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“This is the greatest social justice issue of our time” – An interview with ex-undercover police officer Neil Woods

James Angove, Features Editor, speaks to ex-undercover police officer Neil Woods about the war on drugs, police tactics and his talent at buying crack

Image: Neil Woods

A CRACK deal isn’t the beginning of your typical career. But for Neil Woods, who worked for 14 years as an undercover police officer in the drugs squad, scoring class A substances from dealers came to define a successful career. “I finally found something in the police I was pretty good at” he explains. And good he was. After all, in a job as dangerous as undercover police work, merely to survive is a sign of skill. But Woods positively thrived in the role, helping to train other officers and being sent all over the country to the frontline of the war on drugs. Indeed, he calculates that he was involved in putting people in prison for a total of over 1000 years. Yet speaking to him now, he is absolutely certain that the war is failing. In fact, Woods is now the Chairman of the organisation Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK, which lobbies for drug policy reform. So why would someone with a successful, albeit risky, profession choose to abandon their career in order to destroy the very war he spent so long fighting? Another statistic perhaps gives us some indication. Despite his prolific undercover activities, Woods tells me that he only ever interrupted the drug flow in any city for around two hours.

This touches on one of the reasons why some are now beginning to question current drug policies. Simply put: they don’t work. Current laws surrounding drugs do not prevent people from buying those drugs and they do not prevent young people coming into contact with drugs. Woods asserts that “it’s easier for teenagers to get hold of cannabis than it is alcohol” and despite its ring of sensationalism, it appears that this claim holds true. Evidence from a national survey conducted by thinktank Volteface found that 44% of 13-18 year olds said it was ‘extremely easy’ for them to get cannabis for free or find a dealer or friend who would sell it. Only 23% said the same was true for alcohol.
But crucially, for Woods and others who have joined the campaign for drug reform, the failure of the war on drugs stretches far beyond ineffectiveness: the policy actively causes harm. Research consistently shows that around two thirds of problematic drug users suffered childhood physical, sexual or emotional abuse. Yet making criminals out of people who struggle with substance addiction problems does nothing to address the underlying trauma, which some of these people are self-medicating to deal with. Instead, it makes their lives worse. This is something Woods is all too familiar with. In his line of work, Woods would approach addicts and use them to gain access to the gangsters. “I would pick on vulnerable people and manipulate them” he explains, though even early in his career he was aware of the harm this could cause. “I knew I was putting them at increased risk because they were the numpty that made the introduction. I realised that coming into contact with me their lives were going to be worse off – because they were people that needed help. But I still carried on doing it because at the end of the operation, six months later, I always caught vicious gangsters and put them in prison”

“I realised that the reason that the gangsters I was meeting were getting more and more vicious, was me – And people like me”

As time went by, Woods found himself dealing with more and more violent criminals, who were responding to the actions of police by working increasingly hard to intimidate and silence anyone they came into contact with. He cites the example of The Burger Bar Boys, who operated a crack cocaine and heroin gang in Northampton in 2004 and “were using rape as a reputation builder, just to make themselves more terrifying.” “This is the way it was going” he explains, making the analogy to an arms race in which escalation is the inevitable conclusion. “I realised that the reason that year after year, the gangsters I was meeting were getting more and more vicious, was me. And people like me.”

Although a cumulative realisation by his own admission, Woods asserts that there came a moment in 2007 that gave him the push to leave undercover policing for good. “When I was in Brighton, the police had been using the tactic too much and they’d be using it in very unimaginative fashion. So the gangs there had developed the defence mechanism of using a proxy dealer who was a homeless person and they were controlling them with fear and murder. They were saying to them “you’re now our proxy dealer, if you bring anyone close to us and we’ll kill you.” And to me that was just the vision of the future.”
After leaving the police, Woods’ experiences left their mark on him and he speaks with open regret at his role: “I look back on all of those people I caused harm to and the end didn’t justify the means at all.” This honesty is part of what makes Woods such a compelling proponent of reform. He is someone who has been deeply affected by his actions in a job that he believed for so long was right. Having left the police, Woods developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though he emphasises that this came about as a result of more than the things he had seen and been through. He talks with admirable frankness about how his PTSD was partially a result of his own actions. “The anxiety I was having was not about the times I thought I was going to die. It was about the people I’d caused harm to.”

The trouble with the war on drugs, Woods asserts, is just that. It’s framed as a war. He suggests that he ended up following “the mentality of the battlefield” in the job, providing an analogy of a general who accepts losses to his troops because he believes that he’ll eventually win the battle. “That’s what I’d been doing by causing harm to those individuals. I was justifying that [to myself] because the ends justified the means.” “Weaponising empathy, that’s what you do as an undercover cop.” Here Woods is resolute and a degree of outrage creeps into his usually calm and measured tone. “That kind of mentality has no place in civil policing at all. Where else in policing would you even think in those terms?” Woods continues, saying that the “the situation that we are in, where the most vulnerable people in society are the people who are most affected, is entirely the creation of drug policy. Entirely.” And this, he says, is the one thing that he wants people to understand.

“Weaponising empathy, that’s what you do as an undercover cop”

Slowly though, the current policy of prohibition is being dismantled in countries across the world. Most obviously this brings to mind the nine states in the US that now have completely legalised cannabis, a movement that started in 2012 when voters in Colorado and Washington voted to legalise cannabis for recreational use. But more significantly is the example of Portugal, which passed a law decriminalising possession for all drugs in 2001. The 20 years prior had seen the country struggle with a heroin epidemic of cataclysmic proportions, and it was estimated that nearly one in every 100 people had a problematic relationship with the substance. Punishing users, however, proved counter-productive and the nation’s prisons were soon filling up with people who had been punished for drug-related offences. Consequently, the recommendation to decriminalise was made, approved and implemented – to transformative effects. Since decriminalisation, the rate of drug-related deaths has been slashed more than tenfold and now stands at three deaths per million, one of the lowest in the European Union. By comparison, the same statistic in the UK stands at nearly 50 deaths per million. Moreover, new cases of HIV infection, which stood at 104.2 new cases per million in 2000, have been cut to just 4.2 cases per million (as of 2015). “The evidence is there” Woods confirms, “and if you talk about the harms of drug use, the first measure of harm is of course drug deaths and they have brought that down.” For Woods this provides the best argument against people who say that decriminalisation will end up harming more people.

But what about those fearful of a regulated market for drugs? Woods has an answer for this too, citing a drug we are all familiar with. “Tobacco use is now at its lowest rate since 1940. And that’s only been achieved because it is a regulated product that isn’t in the realm of criminality. You can have no control over a substance whilst it’s being controlled by criminal enterprise.”

Compare this to the market for cannabis, which is entirely controlled by those outside of the law. This has recently led to the development of a tactic known as county lines, which involves the exploitation of children to transport and sell drugs. “Teenagers are recruited through the teenage cannabis market. I’ve seen it happen” says Woods. Thus the potential “regulation of cannabis will have a huge impact on the protection of children and stifling impact on organised crime.”

But for Woods, nothing can change without the public. “The most important thing is changing the attitudes of the public” he says. “Social justice issues change through social change, so what we do is grow that movement through speeches, social media, books, and the Stop and Search podcast.” But just how important is this to Woods, a man who knows more about this war than almost anyone else in Britain? The emphatic reply: “This is the greatest social justice issue of our time.”

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