British Police Officers Reveal What They Really Think About the War on Drugs
"Sometimes I think we're like those Japanese soldiers in WWII – the ones on the island who just kept fighting because they didn't know the war was over."
Good Cop, Bad War is the story of an undercover police officer, Neil Woods, who spent over a decade infiltrating Britain's biggest drug gangs. The book, released last week, provides a unique insight into a world of mind games and violence, where the drug trade acts as a production line for the creation of ruthless gangsters. Ultimately, his experiences led Woods to reject the way drugs are policed in the UK.
"The logic of the drugs war only leads one way: the police get smarter, so the criminals get nastier; things can only ever go from bad to worse, from savagery to savagery," says Woods. Now, after having left the force, he is chairman of LEAP UK (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), a pro-drug legalisation activist group consisting of ex-law enforcement officials.
But to what extent are Woods and his colleagues at LEAP UK – and those currently employed in the police force – rare specimens? How thin on the ground are drug cops who think they are fighting the wrong fight? Expressing sympathy for anything other than hardline prohibition – even to their colleagues – is something of a risk in the black and white, "them and us" world of police culture.
Even so, every now and then drug cops open up about the realities of clearing the streets of dealers and drugs.
I spoke to Mike Fisher*, a senior drugs investigator for Britain's organised crime busting bureau, the National Crime Agency (NCA). He asked for his name to be changed to avoid disciplinary action, as his views will definitely not be found anywhere near the pages of the NCA's annual report.
"If the NCA stopped targeting drug gangs, it would change nothing," he explained. "You would see little change in the high street. Society would not collapse. As it is, drugs are freely available now. All that would happen is that dealing would be more open. But it may give us more of a chance to deal with crimes such as homicide."
On the surface, it's a counter-intuitive line to take for a senior officer working within an agency for which the drug trade is a key target.
"Law enforcement against drugs is completely ineffective and has been since the Misuse of Drugs Act came into force in 1971," says Fisher. "The idea of the state protecting you from yourself just doesn't work. We've spent billions of pounds trying to prohibit drugs, but there's less chance of it working than Canute stopping the waves.
Fisher tells me that arresting people on the streets for drugs is an endless cycle, and that it's the same with the larger fish. "Whenever we remove a big guy, someone else – usually a lieutenant – replaces him within days. The more we try, the harder it gets: increased enforcement keeps these people looking over their shoulder; they become more covert about their activity, and that makes our job harder."
Fisher's solution is to take the Portugal route: decriminalise personal use of all drugs, from cannabis to heroin, and look at legalising production and supply. "I believe consenting adults have a choice as to what they put in their bodies. It will also make it easier for heroin and crack users to get the help they need and free up police time to go out on patrol and deal with other crimes," he says. "Ideally, production should be wrested from organised criminals and managed by governments."
Surprisingly, he tells me around half of Britain's elite drug detectives at NCA have similar "liberal" attitudes to the drugs problem.
But what about those drug cops working below NCA level, in towns and cities across the UK? To gauge what they truly think about their daily task, you need to be a fly on the wall – so that's the exact position that University of Sheffield criminologist Dr Matthew Bacon took. He spent two years embedded with drug detectives in a town and a major city (the identities of which are secret) in the UK and wrote about his experiences in Taking Care of Business, published last month.
Most officers were anti-drugs and fully supported prohibition. Drugs were seen as being behind all that's bad in society. This gave them a "righteousness" in their actions, observed Bacon. But within this, recreational drug users, social dealers and nightclubs were far less of a crime problem than alcohol, a drug which few officers had a problem with.
It's perhaps not surprising, given the police's moral code, that most of the officers he hung around with viewed "junkies" as lazy, undeserving scumbags. In 2012, a former undercover officer who disguised himself as a heroin user-dealer, told me: "It made me realise how bad cops can be to drug addicts. I was abused, assaulted and threatened with being fitted up by having drugs planted on me on a regular basis."
To the anti-drug teams Bacon shadowed, heroin dealers were one of the most despised groups in society, so much so that they were seen as "police property" – objects that police could do with as they wished. "Almost without exception, dealers were depicted as deplorable and dangerous outlaws," says Bacon. "They were made the scapegoat of the drug problem."
Drug cops, who saw themselves as "elite crime fighters", had sufficient respect however for the the Mr Bigs of the drug world. They saw those who ran professional outfits and had families at home as worthy adversaries, and a "good collar" for which they would earn respect among their colleagues.
Despite all this, there was acceptance – often expressed by officers off-duty after a few pints – that they were not waging a "war on drugs", but managing an unbeatable problem in order to "keep the public happy".
One detective sergeant told Bacon: "Sometimes I think we're like those [Japanese] soldiers in World War Two – you know, those ones on the island who just kept fighting because they didn't know the war was over. Only difference is, we'd lost the war before we even started fighting." Another officer told him: "We've thrown everything at it, even the kitchen sink, but drug problems just keep getting worse. In the end, the drugs are still on the streets, no matter how many people we lock up."
There are rebellious notions even among the rank and file. When I went stop and searching in Soho with one of the Met Police's sniffer dog teams in 2013, I was surprised to hear from a regular beat officer and his colleague that they thought cannabis should be legalised entirely. "I say legalise the lot," one said. "Legalise it and tax it," said the other. "If someone wants to turn the sky green and the grass blue, then it's up to them. I can't see the difference between alcohol and cannabis. The official line is that drugs are under control, but they are not."
I call up Simon Kempton, a police sergeant from Dorset who has specialised in drug enforcement and sits on the National Board of the Police Federation, a body that represents rank and file officers. He agrees with Woods – that the drug trade houses the most violent people in the country – but believes prohibition is crucial to taking them out.
"I can't speak for everyone, but in my opinion drug policing is worthwhile, all day, every day," he says. "I get it: it can seem futile when we take out someone knocking out kilos of cocaine, [who's] replaced within two hours. But the reason it's worth doing is because the drug is not just about the drug trade: it's weapons, terrorism, people trafficking, money laundering; it straddles the spectrum of the most serious crimes, such as murder, kidnapping, serious assault – which all go hand in hand with the drug trade.
"We are taking out the worst people in our society. When they assault people it's not just a punch-up outside a pub; we are talking about sending a message through retribution and torture. These people have to protect their trade from others, so they use extreme levels of violence. You have to be the scariest, biggest person on the block, otherwise they will take your money from you.
"Undercover police officers would not take the huge risks infiltrating gangs if they did not think it was worthwhile. Undercover drug policing is not cheap, but it's very cost effective. It's rare to get a not guilty after undercover work because of all the evidence that's been gathered. Yes, people can feel demoralised that they've put themselves on the line, and then someone ends up getting just a coupe of years, but that's the way it is sometimes."
However, Sgt Kempton said that for rank and file officers, policing cannabis was another matter, and that many officers sympathised with the path taken by Durham Police in going easy on low-level cannabis offences: "With dwindling resources, forces are having to focus their limited numbers on areas which represent the greatest harms to wider society. While policing cannabis is still a legitimate action, I believe most officers and the public would support a focus on other areas of crime."
Over the years writing about the drug trade, I've met drug cops who have told me that their job is similar to that of the drug user or trafficker – a series of almost addictive drug bust "hits" that perpetuate the game. There are some who have crossed the line completely to become dependent drug users themselves, and others who are disgusted by the stigmatisation of drug users and even dealers.
One female drug cop I spoke to told me: "There are some pretty nasty pieces of work out there, but some of them are just ordinary people. Behind every user and runner, there's a story," she said. "A lot of people say drug addicts and drug dealers are scum of the earth, but they don't know anything about them."
Woods' book will open the public's eyes to the raw violence and canniness of the drug world, and the lengths police will go to in order to disrupt it. But after years fighting at the apex of the drug war, his conclusion – and that of other experienced officers who have chosen to speak out – must be heeded if we want to find a solution to a problem that has been trashing communities around the world for decades.
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