Why an ex-cop who posed as an undercover heroin addict wants drugs decriminalized

For 14 years, Neil Woods risked his life as a drug squad police officer posing undercover as a heroin and crack addict.

As among the first of his kind in the UK, he helped to establish tactics and training to infiltrate the most notorious and violent drug gangs across the country. In over a decade, he had completed operations in areas including Derby, Leicester, Nottingham, Leeds and Brighton.

But despite his efforts, he gradually realised his work was only making the situation worse. Criminals were becoming more brutal as they wised up to police strategies. Drug-related deaths were climbing and drugs were becoming stronger and more readily available.

To Woods, the war on drugs had failed. Determined to undo the damage he’d done as an officer – which caused him to suffer from PTSD – he launched Law Enforcement Against Prohibitions (Leap) in the UK. Founded in the US, the organisation brings together former members of the criminal justice system, including ex-members of MI5 and the authorities in Afghanistan who have seen how the black market funds terrorism.

The Independent spoke to Woods about his most extreme experiences as a drug squad cop, and why he believes politicians need to decriminalise drugs.

How did you end up being an undercover cop? Was it something you always wanted to do?

The type of work I did didn’t really exist when I started doing it in 1993 and there was a lot of pressure from Home Office for forces to deal with the latest moral outrage of crack cocaine. I was working with the drug squad in Derbyshire and I was asked to have a go at crack cocaine. It was successful and dictated the next 13 years of my life. This was before there was formal training and rules for undercover work. I helped to develop the training and the tactics that were rolled out three years later. I was just throw in at the deep end.

Was it tough starting out? Do you remember your first operation?

The first place I was posted was in Derby and it wasn’t actually that difficult. There were some proper gangsters selling crack and heroin but they weren’t used to the tactic so although it was a bit scary it wasn’t tremendously difficult because they weren’t expecting it. But thing the about undercover work is that it doesn’t take long for criminalise to learn the tactics.

So around two years later I was doing an operation in Fenton, Staffordshire, on a dealer I’d been buying heroin from for a few weeks. One day, he answered the door and held samurai sword to my throat and accused me of being part of the DS (drug squad). Spit was flying out of his mouth as he was growling and I could feel the cold steel on my throat and I thought that was it. I thought he would murder me. And I heard some female laughing from behind him and a woman stuck her head out from behind the door and said ‘I thought he was actually going to say he was DS for a second!’ I realised he was winding me up then. Maybe he wanted to try out his new sword. But as every year went on without fail the people were more violent. The ultimate defence against the development of police tactics is an increased use of violence to intimidate the community in which undercover police move. Also it’s the ultimate defence against police informants because the most successful gangsters are the ones who make people too scared to grass them up.

Armed police ukDan Kitwood/Getty ImagesArmed police stand outside Manchester Central on day one of the Conservative Party Conference on October 4, 2015 in Manchester, England. Up to 80,000 people are expected to attend a demonstration today organised by the TUC and anti-austerity protesters. Conservative Party members are gathering for their first conference as a party in a majority government since 1996.

How did you pretend to be an heroin addict? Did you go to acting classes? Or cut down your diet to look scrawny?

Well the idea that addicts are thin is just part of the stigma of drug use. Problematic users come in all shapes and sizes. As for behaviour you have to know your commodity. You have to be a real geek with knowing how people behave and you have to know it even more than the people on the ground. Then it’s just the art of deception and staying attuned to the body language of other people and detecting the moment someone is lying. That can be the thing that saves your life.

When has the art of deception saved your life?

In 2001 – by that point I’d been doing it for about seven or eight years – I was in a six month operation and I got to know one gangster really well. But I had no footage of him corroborate the other evidence. He had been hiding out so I tempted him to a car park with a load of counterfeit clothing and he came with this massive block of crack cocaine the size of a videotape and two mates that I didn’t know. One of them was instantly suspicions of me and I was sort of fending off his suspicions with subtle verbal jousting to steer the questions away from me.

Eventually he started picking at my clothes. He pushed me against a wall and saw the camera I was hiding. This wasn’t James Bond. It wasn’t a sophisticated camera and there wasn’t much doubt about what he’d found. What I did was launch a torrent of abuse at him about picking at my clothes and I started moving really slowly. If you run away from a pack of wolves they catch you and eat you but if you stare at them in the eye and leave in a bold fashion you can confuse them for long enough to escape.

I was so bold and slow and un-bothered that he gave me time to walk away. I managed to get away all the time he was shouting to his mates “he’s heat! He’s f*cking five O!’ And the dealer said ‘nah he’s fine’. I almost got to the end of the carpark. Almost. But then I heard running behind me and I thought ‘this is it’. It was the guy cutting up the crack and he comes up to me and says ‘nevermind my mate. He’s a dickhead’. And I go along with it and say ‘these aren’t even my clothes. I borrowed them this morning’. And then he gave me a rock of crack and I carried on walking. His mate was still screaming ‘mate he’s five O!’ Eventually, his mate must have convinced him i was from the police because when I got to the end of the carpark I heard screeching tyres.

I ran onto the pavement and could hear it zooming behind me, getting closer. Luckily I get to some railings but I must have been a metre away from being run down by the car. I got back to a safe location and was debriefed by the special operations team and gave descriptions of the people and registration of the car. An intelligence guy told me ‘I don’t know why they didn’t shoot you.There’s loads of intel that there’s a gun in the car!’ They probably thought they could get me in the car and I was too close to civilisation. I was lucky. Lots of times I was lucky.

When else was your life in danger like that?

There are so many instance! Once I was doing a long term job in a pub run by outrageous almost cartoon-like gangsters who were organised car thieves and the main guy was a coke and crack dealer. The mistake I made was making myself out to be a connoisseur of amphetamines which I’m obviously not. I meet this guy and he tells me he’s brought me a present. It’s a bag filled with pink toxic goo that was dissolving the plastic bag it was in. He said ‘I bet you’ve never had anything like this before’. Just before this, he’d ordered someone to be beaten and he’d been dragged out bloody and bruised. This guy was a maniac. He picked up on my hesitation instantly and became suspicious. So I had to try some of it or I’d be in trouble. So I tried it and he said ‘no, you want more than that’.

So I took a big lump. And I could almost feel the mouth ulcers forming in my mouth. It turned out whereas street amphetamines are between 5 to 7 per cent pure, this was 40 per cent pure. It was horrific. I felt this warmth in my stomach and I was out of it. I had the most horrendous intense anxious feeling. I didn’t sleep for three nights. Mind you my house has never been so clean.

You have a wife and children – what was it like for them?

Well I didn’t have the best relationship with my wife at the time but I still took kids swimming on a Sunday. I’d be away two or three nights a week and travelling but on weekends I was with the kids. But I couldn’t tell friends or colleagues what my job was. Even the officers I worked with didn’t know what my real name was because I would be managed by a special operations unit.

Has anyone ever recognised you? Aren’t you afraid someone will seek revenge now you’ve gone public with your story?

There is always that risk but I worked some distance away from home. I’ve only been back to Brighton once and Northampton once very briefly. I don’t try to avoid places although I suppose I won’t be hanging around estates in Leicester anytime soon. That could be fairly risky. But I used used to risk my life doing the work because I used to believe I was doing good. Now I realise everything I did only caused harm.

Now, I feel duty bound to continue taking risks because it’s a matter of principal. And I wouldn’t expect anyone to seek revenge because organised drug dealing is a business and these people use violence as part of the business model. They use violence against their own communities to protect themselves from being arrested and grassed up. This is caused by policing drugs so to come after me for revenge doesn’t fit into this model.

PrisonBear Truck Hot/FlickrPrison inmates.

What is the biggest misconception people have about drugs and drug laws?

When I went into policing I thought addicts had made the mistake of trying drugs and had no willpower to stop. Actually, problematic drug users – or at least all the ones I knew – were self medicating. Most of the heroin users I knew were self-medicating for childhood trauma, whether physical or sexual. As an undercover officer I spent a great deal of time getting to know these people. The more I knew someone the more I could manipulate them. They’re like puppets. And they trusted me and saw me as a peer.

There was a young lady I met in Northampton who went by the street name Uma. She explained to me she sometimes came off heroin to bring down her tolerance but that she became suicidal because she remembered the abuse she received from her uncle. Heroin is a very powerful painkiller of the body but also the mind. To the law, she’s a criminal to the law and I as an agent of the state was there to capture people like that. But they were caught in the crossfire between the police and gangs. She quite clearly needed help. If people were prescribed heroin they would be rescued from sexual exploitation. These people are slaves to drug dealers.

When did you decide that the war on drugs was futile?

I knew that I couldn’t win early on. But I kept being tempted back into it because I was good at my job. The police departments would say ‘Woodsy, we need you. These gangsters are even nastier that the other ones. They’re burning people to death. They’re using rape as a weapon. But in Brighton they had been overusing the tactic and in very unimaginative ways. And groups were very savvy and had created perfect defences.

They used homeless people as a point of contact and they instructed them ‘you are now our dealer and if you bring anyone within view of us you will be killed and we’ll find someone else’. At the time there was the highest drugs deaths in the city per capita in the country. And homeless people were dying from overdoses. I can’t say that those overdoses were deliberate but everyone on the streets was convinced that they were. But police reports just showed up as an overdose – and what cop cares about that?

And it was because of me that organised crime was getting nasty. I was developing the tactics. I put dealers in prison for over 1000 years and I only disrupted the heroin supply for two hours. Policing can’t affect the demand so policing drugs is completely futile. I can’t emphasise that enough. More people die and it gets more violent. Drugs have got stronger and cheaper and more varied since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

If criminalising drug users isn’t the answer – what is?

The answer is to regulate drugs and take the power away from organised crime. The illicit drugs market is worth £7billion a year. Our communities are ruined by organised crime intimidating populations to protect themselves so we need to regulate the drug supply like we do with alcohol.

All drugs can be harmful but cannabis is the most to young people, so we need to protect them from it. Gangsters are almost all recruited through the market because it’s where our teenagers first come into contact with organised crime. I saw one young man in an inner city go from a cheeky 17-year-old who was quite likeable to a terrifying 18-year-old in six months. He had to learn from his new team of buddies that if you want to survive you have to be completely vicious so people are scared of you. The drug market is shaping the personalities of our young men. We can only stop this by regulating drugs.

Which countries can we learn from?

I don’t advocate a free for all. In Switzerland they brought in Heroin Assisted Treatment in the 1990s. Heroin users set their dosage and receive counselling. Eventually the users decrease their dosage. And they now have less shoplifting and almost no street prostitution. And deaths from MDMA deaths are so rare because they have labs where people can test their drugs. Canada is about to regulate the market right across the country and the interesting thing is that the winning Liberal Party campaigned to regulate cannabis to protect children from crime. They won while campaigning for that. Portugal has a progressive drug policy and they have a fraction of drug deaths compared to other countries.

What do you want to see in the UK?

The most urgent is heroin assisted treatment to save lives and bring down crime. The net cast by crime and the health costs is huge. Prescribing heroin will undermine the power of organised criminals and reduce exploitation. We should regulate the cannabis market to protect our young people – this is a child protection issue. The third thing is to have organised drug testing along the lines of the Loop so we save lives of young people.

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