Review published on August 4, 2018.
This is the second book by Neil Woods, a former undercover police officer, and J.S. Rafaeli, a journalist and writer with Vice. Their first title, Good Cop, Bad War, was an account of Wood’s career infiltrating drug gangs around the country and why in the end he concluded the war on drugs was futile. I reviewed that book, awarding it the full five stars, not least because it takes some guts to admit that the endeavours of one’s career have in effect been a colossal waste of time.
So, to Drug Wars, their follow on. This is a more cerebral book, in that it is an historical account of how we as a society got to the situation we are in, rather than the author’s experiences as an undercover officer. Woods and Rafaeli trace the origins of the war on drugs in Britain, placing this in the wider international context, particularly the drug war’s origins in American moral crusades.
The war on drugs has clearly failed. That much is so obvious that the observation seems almost superfluous, yet those who support continued prohibition – and there are many who still do – seem unable or unwilling to accept it. What Drug Wars makes tragically clear however is not just that it was a failing endeavour right from the beginning, but that it never even needed to be fought, things were fine as they were. Nowhere is this clearer than in the section of the book that touches on heroin.
The fact is that for years the Britain had a small, yet stable, population of heroin addicts. In 1959 there were just 62 known heroin addicts in the UK. By 1964 there were 342. These were medics who started dipping into the medicine cabinet only to become addicted, ex-military and sailors who discovered the drug abroad, romantics who went looking after reading Cocteau, De Quincy, Kerouac and Burroughs. This is an important point, they weren’t kids off council estates lured by horrible dealers, because there weren’t any dealers. Why? Because once someone was an addict, they could just go to a GP and get heroin for free. This might sound like madness but giving addicts heroin was a pragmatic and entirely rational policy. It meant they had no need to steal to support their addiction, no need to sell their bodies, and crucially, no need to sell heroin to others to fund their habits. Prior to the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 – possibly one of the most catastrophic pieces of legislation ever to enter the statute book – the UK heroin population had grown to approximately 1000 addicts, but this was a slow and gradual growth, nothing like the explosion of addiction that would follow.
Even after the passage of the Act, this British system survived for a while, but eventually, after years of relentless pressure from the Americans, it was to end. The result? The instant creation of a lucrative criminal marketplace. Where before there was no point in drug cartels smuggling heroin into the UK – a lot of risk for little reward, when one’s customer base would abandon you for the NHS as soon as they got hooked – now, the business case for doing so was obvious. The resulting explosion in addiction, the violence, was inevitable. There were later attempts to recapture sanity, notably in Liverpool where the British system was brought back to life with marked success. But once again it was destined to be destroyed by the cant and faux moralising of War on Drugs brigade and the tabloid press
Other parts of the book tell the story of Operation Julie – a comical exercise in persecuting harmless hippies, which would be funny if it hadn’t ruined lives and the rave scene of the 1990s when MDMA made teenagers loved up and gangsters extremely rich. But for sheer vividness of all that is wrong with the war on drugs, it was the section on heroin that was most powerful to me.
Finally, the authors demonstrate how the war on drugs has perverted and undermined the very criminal justice system tasked with tackling it. Here we meet Frank Matthews, the pseudonym of a former Met police detective and undercover officer turned whistle-blower. Frank served in some of the Met’s most sensitive units, not least that responsible for witness protection. He describes in graphic detail the corruption and ineptitude he saw there, wrongdoing that aided criminals and endangered those they were charged to protect. Indeed, the details are so shocking that it’s difficult to believe, for if they are even half true, UK policing is rotten to the core. Just how could it be possible, what’s caused this rot? The answer is clear: the drug market is so lucrative, the profits so great, that organised crime has corrupted the very institutions who’s task it is to control them.
Drug Wars is a powerful and depressing read, but it’s also a hopeful one. All over the world the signs are that people and societies are finally starting to see sense. From Portugal, to Latin America, people are saying that enough is enough, that prohibition has failed. Even states in the United States, that bastion of moralising conservatism, have legalised cannabis. For so long, the UK has refused to budge, despite our history of trying to do things differently, but just this week the government has reluctantly agreed to medical marijuana. Things can change, we can do things differently, we don’t have to fight this pointless, utterly pointless, war.
This is an important book, essential reading, and I really can’t recommend it enough!
James Pierson 5/5
Drug Wars by Neil Woods and J.S. Rafaeli
Ebury Press 9781785037443 hbk Jun 2018
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