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Meet the Former Undercover Cop Working to End the War on Drugs

Neil Woods used to pretend to be a junkie to help bust U.K. drug kingpins. Now that he’s retired, he’s fighting for decriminalization

Between 1993 and 2007, pedestrians walking the streets of U.K. cities Leicester, Chesterfield, or Nottingham likely passed by Neil Woods — looking haggard and strung out like one of many junkies huddled on the pavement. But Woods, now 46 and living in the countryside an hour west of Birmingham, England, was no addict; he was an undercover policeman working to take down some of Britain’s most dangerous drug lords.

Woods has chronicled those harrowing years in a new tell-all book Good Cop, Bad War: My Undercover Life Inside Britain’s Biggest Drug Gangs. What’s most remarkable about Woods’ story isn’t just how chummy he became with some incredibly lethal gangsters or how he came inches away from being killed; it’s how his perspective on the War on Drugs has been upended so completely, he now actively campaigns to end prohibition by chairing the UK chapter of the advocacy group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an international organization comprising former cops, judges and others who are frustrated by the futility of the drug war.

What inspired you to get into the Drugs Squad and go undercover, as opposed to another field in policing?
I thought I was fighting the good fight. It wasn’t my lifelong ambition, but once I got into policing, I heard of a lot of hero stories about locking up the bad guys. Drug dealers, in many U.K. communities, are seriously bad people and they intimidate and destroy entire cities with their behavior, and that’s a great motivation to keep doing the work I was doing. At the time I felt it was worth it to manipulate problematic heroin users to get to dealers, but I was putting them in harm’s way. I began to realize the end doesn’t justify the means.

And you say many times in the book about the guilt you felt going after drug users, as opposed to drug pushers.
Look at the party scene in the ‘90s. Dance music was huge, and the tabloids were sensationalizing how drugs were fueling these parties, so our department had us go undercover to find the dealers at parties. But it was so pleasant there, with nice people having a good time dancing to music. That should be nothing that police have something to do with at all.

We were supposed to catch bad guys and there weren’t any and our department found that frustrating. My partner undercover at one of the parties came to that conclusion before I did, saying, “I’m not doing this, no way, we can’t do this.” Our response was to get stoned and dance, and, heck, we were fine if we got sacked for recklessly getting stoned.

Out of the many dangerous encounters you faced undercover, which one stood out to you the most as the moment when you thought you’d be killed?
Definitely in Leicester where a gangster found my hidden camera equipment in my clothes. I truly didn’t expect this meet-up to include a guy looking over my clothes. I was remembering then about a colleague in Leeds who was found out by gangsters to be undercover, and he was brutally beaten and left for dead. In Leicester, I got chased by their car and they nearly ran me over. I was a hair away from being killed.

It’s frightening to learn how truly alone you were as an undercover. No backup, no partner: just you and these goons with anger issues, guns, knives, lots of suspicion.
The standard rules of the game is two police officers in every car, but when you live on the streets with that level of unpredictability you can’t afford to have someone trailing you. The guys you’re chasing will get spooked.

Back-up may be two, three miles from me in a situation where I need help, but that’s a long way off when things get heated. The idea of back-up is just on paper.

In the book, you wrote that you estimated that all your Drugs Squad operations over the years disrupted the U.K. drug supply for just 18 hours. How’d you come to that number?
One time after a successful operation, I learned from intel that we likely disrupted drug supply in that area for two hours, so I did some data on my long-term jobs and added them all together. It’s just a guesstimate but I think I made the point quite well: police put gangsters away for thousands of years total for the sake of interrupting the drug supply for 18 hours.

You put down one gangster, and another one will take his place within hours. That’s just how it is.

You also write that the police are not the correct tool to fix the drug addiction problem in the U.K. What would you propose instead?
What we need is a regulated system, where each drug has regulatory requirements. I’m not saying we make heroin available for sale. We need a medical model whereby those addicted can be given medical heroin in a safe injection facility; these people need to be rescued from the manipulation of organized crime because otherwise they’re stealing, selling sex or selling drugs to pay for that addiction.

We have politicians here waiting to see how Canada does with its coming plans to legalize marijuana, because Canada is doing this countrywide [as opposed to the U.S. legalizing marijuana state by state] and our politicians aren’t watching Colorado or Washington closely, for instance. We’re culturally closer to Canada and see a lot of parallels, such as our similar political party system.

During your time undercover, what first got you thinking that you were involved in a drug war that was doing more harm than good?
I realized the War on Drugs was a massive failure quite early on. It was obviously having literally no impact at all on the supply of drugs. But I kept getting tempted to go back into work because my bosses, in Brighton for example, would say, “Woodsy, these gangsters are raping people’s girlfriends and sisters to intimidate them, we gotta catch these people!” And so I kept going undercover.

And putting these dealers away in prison, well, prison becomes gangster school. They become hardened and even more dangerous there. The drug ring network there is much easier to find and navigate. Criminals go from prison to prison and they have a lot of time to plan, strategize, talk with each other.

Prison shapes the personalities of Britain’s young men and women. You have to change your personality to protect yourself against other criminals. I’ve seen 17-year-old kids spend six months in prison and turn into the most frightening of gangsters.

It’s upsetting to find out how few mental health resources are available for officers like yourself who found their jobs so emotionally taxing. PTSD becomes a very real possibility.
There are definitely not enough resources and mental health issues are not entirely understood by police forces. They don’t understand the impact of undercover work, affecting not just the person doing it but the people we are infiltrating. Undercover is the nuclear option of policing and it’s incredibly intrusive and shouldn’t be done widely, and legislation has stated that undercover can and only be used when conventional policing has been found ineffective.

What I was suffering were the very worst symptoms of PTSD where memories would be so intense that I couldn’t exist outside of them, because they would dominate me all day and when I tried to sleep. I might have faced all manners of death threats but the memories that troubled me most related to how I manipulated the lives I made worse by my intrusive work. I was trampling over the lives of these people.

It goes to show that if you’re doing things that are against your core values it takes its toll.

We’ve seen the Hollywoodization of undercover police work, from The Wire to Donnie Brasco. What did these shows get right, what did they get wrong?
In fact, The Wire got it right, mainly, because it accurately portrayed the never-ending escalation in the War on Drugs, and how it’s a constant arms race. The Wire also showed how there’s no way of a ceasefire in this war and no way of improving the lives of those squished in the middle of all this..

What frustrates me is that TV shows rely on narratives, of course, and so when they showed a great success in the War on Drugs, they want that conclusion of catching the bad guys. But that’s not the end of the story. There is no success in this war. That’s an illusion.