Last month, I spoke to Stephen Bentley, one of the undercover police officers involved in the UK's biggest LSD bust. I wanted to find about the ins and outs of the operation, and the psychological impact of working undercover. I expected him to get a bit of stick, given the absolute state of the fumbling and scattershot war on drugs, but was still surprised at the level of intense, almost seething hatred in the comments.
One poster on this site described Bentley as a "total waste of existence", another as a "crazy fuck". To be honest, although I disagree with LSD being illegal, I thought Bentley seemed like a pretty decent guy who was just doing his job. At the end of the day, if you're a policeman, you can't pick and choose which laws you uphold on a day to day.
Bentley mentioned in the piece that he was wracked with guilt, and that he wondered if those he put behind bars held it against him. After reading the comments, I was also curious about this. Were the hippies who received long jail sentences as a result of the operation as angry towards him as the people in the comments section? Had they remained true to their 'peace and love' ethos and forgiven him?
I contacted Leaf Fielding, one of the key players who has written about his role in the drug ring, to find out. I also asked him about his role in the LSD network, not wanting to miss a chance to get an inside account of the UK's largest acid distribution gang.
VICE: Hi Leaf, can you tell me how you first got involved with the network?
Leaf Fielding: I was 18 when I first took LSD. I'd never taken any drugs before, and didn't have a clue what I was doing. A couple of hours later, I was convinced I'd found the elixir of life – the substance that would thaw the Cold War and bring peace and harmony to mankind. Acid changed my life forever; my world had suddenly switched from black and white to colour. I saw that all creation is a shimmering dance of energy, and at the highest level, we're all one.
That's quite the trip. What was your next step?
I dropped out of university, and became a hippy. Then a batch of liquid acid turned up in Reading, and I was one of two dealers who distributed it. When the supply dried up, I decided to go on the road, inspired by Kerouac. I took the ferry to Calais, walked and hitched to the Mediterranean, and spent a couple of years travelling, mostly in Asia. I was offered a position as the "tabletter" for the London-based wing of the LSD organisation after carrying out a successful trip to Thailand, during which I sent back several kilos of the strongest grass in the world.
What does a "tabletter" do?
I'd receive ten grams of pure acid crystal from the acid lab. My job was to turn that into 50,000 microdots of equal strength. I'd dissolve the crystal in a measured amount of water, add an inert powder and a little dye, and mix it thoroughly into a stiff paste. Wearing gloves, I'd rub the paste across 50 plastic boards, each of which had 1,000 holes drilled in them, until all the holes were filled. I'd then put them in a rack to dry.
The pills would shrink slightly, making it easier for the matching 51st board – which didn't have holes, but spikes – to push the microdots out of the board and into a small plastic bag. A run of 50,000 would usually take a couple of hours. Following an accidental massive overdose while tabletting, I ended up switching with one of my friends. He tabletted, and I became the distributor.
Did you have any suspicions that you were being infiltrated?
Not until close to the end. In fact, I was one of the last people to be identified as a member of the conspiracy. I was only caught up in the net through telephone tapping. Though the main thrust of the police operation was directed towards the Mid Wales branch of the network, it was the London group that produced the bulk of the acid.
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Do you harbour any resentment against Bentley and his pals for busting you?Bentley was one of my interrogators, and I have no complaints about him. His fundamental problem was that, by joining the police, he had handed over responsibility for his life. In the police and the military, you have to do as you're ordered, and must live with the consequences.
What do you make of the fact that he took drugs himself as part of the operation? Some people responding to his piece seem pretty angry about that.
Unsurprisingly, I think that busting people for something you yourself are doing is totally hypocritical. I understand that it was considered necessary by the people running Operation Julie, but that made them lose any moral high ground they might have thought they had. We all have to live with the consequences of our actions. Personally, I couldn't countenance acting the way they did.
People were also mad at him because there was a lot of stuff in the media about the operation kick-starting the war on drugs. What's your take on that?
The war on drugs had already begun. The operation gave it a lot of publicity, but didn't inaugurate it.
You ended up spending five years in prison. How did you find it?
It was horrible, of course, though mitigated somewhat by us being a large group of people who had been successful big-timers. That gave us status, and none of the other cons gave us a hard time, but the simple fact that we were locked away for years had an effect on us.
What have you been doing with your life since your release?
I came to terms with my incarceration by travelling in India for a year. This helped clean the emotional poisons from my system. I also trained as a language teacher and moved to Spain, where I ran a language school for a number of years.
After winning £8,000 [€10,370 EUR] on my first lottery ticket, I went on holiday to Malawi with a friend, and returned there for the new millennium. Seeing the visible deterioration in the country and the ravages of AIDS, I returned to Europe determined to build an orphanage for some of the homeless orphans. We raised over £10,000, [€13,000] and used it to build the Warm Heart hostel for homeless girls. It opened in 2003. Our effort was a drop in the ocean, but at least we felt we'd done something.
Do you still take psychedelics, or did your imprisonment put you off them for life?
I've eaten magic mushrooms a number of times since my release. I think I've come to the end of my long and fruitful journey with psychedelics now though, but you never know for sure.
You can read about Leaf's involvement with the acid distribution network in his book To Live Outside the Law. He's also got a second book on the way, called Leaf by Leaf: Adventures on Four Continents.
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