Inside the Secret World of a British Undercover Drugs Cop
Neil Woods spent 14 years pretending to be an addict and infiltrating local drug rings in the UK.
Former undercover drugs cop Neil Woods at his home in Herefordshire, wearing a T-shirt that reads: "Nice people take drugs." Photo by Ian Lloyd.
During the summer of 1994, amphetamine virgin Neil Woods found himself at a bar in a sleepy village in the UK faced with the choice of swallowing 40 percent pure speed or having the shit kicked out of him by a notorious local gangster with a $1600-a-week cocaine and crack habit.
Unbeknownst to this gangster—who ran a racket stealing lockable gas caps from cars and then having the keys replicated and boosting the cars—Neil was an undercover cop. He'd been attempting to buy one of the stolen cars from the gangster and had built up something of a relationship with him through chatting at this bar. However, one mistake he'd made was to make himself out as “some sort of connoisseur of amphetamines.”
“After about four weeks of knowing him he produced this bag for me,” Neil tells me from his home in Herefordshire. “He said, ‘Here’s a present for you. I bet you’ve never had speed like this!’ Well, I certainly hadn’t, because I’d never actually had any speed in my life. But just before he produced his bag, I’d literally seen someone have the shit kicked out of them in the pub on his orders for only a $15 debt. So I thought, I’ve got to take some.”
Neil put a tiny splodge of speed on the tip of his tongue, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the gangster. “I was a little too tentative, so he said, ‘You want to have more than that!’ He expected me to have a tolerance, so he gave me another big dollop. I could feel it burning as it hit my mouth. He charged me some money for it and I went home, but I didn’t sleep for the next three nights. It was absolutely horrific. We got the stuff tested later and it was over 40 percent pure. Normal street stuff is about 5 percent.”
This kind of thing wasn't out of the ordinary for Neil, who served as an undercover drugs officer for 14 years between 1993 and 2007. During his tenure he estimates that his work put drug criminals behind bars for a combined total of 1,000 years, though he's certain all that prison time did absolutely nothing to stem the flow of drugs like heroin onto Britain's streets.
“Everything I did while undercover was a waste of time,” he says. “All I did was make the lives of the vulnerable more unbearable.”
While it was domestic stress with his ex-wife that ultimately led to his resignation from the force in November of 2012, for years he'd been growing slowly disillusioned with the policing of drug laws and the undercover tactics he had both witnessed and used himself.
Growing up in Derbyshire, Neil dropped out of a business studies course at Salford University at the age of 19 to join Derbyshire Constabulary, wanting to do something “more adventurous” with his life. “I was going to go backpacking around Europe, but I saw an ad in the local newspaper for police recruits, so I flipped a coin,” he says. “It landed heads, so I joined the police.”
He worked for four years in general policing, before settling with the Drug Squad (DS).
Back in the early 1990s, undercover drug policing was a pretty loosely regulated affair, and when some colleagues suggested he try it out, Neil decided to give it a go. “I was quickly found to be particularly good at it,” he says. “I think it’s an adrenaline thing. People react differently to adrenaline, but however nervous I was before I did something, as soon as I went into it my head went clear.”
Regional drug squads share information, so very soon Neil was getting offers of work around the country, being assigned to jobs that lasted months. Because of the lack of regulation, these first jobs were often risky. He would pose as a drug user—usually a crack or heroin addict—and work his way toward infiltrating the drug scene in whichever area he was assigned to.
He recalls a scene from one of his first assignments in a housing estate in Normanton, an inner suburb of Derby: “I was sent in to just knock on the door and speak to some people who were dealing crack,” he says. “I got chatting to people and I ended up in a bookies, which was funny because I don’t think I’d been in a bookies before in my life. All the crack dealers were hanging around there and I got to know them and managed to buy off them.
“I was actually being observed at the time by the drugs squad, and I completely walked off the plot where they thought I was, and when I went back to meet them they looked seriously quite stressed—dripping in sweat and worried. It turned out the person who was selling to me had two convictions for GBH [grievous bodily harm] for stabbing people.”
In 1996, the police introduced formal training for undercover drug work, but by this time Neil already had three years of experience, so found himself teaching part of the course as well as studying the training. “They do say in undercover training that you’re not acting,” he says. “You’re just being a different version of yourself.”
But despite the extensive training, his life was still constantly under threat from the erratic behavior of the dealers he encountered.
In 1997, he met a dealer in Fenton, Staffordshire, and bought “half a T” (0.8g) of heroin from him, then went back to buy more. “I knocked on the door again and said, ‘Hey mate, have you got another half T?’ He said, ‘I haven’t got anything near that weight.’ He then pulled a samurai sword out, put it against my throat and said, ‘You must be fucking DS!’”
Neil buying crack undercover in Normanton in 1995 from a local dealer. Photo courtesy of Neil Woods.
The dealer’s girlfriend then poked her head out the door and said, “Fucking hell—I thought he was going to say he was, then!” The guy pulled the sword away from Neil’s throat and he and his girlfriend burst out laughing. He then asked Neil what he wanted and he asked for four bags.
“He took his time, gave me the four bags, and I started to wander off and put the small silver foil wraps in a cigarette packet. But then I look up and there’s a blade pointing at my face. Some bastard is trying to rob me for the heroin I’ve bought. I thought, This is just not my day at all!" Neil laughs. “He said, ‘Mate, just give it to me and it’ll be alright.’ I said, ‘Nah, not with the day I’m having,’ and jogged away. You might look and sound like a heroin addict, but you can always run faster than them.”
Neil moved from town to town throughout his career, mixing undercover assignments with regular police work. He would often spend his day playing the part of a crack or heroin addict, before turning in at a luxurious hotel or apartment in the evening, a contrast he found weird and uncomfortable.
“You spend all day being comfortable however anybody sees you, and relaxing into that role of being humbled almost to the point of humiliation,” he says. “You then go to something of privilege and it doesn’t feel quite right at all, and you can feel eyes upon you. In the city center, no one pays you any attention at all when you’re posing as a crack addict. That’s why people don’t realize so many crack addicts struggle living in inner cities.”
"This guy needed help—something else rather than being exploited by all the dealers around him, or exploited by me for that matter."
These experiences spurred Neil into obsessively teaching himself everything he could about drugs. He visited the first European conference of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) in September of 1999. There, he listened to a debate about whether people should be sent to NA rather than prison. During the Q&A he posed the question—which, in hindsight, seems naïve to him—of what the point of sending someone to NA would be if they didn’t want to get help in the first place.
“The whole room—and it was a big, big room—went completely quiet,” he says. “I could almost see the tumbleweed. One of the people on the panel said, ‘Do you think we had some magical epiphany to come here? We’ve all been dragged kicking and screaming.’”
This was a turning point for Neil, one that made him realize the addicts whose social circles he'd been infiltrating weren't really criminals, but vulnerable people in need of real help. “After that, every time I went out and mixed with heroin addicts and crack addicts on the street I realized that previously I’d been seeing them as less than human and thinking they had got themselves into their problem through their own mistakes,” he says. “But actually, they were just people who needed help and were too ill to get it themselves.”
Neil now believes that police tactics put these already vulnerable people at even greater risk.
“Organized crime gangs’ biggest weapon really is fear,” he says. “The more they’re put under pressure by policing the more they will exercise that power of fear that makes people vulnerable.”
In Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, he met a beggar who'd introduce him to people so he could feed his own habit by taking a small cut out of Neil's transactions. About a year later, Neil heard he'd been sentenced to five years in prison for heroin dealing. “This just horrified me, because all he would do was sit in the same spot in Mansfield town center, begging.
“He told me that the height of his month was when a vein in between his toes on the top of his foot had opened up that he hadn’t been able to inject into for three years. That was the summation of his entire life. This guy needed help—something else rather than being exploited by all the dealers around him, or exploited by me for that matter.”
Neil explains that heroin addicts who are imprisoned have often accumulated debts, or “tabs,” with their dealers. For those who can’t afford to pay the tabs, the family and friends can be subject to exploitation to pay off the debt, including coerced prostitution and being forced to sell drugs. When the addicts get out, they often immediately re-offend as they still have the debt to pay off.
According to Neil, out of the country’s estimated 300,000 heroin addicts, a high proportion of them seem to gravitate toward large seaside towns. “I wonder if people just want to run away and that’s as far as they get because they run out of places to run,” he says.
Neil was sent to Brighton at the end of 2005, which at the time had the highest per capita overdose rate of any city in the country. When he arrived, he discovered that the undercover tactics being used there had been in place for so long that the gangsters had caught on to them. “The gangsters had designated homeless people to be their point of contact,” says Neil. “Everyone was absolutely terrified. The feeling of fear throughout the homeless community was absolutely terrible.”
He got to know two homeless people who told him that other rough sleepers who were found to have unwittingly introduced undercover policemen to the gangsters had been murdered. “Anyone can get rid of a smackhead,” Neil explains. “You just give them an overdose.”
By this point there had been 58 overdoses that year. “That’s substantially more than any town of its type, but my team just laughed about it,” says Neil. “The other addicts were completely convinced that some of them were murders. Without a proper investigation I wouldn’t want to speculate, but the fact that they were completely convinced should be a concern of any police officer.”
That the people he was going after, and often imprisoning, were in desperate need of help was further reinforced to Neil by one particular homeless person in Brighton, a British former businessman who spoke five languages fluently but, after losing himself in the 1990s stimulant drug scene and using heroin to come down from speed, had become an addict.
“He had this sense of doom about him,” says Neil. “He just knew he was going to die, that he wouldn’t survive the winter. He had an offer of some housing in Worthing. It would have cost him about $9 to get the train to go for the interview for this bedsit, but at the time he couldn’t spare it because he needed it to get a $30 bag of heroin. Even though he knew he was either going to overdose or freeze to death, he still couldn’t get that money together to get the housing.”
After just six weeks of what was supposed to be a six-month assignment, Neil grew tired of going after petty dealers rather than the top dogs. He left Brighton and refused to do that kind of work again.
Neil stopped doing undercover work in 2007 but remained with the police until 2012. Now, he's focusing on using his experiences to improve the drug control system. He's a proponent of the full regulation of all drugs to “take the control away from the criminals.”
“It’s not good for you to be doing something which you feel is unethical—it takes its toll,” he says.
“What I did wasn’t completely my fault. You’re a foot soldier; you take orders and you trust the system. It’s a disciplined organization and you trust other people’s judgements. You trust the laws, but when it comes to drugs the laws are wrong.”
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