Comment: My years undercover taught me we need to reform our drug laws

Undercover in the war on drugs
Undercover in the war on drugs

By Neil Woods

I spent many years working undercover on the grimy and clandestine battlefield of the war on drugs. With each passing year I witnessed the growth and increasing viciousness of organised crime. Eventually it became obvious to me that the behaviour of drugs gangsters was a direct reaction to policing, and specifically undercover policing; it's an ever-worsening and self-defeating chasing of one's tail.

I now consider it my duty to help people understand the folly of the current drug laws and especially the dreadful harm that is caused by the policing of those laws. For years, experiences such as mine have only been of interest within the drug reform community. But I have witnessed the issue of drug law reform growing steadily from a fringe issue that was sneered at in political circles into a real movement with ever-increasing confidence. Last Thursday the momentum culminated into a mainstream issue.

After years without the issue coming to the Commons, drug policy was finally debated by MPs with an impressive level of detail. So many of the issues we reformers have tried hard to bring to the public consciousness were aired brilliantly by members of all the parties. There was a noticeable lack of partisanship, just an intelligent proposition, from Caroline Lucas, that policies in this area should be evidence-based. Even the doubting Sarah Wollaston played a perfect role in presenting standard responses to the questions of reform, including the assertion that reformers play down the harm caused by drugs.


Lucas' motion was successful and maybe now the wider public will want to know the reality of policing drug prohibition. Take corruption. I once worked for months infiltrating gangs in Nottingham, only to find that one of them had infiltrated my back-up team. For seven years an officer had been paid £2,000 a month to join the police and spy for the drug gang. When he was caught, I discovered that those who manage covert policing accept this as a fact. There will be spies and subterfuge. With so much money involved, how can there not be?

In unison with the backbench debate was the Home Office report Drugs: International Comparators. This document had a key finding: there's no correlation between the harshness of drug laws and levels of drug use. Until now this has been largely anecdotal by those of us on the frontline of policing, but to have this accepted in the political realm is crucial.

The fact that this debate happened is remarkable, but more so is the media response. That morning we awoke to numerous headlines about the proposition. The Guardian featured statistics researched by Release that black people are six times more likely to be stop searched for drugs than white people, despite no evidence of racial prevalence and drug use. This should be headline news in itself, but for the majority of the newspapers it's ignored because it is an inconvenient conclusion that Section 23 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 gives rise to racism. In instructing police to go and hunt drug users, each officer has to decide what a drug user looks like.

The Independent was also supportive of reform in its editorial, but more astonishing was the support from the Mirror and the Sun. For decades tabloid newspapers have held great power over politics, and there's no public policy area more vulnerable to the power of the press than drugs.

The media storm about mephedrone in 2010 was typical of the relationship between the newspapers and politicians. It was composed of misinformation, shameless scaremongering and politicians dancing to the media tune. If the evidence had been considered, interesting observations could have been made. I spoke to many cocaine users who switched to the new drug. The presence of this competing dopamine stimulant is the only thing that has reduced cocaine consumption since the drug war began. Police intelligence was clear on this at the time. Cocaine deaths went down, probably because it is "a more harmful drug [than mephedrone]"

The reform movement has grown quietly online and the political movement has gathered strength through the new media. Grassroots organisations like the UK Cannabis Social Clubs and NORML UK have ensured that those groups that have been previously marginalised by society have found their voices. Transform, the Beckley Foundation and Release all deserve mention. The organisation that I represent, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (Leap) - with a large global presence - has been a part of the ongoing evolution across the pond. It's a unique voice that's helped ease through the reforms in Colorado and Washington state.

Despite the significant shift in the stance of the newspapers, and the obvious swelling of public opinion towards the reform view, the two biggest parties remain seemingly unaware of the change. As we saw in the debate, there are caring individuals from each party committed to reform, but they're likely to be a minority for a while yet. The two parties eye each other like participants in an uncomfortable game of blink, looking for any weakness in the other's stance.

The line in the sand dividing the two sides of the drugs debate has always been a startling one. After the debate on Thursday it suddenly feels a lot less lonely on this side of the line.

We must look to disrupt gangs and cartels; we must breakup the strange coalition of opposition that exists between politicians and organised crime – both of whom are in of fear reform. As my experience in undercover drugs policing tells us, we have to use all available intelligence if we're to be successful in our commitment to reducing harm.

Neil Woods was an undercover drugs police officer from 1993 – 2007 with an estimated 1,000 years of prosecutions to his record. He is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Leap, and board member of Leap UK.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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