The first thing to say about Good Cop, Bad War is that although yes, it is a savage and powerful attack on the government’s approach to drugs by one of the country’s most experienced undercover cops, it is also a bloody good read that I’d recommend to anyone.
Written in short, punchy journalistic-style sentences it reads like a (real-life) crime-thriller, as Neil Woods trawls the streetlife and criminal underworld of England. Each of the first 15 chapters tell a different - sometimes hilarious, sometimes terrifying, often moving tale - of his undercover operations in a different town or city (perhaps some of you are there in the background in a club in Nottingham, a pub in Brighton...?). He paints stark and believable pictures of the people he was duping, the perilous edge he walked along - threatened with knives and swords, seeing savage beatings and stabbings, endless seedy street injecting, and the drugs he took himself to avoid being exposed - and killed.
Woven through it is a startlingly personal and honest description of how his 14 year-immersion in a world peopled by the desperate, damaged and downright dangerous ran parallel with the unravelling of his homelife. This personal strand sat a little uneasily with me at first, but in the end it is a vital part of the story of how he moved from being a leading figure in undercover drugs policing (even training other officers) to one of the most trenchant critics both of treating drug use as a criminal issue, and of our government’s refusal to legally regulate drug supply.
That said, overall, he is hugely supportive of the police as a body, and heaps praise on many individuals for their dedication and professionalism. But he also pulls no punches about the way handing the drug trade to criminals through prohibition has stained entire police forces with corruption (I’m not sure Manchester’s constabulary will be buying him many drinks), and he is scathing about some of the units he worked with’s attitude to people they should have been caring for - not viewing as worthless, disposable sub-humans. I’ll bet his publisher’s legal team had a hell of a task figuring out just how far they could push the honesty without incurring an injunction...
He starts out seeing the drug trade as a simple job - put your neck on the line to arrest the bad guys and it’ll all be ok, and heroin users were ‘junkies’ to be tricked (a term that made me wince - but police saying ‘people with drug dependency issues’ wouldn’t work). He is also (even allowing for some dramatisation) brave - most of us would have been a wreck after any one of the operations he describes. He doesn’t pretend to be perfect - he loves the adrenalin rush, and is quite open about enjoying manipulating people. But he moves to seeing some of the people he was mixing with as his friends. And therein lies the rub. Once he (or society as a whole) views people who use drugs as just that - people - and sees that busting them, and even arresting the genuinely vicious people in the gangs supplying them, only makes things worse, it becomes morally untenable to carry on doing what he was doing.
And Neil Woods is clearly a very moral man, who is now taking on the whole criminal justice establishment through the group he Chairs, ‘Law Enforcement Against Prohibition UK’. But don’t be fooled by the fact that he knows his drug policy - he also has a whole suite of incredible stories to tell - and this is the best and most readable book on the reality of the drug war in this country I have ever read.
Author: Martin Powell - Head of Campaigns and Communications, Transform Drug Policy Foundation