Book reviews: "Good Cop, Bad War" and "Drug Wars" (Aug 2018)

Our book reviews on the two books written by former undercover policeman Neil Woods, and JS Rafaeli.

Good Cop, Bad War (My Undercover Life with some of Britain’s Biggest Drug Gangs).

Neil Woods and JS Rafaeli

Neil Woods, now Chairman of LEAP UK (Law Enforcement Action Partnership) was an undercover drugs cop for 14 years from 1993 to 2007 involved in the "War on Drugs" and this book is about that time. Reading the book, there is a sense of the isolation he experienced, which echoes the lives of the people who use drugs that he meets on the streets of UK towns and cities. When you are deployed to befriend (and exploit for information) the hapless people who live from score to score; when in your work you face the hardest, toughest of drug dealers as a fake and pretend to be in their world, you certainly are on your own. And chillingly, this is carried through to back in the office, with corruption in the ranks being literally shrugged off by senior officers as “to be expected when there is so much money involved”.

Despite laying bare the facts and faults in undercover police work, the book overall is not critical of the police force. On the contrary, the author speaks highly of his former colleagues and employer. It is that part of policing that requires the enforcement of our drugs laws with which he becomes disillusioned.

During his undercover years, Neil’s work contributes to putting many people in jail for long sentences and some of the most vulnerable people that he befriends on the streets end up in jail too. He finds this conflicting, as these are people that most need support and understanding, and police protection, like any other citizen. Gradually, Neil has an awareness that whilst some battles may be won, winning the "War on Drugs" will not happen with things as they are at present. Rather, he believes that hope lies in choosing a course away from prohibition, standing down arms and decriminalising the use of drugs. There is gathering support for this philosophy in the UK, including from senior police officers.

This fascinating, to-the-point book is co-written by historian J S Rafaeli in the style of a crime novel, making the information accessible to any reader.

Drug Wars – the terrifying inside story of Britain’s drug trade

This recently published follow up book is an interesting and comprehensive treatise on how we have arrived where we are now regarding drug policy. It starts with the birth of the British System - an ideal now “lost to history” - that drug addiction is not a moral failing, but a medical issue that should be treated by doctors with drugs obtained on prescription.

The book describes many colourful characters from the very early years of the UK drug scene, including the Home Office official Henry “Bing” Spear from the Fifties, who administered a system that included having an “open door” policy for the “tiny, insular community” of heroin users mostly centred in London at that time. It is fascinating to read about the old-school early days heroin users (some of whom are still around today) and the significant role played by the doctors who looked after them.

As always where addiction to drugs is involved, the book includes some upsetting personal stories. The book outlines the emergence of a “grey market” in Britain as drugs acquired legally on prescription are sold on, and eventually when heroin is banned, how the illicit market with its accompanying horrors encompassed in the title of the book becomes established. The role of the media and the emergence of various other drug trends (the hippy era, Operation Julie) are included.

Alongside the history of the drugs trade in the UK the book outlines the legislative and policy developments that follow the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1971 and brings us to where we are today.  A stand-out chapter is devoted to the 1980s heroin epidemic and the development of harm reduction by a group of health workers and volunteers (the “mavericks of Merseyside”). It has to be said that we are again in the middle of a crisis with drug deaths at an all time high, and to wish for this philosophy – ground-breaking at the time - to return with equal intensity.

Together, this set of books records a hybrid of personal experience and a comprehensive, historical account of the development of UK drug policy and policing, lifting the subject out of dry academic discourses and boring policy tomes and bringing it to life in an accessible way.

Elsa Browne, SMMGP

August 2018