Ending the war on drugs

Green peer Jenny Jones recently spoke to former undercover police officer Neil Woods on the UK’s failing war on drugs for her JensGreenJam podcast.

Jenny Jones

Neil Woods has the most fascinating personal story of any of my podcast guests. As one of Britain’s most successful undercover police officers he wrote and rewrote the rules of street level undercover work. Yet, towards the end of his time as a senior officer, he concluded that his success had fuelled a culture of escalating violence and intimidation by the drug gangs. He began to argue, along with other law enforcement officers, for an end to the war on drugs.

As someone who put some vicious gang leaders and dealers behind bars for a collective total of 1,000 years, Neil Woods deserves our respect and attention. My podcast explores both the need to end drugs prohibition and the personal cost to the officers who travel behind the lines in this unwinnable war.

Having a knife to your throat, being stripped naked at gunpoint and spending years living on your nerves, has given Neil 'Post-Traumatic Street Disorder'. He charts how year after year the trade became more violent, as the police became more successful. The drugs war is an arms race. Police develop new tactics and drug gangs push back. Neil realised that the escalation by the gangs was a reaction to his work as an effective police officer.

County lines – where drug gangs from cities expand their operations into smaller towns – is the latest reaction by the gangs to that success. Use of children is another innovation in response to police success. Faced with these innovations, it is becoming more difficult for police to infiltrate using established means. Regarding the use of children, gangs see the children as very disposable, which is why some of the police want to increase the use of juveniles as police informants – child spies. Exposing this has been one of my big campaigns and is now the subject of legal action by a children’s charity.

As Neil got to know drug addicts and started to understand the traumas (often childhood abuse or neglect) that turned them towards drugs, he realised that a medical approach to drug addiction would provide a better route out than a life in prison.

It is a war the police can’t win, despite all their success. In fact, the successes have made things worse in the longer term. Police now talk about ‘disruption’ not reduction. Yet, a stable market is less violent. Police often gather the low hanging fruit of dealers on streets, which thins it out, making it easier for vicious gang leaders to create monopolies.

Drugs money has caused escalating violence on the streets and supports other forms of crime. It also provides the resources to finance endemic corruption within the authorities. Neil talks about how his instincts saved him from being betrayed by a fellow officer who had been planted into the police by a powerful gang.

Since prohibition started, the banned drugs have become stronger and cheaper. Legislation from the 1980s onwards has moved away from harm reduction towards a moralising agenda of criminality. The police have been lumbered with this war on drugs. It’s a huge drain on resources. For example, it’s had a big impact on the murder detection rate, which despite the numerous scientific and forensic advances, remains down from what it was in the 1970s.

For Neil, the way to win the war on drugs is to stop fighting. Regulate them. Treat each drug differently – for example, with heroin users are sent to a doctor, rather than criminally charged.

A recent survey shows that 59 per cent of people want to decriminalise or regulate cannabis use. That shows how public understanding is running ahead of the politicians from the two main parties. A big change is urgently needed and as always, it is up to Greens to take the lead and argue for it.

Neil has authored two fascinating books about his experiences as an undercover cop turned whistleblower: Good Cop, Bad War and Drugs Wars

Another of my podcasts is an interview with Green Party campaigner and local councillor, Shane Collins, who discusses the practicalities of drugs liberalisation and how it might work. 

All of the JensGreenJam podcasts can be found on iTunes, FM Player and Spotify.