An officer for 23 years, 14 of them working mostly undercover, he has given high profile TV interviews and authored the best-selling Good Cop, Bad War and Drug Wars: The Terrifying Inside Story of Britain’s Drug Trade. He is also on the board of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) in both the US and UK, an organisation that campaigns to ‘reduce the multitude of harmful consequences resulting from our current drug policies’.
He joined the police as ‘a very young 19-year-old’, he says, after dropping out of his business studies course at university. ‘I was going to go backpacking around Europe but then I saw an advert for police officers in my local newspaper and thought, “I could try that”. So I flipped a coin, and it came up heads.’
At that point, insofar as he thought about the drug laws at all, he had a ‘very, very prejudiced, stigmatising view’ of anyone with a heroin or crack problem, he says. ‘I just saw them as people who were stupid enough to have tried them, and didn’t have the willpower to get out of the situation.’
As an undercover officer he was mostly pretending to be exactly that – a problematic user of heroin and/or crack. ‘Starting at the bottom and trying to get introductions to people further up the chain – the gangster running an area of a city’. He did this by actively seeking out the most vulnerable people, he says, as they were the easiest to manipulate.
‘It sounds like a very ruthless approach, but that’s the point. It’s like a micro way of looking at drug policy as a whole – this idea that you can cause harm to people but the end is justified.’ One man, who believed Woods to be his ‘only friend in the world’ ended up on suicide watch after he was arrested and discovered the truth.
‘He was on bail for dealing heroin but he was on the periphery of the gang I wanted to get close to, so he was really useful. I spent a lot of time listening to him, I went shoplifting with him, hung around with him, and actually really liked him. You can’t even fathom the level of how much of a blow that was to him. Breaching someone’s trust and friendship can affect anyone emotionally, but when you’re on the fringes of society and don’t have the chance to form connections with people then it’s an even bigger blow.’
He later infiltrated the Midlands-based Burger Bar Boys, who were notoriously violent even by the standards of drug gangs. It was, he says, ‘terrifying’. ‘Before I did that job there were so many times I almost died. Someone tried to kill me with a car, someone put a samurai sword to my throat, that kind of thing. I was always very smug that I could cope and carry on, but by the time I got to the Burger Bar Boys job I was feeling more weary, I was starting to feel the effect on my body and mind.’
That aside, it was still ‘way worse’ than any other operation, he says. ‘In most there was some sense of relaxation once I’d won people over, worked out who I could trust, and they’d learned to trust me. But with the Burger Bar Boys that sense of impending violence never went away – not any day at all. It was awful.’
After seven months of intensive undercover work, almost 100 people were arrested. ‘Most importantly, the six main guys who were running it,’ he says. ‘I’d met everyone, got everyone’s phone number, so I could be confident I was catching literally every person involved. You think, surely that’s shutting down the entire market infrastructure and everything in one go.’
In the end, the disruption of the heroin and crack supply lasted for two whole hours. ‘And that was for something that was way more effective than your average police operation, and way more far reaching. And it literally has no impact on the market at all. Well, it does have an impact.’
In that it provides an opportunity for another gang? ‘Yes, and more often than not, violence increases as a result.’ The gangs that flourish are inevitably the most ruthless and violent, he states. ‘Through policy we’ve essentially created a Darwinian situation, where those people most able or willing to be violent are the ones who succeed the most.’
test of self
Although diagnosed with chronic PTSD, he’s ‘nowhere near as bad as I was’, he says. ‘My brain was just collapsing in on itself with anxiety.’ In the early days, however, he actively enjoyed the work. ‘It’s an exciting thing, a test of self. We all like to develop new skills, and that was like a baptism of fire, feeling that intensity, the intellectual challenge of it, learning to read people’ – and one unwelcome legacy of the work is ongoing hypervigilance. ‘I’m stuck with it – I can’t necessarily relax with people or just switch off and not really care about the motivations of the person speaking to me.’
He’s unsure how many times he was convinced his cover was blown and he was about to be killed or seriously harmed, but it was ‘at least eight or nine. When I was doing counselling for PTSD it’s all about unravelling and processing memory, because the condition prevents you from processing it. I can’t engage with those memories.’
As his ability to cope began to ebb away so did his conviction that it was all worthwhile. ‘It was an incremental process. I was getting clues that things weren’t as they appeared, but the trouble is I was part of the most intensive group of police. The covert policing world in drugs is filled with incredibly hard working, dedicated and arrogant cops who really believe in what they’re doing, and you get invested in that expertise, the development of it, the whole culture, and it suited my ego to be getting good at it. So I was really at war with myself, because these things were becoming quite obvious. But I was denying them.’
While his attitude to people with a drug problem had long since changed, this had originally made him more convinced he was doing the right thing, he says. ‘As soon as I got to know people I learned very quickly that my assumptions were entirely wrong. That these were people who were coping with what had happened to them. I understood that quite quickly, so that made me doubt what I was doing, but even then I used that information to fire myself up – “well, then it’s even more important to catch the gangsters exploiting them”.’
This mental struggle and ‘denying the evidence’ he saw around him eventually helped to bring on a crisis, he says. He’d gone back into conventional detective work and was determined to use his experience to bring influence, but in those days there was ‘no institutional interest in engaging with the topic at all. That was the catalyst for my final mental breakdown, I think. I felt I had to do something and I couldn’t do it within the job. I was a mess – I was seeing myself in the mirror and seeing the enemy.’
More and more police are clearly starting to feel the same way, and LEAP is now a ‘global movement’, he states. ‘Also, obviously, when police say these things we get listened to more than most – that’s why I invest all of my time in trying to make this grow.’ Many of LEAP’s members are still serving officers, although this is less the case in the UK.
‘In Norway more than half of the membership are serving cops, and the chair of LEAP Scandinavia is still a senior detective. But different societies are more tolerant about their police speaking out like that.’ However, police in the UK are still leading the reform debate, he believes, ‘in spite of central politics rather than because of it. Many police leaders are way, way ahead of politicians, particularly in calls for HAT and overdose prevention sites.’
LEAP now has more than 150,000 members from around 20 countries, and is in favour of full legalization and regulation. ‘We’re full fat reformers,’ he states, ‘but with the caveat that any regulation should be done with a focus on social equity. Poor communities that rely on the cannabis economy, for example, are going to be further marginalised if we’re not careful and don’t use the opportunity of regulation to revitalise communities that really need that boost.’
Is he not concerned that legalisation would inevitably lead to an increase in use, and the health harms that go with it? ‘Consumption is the bogeyman of the prohibitionist,’ he says. ‘It’s the numbers of deaths and problematic use that’s the most important, and through regulation we will reduce problematic consumption – and we can invest in health interventions if we’re not spending a fortune on criminal interventions.
Personally, I don’t care if more people start using cannabis. What I want is the safest possible option of regulating that drug and any other drug. I don’t care if someone wants to take MDMA and dance in a field. I just want that experience to be as safe as possible, and I don’t care if twice as many people do it after regulation. Because the evidence shows it’s a substantially safer drug than alcohol, and alcohol deaths might well reduce through a broader selection of commodities.’
What about the argument that where regulation has been tried it hasn’t worked – for example with cannabis in Canada, where it seems that people are still buying from dealers because the regulated and taxed product is too expensive. ‘Well, it has worked, because 50 per cent of the market has been taken off organised crime,’ he states.
‘From a policing perspective, that’s great. The police always talk about taking the money off criminals, and they celebrate when they seize little bits and bobs, but that’s an enormous amount. They made major mistakes in Canada – overpricing, not investing in the quality. But they’ve at least got some semblance of control that they can tweak to get more control. You’ve got to be in the game to win it.’
What he wants the public to understand is ‘we’ve got a crisis – a multi-faced one,’ he says. ‘We have a crisis of drug deaths, a crisis of the power of organised crime in our communities, a crisis of exploited children, and a crisis of corruption. And political change comes more often from a crisis than anything else. The social movement should grow along the lines that we need to respond to this.’
So what should people do if they want to play their part? ‘Obviously the stock answer is “write to your MP”, and that’s good advice because they do take notice. But LEAP UK and Anyone’s Child have developed a very cheeky video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=dm-BWHnJtxA). The police are increasingly using social media to celebrate their drug policing activities – we’ve all seen them, the drugs seizures and so on – so this video is basically a tool for anyone to post in the comments below those social media posts. If you use it politely, “Please officers would you mind looking at this”, they will view it, I know that.
‘People tend to respond to those posts very rudely – “Why don’t you go catch some paedophiles”, and so on. They’re not going to take any notice of that, but they will take notice of this. If people keep using it, the message will get through. It’s being used all over the world, and it’s genuinely having an impact. So please everyone use it.’
UK Leap: Police, undercover operatives, intelligence service, military and a range of figures from the criminal justice system are joining together with communities to bring about drug law reform. More information at: ukleap.org
Photography for this article by Nigel Brunsdon: nigelbrunsdon.com