Neil Woods insists nothing good came of his 14 years as one of the UK’s most successful undercover cops, fighting the war on drugs. His painstaking, months-long investigations put people guilty of sickening violence in prison for a combined total of more than a 1,000 years, so, surely, there must be something he is proud of? “No. No. I did not good at all, absolutely no good at all,” he says with disdain. “I did nothing of any benefit whatsoever, I only caused harm.”
From 1993 to 2007, he worked to infiltrate gangs, starting at the bottom of the chain and gradually working his way up to catch the violent men controlling it. He was one of the pioneers in the early 1990s of British policing’s use of undercover officers to fight drug trafficking. With no specific training, Woods set out to buy crack in Glossop, Derbyshire while a colleague filmed hidden at a distance. In later jobs, he would disguise himself as “one of the invisibles you pass by on the street every day but never notice” and slowly - very slowly - approach people, befriend them and work his way into the confidences of major drug dealers further up the chain. Once there was the evidence to arrest them, his uniformed colleagues would move in. Woods’ cool composure, quick thinking under pressure and results made drugs squads across the country call on his services.
But he thinks his work disrupted the drugs supply for a grand total of just 18 hours. His “back of a fag packet” calculation is based on one particular job in Northampton in the summer of 2004, where he took on The Burger Bar Boys. They ran a monopoly on heroin and crack in the town, and used gang rape to spread fear - girlfriends and sisters of their enemies, or those who fell behind on drug debts, were potential targets. When the police swooped in, 92 people were arrested. But this also included the addicts and low level dealers Woods had befriended to get close to the gang, including a Big Issue selling heroin addict who gave him £5, thinking he was a fellow junkie in more need than her.
Afterwards, Woods asked for intelligence on the impact of the operation - and it was a big operation - on the drugs supply. “The intel person said ‘yeah, we worked it out, we’ve had some intel that actually there wasn’t any heroin available for two hours and then it was business as normal’... I had taken out 92 people, an entire level of drug dealing in an entire city,” Woods tells me. This was his biggest job and, assuming no other had disrupted supply as much, he added them all together and came up with the 18-hour figure. “That’s the most I’ve done of all those months and months of work, years of work... That’s the reality of it. It really made that little difference.”
Woods’ new memoir Good Cop, Bad War argues that the way we fight the drugs war is worse than fruitless, it escalates the violence it is meant to prevent. He writes: “The police get smarter, so the criminals get nastier. Things can only ever go from bad to worse, from savagery to savagery.” The development of undercover policing made gangs become more violent to protect themselves. The competition to control an illegal market makes gangs compete to be the most intimidating. Woods watched this “arms race” escalate until its culmination in his final job in Brighton in 2006 and 2007. There, he claims, gangsters were quietly murdering addicts they suspected of talking to the police by dealing them dirty heroin. The deaths were just chalked up as accidental overdoses.
“You have to remember, people were getting nastier and nastier because of me,” he tells me. “Without prohibition, the Burger Bar Boys wouldn’t have been so evil. Without prohibition, these gangs wouldn’t have been behaving in the way they did. It wouldn’t have had these gangs of extremely violent young men. It’s prohibition that has created this situation and I have been on the front line of it.” He wraps up his long, considered answer about whether his police work did any good: “I contributed to the arms race... it’s just made the whole thing aggressive and worse over time. So, no, no good at all.”
After a career of hiding his true identity, Woods hopes his new book will be “as controversial as possible”. He has become one of the most experienced voices arguing for reforms to Britain’s drugs laws and now chairs the new UK branch of LEAP - Law Enforcement Against Prohibition - made up of people from across criminal justice - ex-police officers, lawyers, even a former MI5 agent. It follows in the footsteps of the original US branch with a mission statement to “raise awareness to the failed, dangerous and expensive pursuit of a punitive drug policy”.
Woods, 46, decided to join the police aged 19 after tossing a coin. Tails: He went travelling in Europe. Heads: He answered a local paper advert for recruits. He grew up reading stories of figures like Captain Hornblower and the naval heroes of Patrick O’Brian’s novels. “These were not just heroes, they were heroes with a nobility... I didn’t consider myself noble but it was an ideal I loved.” In Woods’ book, the phrase “fighting the good fight” is repeated over and over again in between passages describing people having acid poured over their legs for and having their jaws broken for failing to pay drug debts.
He paid a huge personal cost for his work. He had a samurai sword held to his throat by a dealer, had to sprint when gangsters tried to mow him down with their car and was wracked with guilt for, as he puts it, “manipulating” harmless addicts he lived among into selling to him or helping him catch the high profile targets. After undergoing 10 months of counselling for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, he left the police and tried to put his life back together.
The book reads like a travel guide to an Alternative Britain. The place names may be familiar - Stoke, Nottingham, Brighton - but Woods’ descriptions sound like they are from somewhere else entirely. He writes about council estates run by gangs, who intimidate locals so effectively, none would dare speak to the police. He tells me: “Policing drugs creates the environment, where, if you wish to survive in that world, particularly selling heroin or crack, you have to be completely terrifying.”
One of the changes Woods advocates is Swiss-style heroin assisted treatment for addicts. Since 1994, the country has been prescribing heroin legally to 3,000 of its most addicted citizens, cutting not only use of the drug among them but cutting crime such as burglaries as well. Woods recalls one man he met in Northampton, whose name he never learned, had yellow skin from hepatitis C he had contracted from dirty needles. “He could’ve got treatment but his life was hectic, he didn’t have time,” Woods says, adding he would have been “instantly rescued from the street” by being prescribed heroin legally. “He would have all the time to concentrate on the rest of his health. He’d be able to take his medication. He’d be able to eat properly. He wouldn’t have had that constant stress.”
Woods doesn’t know what became of any of the addicts he knew. He thinks most of them are dead and he is certain ‘Yellow Man’ is. Woods used to have nightmares and the ones that left a mark were about what he did to those people. “It’s not the near death experiences you remember, it’s the things you did to other people,” he says. “When I was trying to sleep and my brain was being dominated by the incredibly intense horrific memories, a lot of the time what was actually dominating my thoughts was the people that I damaged.” He matter-of-factly tells me he is resolved to seek them all out “one day”, if only just to know what happened to them. He hopes they won’t take what he did personally. “I am acutely aware that I have caused people harm. That bothers me. I would like to know how they are faring. I suspect I do know but it’d just be nice to know precisely.”
But what if someone comes looking for him? The violent gangsters Woods helped put away might also be keen on some payback. “I know there’s a risk,” he says, which is an understatement for a man who used to give evidence in court from behind a screen and is now publicising his face and real name. “I’m duty bound... I used to take risks when I was working undercover, when I thought I was doing the right thing then. I’m doing the right thing now. There’s a risk but it’s the right thing to do. It’s that simple.”
But Woods is not particularly frightened because it would be “bad business” to go after him. “Gangsters are pragmatic, they’re businessmen. The violence and fear they use, it’s a business decision. It’s what they need to do to survive in their business... To come after me, as a grudge, doesn’t fit the model at all. It’s too big a risk at too little benefit.” Woods once arrested a member of Neo Nazi group Combat 18 who was imprisoned for a spate of criminal damage on Chinese takeaways. “I would consider him more likely to come after me for a grudge than the most violent of the organised crime groups.”
Woods left undercover policing nearly a decade ago but he is no doubt the drug gangs violence has worsened since then. This seems unimaginable but Woods’ theory of what the drugs war achieves makes it logical. “I’m sure that they are doing worse things. It’s a never ending arms race. It’s a never ending escalation. With no chance of de-escalation. The only chance you can improve things is to declare peace.”
Woods cites recent news stories about gangs branching out from big cities into towns. This shows another side effect of the drugs war, he says: the gangs’ fight to monopolise the trade makes them gradually more powerful and more able to corrupt the police, as their share of the £7-billion-a-year trade in Britain increases. While working to take down a gang in Nottingham, Woods suspected a new officer and asked for him to be barred from their briefings. That officer was later exposed as a spy for the crime family they were investigating. Woods says he is “privy to intelligence that that was continuing happen”. He adds: “It’s an absolute inevitability of how the whole system works. If you want to see how far it can go, just look at Mexico.”
This is the first time in the interview I wonder if Woods is exaggerating. Corruption in Mexico is so endemic, police officers sometimes do the drug cartels’ dirty work for them. That? Here? Woods says we are in “the thin end of the same wedge”. “I don’t want to risk seemingly overdramatic. We’re a wealthier country we have a much more established democratic infrastructure. We have many aspects to protect us from that slide into total chaos. Ok, we’re a long, long way from the extremes of Mexico but is there anything to stop us going in that direction? No. There isn’t. It might take us a long time to get there but the slide in that direction is absolutely inevitable. Nothing can cause [corruption] other than the amount of money from the illicit drugs supply.”
He cites examples of places that have relaxed cannabis laws - several US states and Canada - as examples to follow. “Regulating the cannabis market is the most important first step towards ending prohibition. There’s no doubt about that,” he adds. “You’re talking about taking that entire trade away from organised crime.”
Woods has used cannabis himself. As a teenager he would smoke weed while listening to Yes and The Doors. While undercover, he and a female colleague once infiltrated a party, expecting high level dealers to be there. When it became clear it was just a load of people partying and happily handing out pills, grass and hash for free, Woods and his partner resolved not to gather any evidence against them. “We made the decision that day that our undercover careers were ending,” he says. “We didn’t think we’d survive that so we just got stoned... It was a great night really.”
Woods is similarly relaxed about the prospect of his two children taking drugs. He mentions the fate of Professor David Nutt, who was sacked as chair of the Advisory Council of the Misuse of Drugs for publicly saying taking ecstasy was less dangerous than horse riding. Woods makes a rare joke. “As a parent, I saw those statistics and I was absolutely terrified,” he pauses. “That they would get into horse riding.” He smiles: “Then I remembered, I couldn’t possibly afford it.” His children are now 19 and 16, old enough for their dad to trust them to make sensible decisions. “They know the dangers. It’s up to them and I trust them... I’m extremely glad they haven’t taken up horse riding.”
Arguments for ending the war on drugs are not new. Countries like Portugal embarked on radical experiments on decriminalisation at the turn of the millennium. Woods hopes LEAP can convince the British public after others have not. “A bunch of left lawyers is not someone the public will listen to, or politicians, but we’re from law enforcement. We’re the people who’ve been tasked with dealing with this flawed policy.”
LEAP UK had a formal launch in February though it was already working here. For now, it has only former, not serving officers in its ranks, something that is unlikely to change. But Woods says it has received encouraging words from serving officers. “We get lots of messages of support, even when they don’t want to join us publicly. Whenever we do radio, we get serving police supporters saying: ‘Yes, you’re right’.” He concedes that there aren’t yet many senior officers publicly agreeing with LEAP but says: “I’m more happy hearing people on the ground supporting us. Those are the people who are really seeing it day to day.”
Towards the end of his policing career, Woods argued with another officer who said that, if you took away drugs from the gangsters, they would move into other areas of crime. Woods calls this “an incredibly dangerous view”. “That’s one step away from saying ‘people are just bad’. That’s only a little bit away from saying people are born bad.
“It’s opportunity that causes crime and the biggest opportunity in the illicit world is drugs supply. Gangsters are made by it. I have seen a cheeky, even slightly likeable 17-year-old turn into a completely terrifying 18-year-old.” He concedes that the other officer’s view remains “a really strong, prevalent view” within the police.
But change is already coming, not from the grassroots, but the new leaders of policing, the police and crime commissioners, Woods believes. He initially thought electing people to decide policing priorities was a “terrible idea”. But they have been some of the most effective voices for change. Durham’s commissioner Ron Hogg has made people who grow and use cannabis less of a priority for the force. Last year, the force was the only one to be rated ‘outstanding’ in every area by the police inspectorate. “It’s not a coincidence,” Woods says.
Woods is relaxed when he recites the horrors of the drugs war. I get the impression he is rarely otherwise. In the book, he writes that he never, in his entire childhood, heard either parent raise their voice in anger and appears to have inherited that calm, thoughtful approach. When I ask if he still suffers from PTSD, he says simply, “Oh, I’m fine”, and praises the counselling he received.
He doesn’t regret that the toss of a coin set him on a career that nearly got killed him more than once. “My personality needed something really, really challenging. I loved becoming good at what I was doing, even at the times when I found it really difficult... It’s just what I needed to channel my development into. We all want to feel like we’re learning and I wouldn’t have felt like I was learning in anything other than a harsh environment.”
I ask if, having come out against the war he waged, he is now “fighting the good fight”. He doesn’t hesitate. “Oh, I know I am,” he says. “Absolutely.”
Good Cop, Bad War, written with JS Rafaeli, is published by Ebury and out now.