“I found John Lennon to be a very nice chap. And actually, a lot of what he said about drugs made real sense to me.”
It’s a little surprising to hear these words from the former cop who busted Lennon – along with George Harrison, Brian Jones, Dusty Springfield and many other pop stars – for cannabis back in the 1960s.
Norman “Nobby” Pilcher joined the Metropolitan Police’s original drug squad in 1967, just as drug use was emerging into the national consciousness and Britain’s War on Drugs was in its very earliest stages. His name quickly became synonymous with pictures of annoyed looking rock-stars being led away in handcuffs on possession charges.
So much so, in fact, that he became the UK drug war’s first celebrity police officer – lionised by the tabloid press, despised by the counterculture – and another stock character in the mythology of the endlessly mythologised “swinging 60s”. When the Beatles sing about “Semolina Pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower” in “I Am the Walrus”, it’s Pilcher they are taking the piss out of.
Before long, darker rumours began to circulate. How were the press able to appear at these rockstar busts at the same time as the drug squad? Was Pilcher colluding with journalists, swapping tip-offs for coverage to boost his profile? Was he actually corrupt, involved in the very drug rackets he was meant to be busting?
All of this came to a head in 1972, when Pilcher himself was charged with perjury, sentenced to four years in prison, and left the police in disgrace.
To this day, he insists he was innocent – and he wouldn’t be the first: the drug squads of the 1960s were notorious for planting evidence, beating up suspects and colluding with corruption. Still, the case was 50 years ago; any evidence proving either guilt or innocence is likely to have been lost to time.
Now, at 84 years old, Pilcher has written a memoir, Bent Coppers, in an attempt to “set the record straight”. And a lot of what he says is surprising – not least when it comes to his attitudes towards drugs and drug laws.
“We didn’t care about pop musicians smoking cannabis – we wanted to go after the dealers selling the stuff,” he insists. “But people from the Home Office came down and said, ‘These famous stars taking drugs are setting a bad example for the kids, and we want you to go after them.’ So, orders are orders – and that’s what we did. It all seemed a very silly approach to me – and I did make my feelings clear in a report I wrote.”
This is a far cry from the image of the implacable drug warrior, cruising around London, roughing-up hippies for kicks. But Pilcher goes further: “When I arrested John Lennon, we had a long chat while processing him, and we really got along. His view was that his body was his body, and he should be able to choose what he put into it – and I thought that was fair enough. I admired how he spoke his mind, and basically agreed with most of what he said.”
As for the press, Pilcher insists that far from colluding with them for coverage, he tried to avoid them at all costs. “The last thing I ever wanted was a load of journalists taking pictures of us – it got in the way of our work,” he says. “But someone in the squad must have been tipping them off for money, because they always seemed to be there. In the end, we had to put false records in our own day books in order to try and throw them off.”
This theme of having to falsify their own records in order to avoid internal corruption and surveillance is also how Pilcher explains the charges that were eventually levelled against his squad.
“My boss at the time, Vic Kelaher, and the commander, Wally Virgo, they were totally corrupt,” he says. “I saw Kelaher handling thousands of pounds that probably never ended up where it was meant to. But when the Met came after those bent coppers, we got caught up in the net.
“We knew someone was leaking information. So, I talked to my superiors, and they agreed we should put false entries into our diaries in order to throw those moles off the scent. But of course, when the investigation came, they wouldn’t back us up – because it might threaten their own positions.”
Nobby Pilcher’s real concern in speaking out now has nothing much to do with celebrity drug busts – what he’s concerned about is police corruption, which he believes has grown exponentially since his days on the force.
“It’s the drugs, isn’t it?” he says. “Nothing else gives the criminal world that sort of money to corrupt the officers. It’s got to the stage where even if a detective wants to stay clean, they can’t, because those above him might be corrupt. The drug laws messed up the whole way the police work. Drugs should be made legal and regulated – if you did that, you’d get rid of so much of the crime and corruption in this country in one go.”
Nobby seems absolutely sincere in his commitment to expose corruption and reframe drug laws. As he puts it, “Any society gets the law enforcement it deserves.” And if there’s one thing we’ve come to learn, it’s that we deserve better than the War on Drugs.
‘Bent Copppers’ by Norman Pilcher is available to buy now.