By Jamie Ryder
The debate on drugs never fails to bring up a plethora of opinions. There are some who agree that prohibition is the best way to mediate the issue. Others believe the system to be flawed — the cause of a vicious cycle that goes round and round. These ideologies intertwined during the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) event hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) in conjunction with Students For Sensible Drug Policy Manchester (SSDP) and DrugSafe.
The LEAP representative, Neil Woods, gave a fascinating insight into the world of undercover police work. Woods started the presentation by introducing the organisation and its policies. The group was founded in America and he admitted that it is in a fledgling state in the UK. The formal launch comes in February. Their aim is to campaign for the regulation of drugs on an international scale. They believe that is the way “to take power” away from organized crime and to treat people more humanely.
Woods introduced his background as a former police officer who worked undercover in various places around the country. He worked on heroine and crack deals, making contacts in the community and trying to gain evidence on dealers. Woods explained he “moved through homeless people” and could make himself “scruffy” in order to look the part. Statistics were shown of the amount of heroine addicts over decades. Before 1971 there were under 1000 and in 2014 there are 300,000.
He detailed some of the cases he worked and the things he experienced. One of the most vivid examples was a time he was in Nottingham for a deal. A woman stood in the red light area and shouted “sex for sale.” When Woods approached her she looked him up and down and said “cheap sex for sale.” Of all the things he remembered that day the woman stood out most. He told his colleagues about it and “they all laughed.” The situation affected him deeply and was perhaps the first of many epiphanies that led to his disillusionment with the state of drug control.
Another example came from meeting a Scottish man named Ali who enjoyed making people laugh. Woods explained that Ali was caught on drug possession and didn’t “grass anyone up” while in prison. When Ali came out the dealers demanded he pay. When he couldn’t they tied him to a chair and poured acid over his knees until he was unable to walk without crutches. Woods spoke on his investigation of Collin Gunn and his gang in Nottingham. One of his colleagues refused to listen to him. The same man was arrested a year later for being employed by Gunn to infiltrate the police force.
Further police corruption was highlighted in the case of investigating a gangster called ‘The Milky Bar Kid.’ Woods and his team were instructed not to talk to anyone in the Greater Manchester Police because it was “general knowledge that GMP was corrupt.” Woods drew a comparison with the newspapers advertising corruption during prohibition of the 1930s. Compared to today there are few instances of it being reported.
People had the opportunity to ask questions and Woods gave his perspective. Legal highs were brought up and he mentioned cocaine deaths were at their lowest when mephedrone was legal. The next person asked about the link between controlling drugs and decriminalization. Woods made it clear that “decriminalization doesn’t go far enough.” He mentioned a programme was being opened in Vancouver where people will be allowed to take heroine in a safe environment and get the help they require. One of the most striking conversations came from an ex-heroine addict who asked whether Woods’ disillusionment happened quickly. He admitted it was a “gradual progression” and the final straw came during his work in Brighton. The gangsters had caught on to undercover work and used homeless people as drug mules. The conversation moved forward to a woman asking about companies controlling drugs like Xanax in America. She said when that happens the “war on drugs” becomes “corporatised.” Woods agreed with her point and highlighted that it’s an international problem.
Woods was asked whether he was allowed to “break the law to enforce the law” while undercover. He pointed to a time where he took speed in order to blend into a high-pressure situation. He expressed his concern for some of the people he met and for the stigma attached to his current path. He lost a friend in the police force because her superiors would have disciplined her if she interacted with him.
No punches were pulled at the event. The gasps and winces from the audience was testament enough to Woods’ honesty and the brutal nature of the world he saw. Life on the streets is a muddied, dark affair that many people suffer from and the issue was brought into the light. The audience came away a little wiser. Perhaps even more appreciative of the struggle for the person on the street corner struggling to stay out of the cold.
Jamie Ryder is an aspiring novelist with an appreciation for the fantastical and a love hate relationship with the written word. You can read more of his work on his blog.