroin, Neil is more than aware that those who do use problematically do so, almost in all cases, due to some trauma in their lives. This is why Neil now Chairs Law Enforcement Against Prohibition – LEAP UK – an organisation comprised of fellow figures from law enforcement. Neil and his LEAP colleagues use their vast experience to treat those who use drugs with compassion and without judgement. He’s also an exponent of maintenance treatment such as the Switzerland’s Heroin Assisted Therapy – which has an 80 per cent success rate in weaning consumers off of heroin, but also, perhaps more importantly, respects people enough to take control of their own usage, with safe supplies, clean needles, and welcoming environments. Society as a whole also benefits – acquisitive crime, such as burglary, has dropped as much as 93 per cent in similar trials.
In one of the standout sentences in Neil’s memoir, which is a brutally honest account from start to finish, Neil states, “I know about the fight of drug cartels; I’ve put my life on the line for that fight. I’ve earned my right to speak out on this.” And that is indeed hard to argue with.
With a back of an envelope assessment, Neil believes he’s collectively put people behind bars for up to and around a thousand years. This sounds an impressive tally, an indicator that it’s quite possible to impact the war on drugs, but Neil also points out that it’s often the case that supply chains are only interrupted for as little as a couple of hours. The futility of extensive police operations, sometimes six months work, for a disruption of mere hours made Neil question his career as a drugs detective.
Based on this coarse assessment, Neil’s prosecution record of over a thousand years could well indicate that he interrupted supply chains for as little as 18 hours. And if drug laws weren’t already hard enough to keep on top of, we now have to contend with the Dark Web and e-commerce. Since the 2013 closing of Silk Road, the notorious online marketplace, transactions have tripled. Around $5 million in the US and £1.7 million in the UK went to online drug dealers, and an estimated $12-21 million a month in global drug revenues via cryptomarkets.
Organised crime is more often or not a response to police tactics. The disheartening and foreboding result is an increase in terror within communities. One way or another, we’re all affected by current drug laws. Neil’s memoir, Good Cop, Bad War reads like a page-turning thriller, fraught with all the dangers and espionage that we come to expect from our cop shows, but this is real life, on all of our doorsteps.
When those who have fought the ‘war on drugs’ come forward and dedicate their time to ending our current policies in favour of compassion, sensible, evidence-based reforms, which benefit us all, we’d be silly not to listen – and we’d be even more foolish not to act.
Good Cop, Bad War by Neil Woods and JS Rafaeli is published by Ebury Press and is available from August 18th.