Woods doc­u­ments an end­less cy­cle

Drug Wars co-author says pro­hi­bi­tion leads to per­se­cu­tion, cor­rup­tion, and ad­dic­tion

The Georgia Straight - - Health - By Travis Lupick

It can be dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a world with­out the war on drugs.

A world with­out po­lice of­fi­cers knock­ing down doors or draw­ing their guns to seize a sub­stance as rel­a­tively harm­less as cannabis.

A world where there are no longer deal­ers ped­dling un­known prod­ucts on street cor­ners or us­ing phys­i­cal vi­o­lence to set­tle their dis­putes with ad­dicted cus­tomers.

A world in which peo­ple who strug­gle with an ad­dic­tion re­ceive com­pas­sion­ate care and treat­ment from the health-care sys­tem in­stead of get­ting thrown into a prison cell for com­mit­ting a crime that hurts no one but them­selves.

In Drug Wars: The Ter­ri­fy­ing In­side

Story of Bri­tain’s Drug Trade, au­thors Neil Woods and JS Rafaeli re­mind us that we don’t have to imag­ine this world. In fact, it was not so long ago that it was still the re­al­ity in the United King­dom.

“There is a time in liv­ing mem­ory for some peo­ple in the U.K. when there was no crime as­so­ci­ated with drugs at all,” Woods tells the Ge­or­gia Straight.

In a tele­phone in­ter­view, the for­mer un­der­cover po­lice of­fi­cer (1993– 2007) and board mem­ber of the Law En­force­ment Ac­tion Part­ner­ship (formerly Law En­force­ment Against Pro­hi­bi­tion, an in­ter­na­tional group with mem­bers in Van­cou­ver and across Canada) ex­plains that as late as the 1960s, U.K. cit­i­zens ad­dicted to opi­oids did not ob­tain the drug from a dealer but from a doc­tor.

Called the “Bri­tish Sys­tem”, the coun­try’s med­i­cal­iza­tion of opi­oid dis­tri­bu­tion meant there was sim­ply no need for a black mar­ket and there­fore no petty crime that comes with an in­dus­try that ex­ists out­side of the law.

“Bri­tain was very late to come to the pro­hi­bi­tion ta­ble,” Woods says. “It re­sisted the United States–driven moral im­pe­ri­al­ism for a long time. The sys­tem in the U.K. was if you had a prob­lem with drugs, you got help.

“With heroin, that meant a doc­tor would pre­scribe heroin to you,” he con­tin­ues. “Which meant that dur­ing the time of the Bri­tish Sys­tem, which went from the 1920s all the way to the end of the 1960s, there was no crim­i­nal as­so­ci­a­tion with drugs what­so­ever.

“No­body died, be­cause the drug that was given to peo­ple was of a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal grade,” Woods adds. “Ad­dic­tion was seen as an un­for­tu­nate med­i­cal con­di­tion rather than a moral fail­ing.”

North Amer­i­cans tend to think of the drug war as a U.S. phe­nom­e­non, per­haps with the oc­ca­sional men­tion of car­tel vi­o­lence in Mex­ico and the fen­tanyl cri­sis in Canada. But pro­hi­bi­tion is a global con­flict that has left no cor­ner of the world un­scathed. In Woods’s highly read­able—though, at times, a lit­tle thinly sourced—ac­count of the drug war as it has played out in the U.K., there is a lot that Canada can learn, from both Bri­tain’s suc­cesses and its many mis­takes. Woods de­scribes how the war on drugs per­pet­u­ates it­self, cre­at­ing a never-end­ing cy­cle of ad­dic­tion, per­se­cu­tion, cor­rup­tion, and more ad­dic­tion.

“As soon as heroin was given to the black mar­ket, then it be­came an in­cen­tivized prod­uct,” he notes. “There was pres­sure from or­ga­nized crime to use the deal­ers to find new cus­tomers. You can ei­ther pay for a prob­lem­atic ad­dic­tion by steal­ing or al­low­ing your­self to be sex­u­ally ex­ploited. Or you can find new cus­tomers to pay for your own habit.” Mean­while, au­thor­i­ties’ ef­forts to break that cy­cle cre­ated a se­ries of un­in­tended con­se­quences—un­in­tended but not to­tally unan­tic­i­pated. “The ar­rival of fen­tanyl in heroin, it was pre­dictable,” Woods says. “This is called the ‘Iron Law of Pro­hi­bi­tion’: that any prod­uct in a black mar­ket will al­ways get stronger. Just like with al­co­hol. Within two weeks of al­co­hol pro­hi­bi­tion [in the 1930s], no one could buy beer. They could only buy moon­shine or whiskey, be­cause those are cost­ef­fec­tive to smug­gle. This is why fen­tanyl is com­ing in: be­cause it is cost-ef­fec­tive to smug­gle.”

These are prob­lems born of noth­ing less than a grotesque trans­fig­u­ra­tion of the state’s en­force­ment of law and or­der, Woods ar­gues.

“Drug polic­ing is qual­i­ta­tively dif­fer­ent from other forms of mod­ern po­lice work,” he writes in Drug Wars. “Ag­gres­sively polic­ing ac­tions that aren’t wrong in them­selves, but only wrong be­cause they are pro­hib­ited, places very par­tic­u­lar strains on the Peel­ian bond be­tween the po­lice and the com­mu­nity.”

Once upon a time, polic­ing mostly con­sisted of chas­ing bur­glars and re­spond­ing to dis­putes that had turned vi­o­lent. Of­fi­cers were mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ties they pa­trolled and main­tained healthy re­la­tion­ships with the peo­ple they served to pro­tect. Then drugs were de­clared il­le­gal. The money fol­lowed.

“The enor­mous amount of money that they [crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions] get from drug sales forms the bank for ev­ery other form of or­ga­nized crim­i­nal­ity,” Woods says. “It has com­pletely changed the face of crime. But, per­haps more im­por­tantly, it has com­pletely changed the na­ture of polic­ing. Be­cause it has ended, in so many places, what should be the re­la­tion­ship be­tween po­lice and com­mu­nity.”

The most alarm­ing sec­tions of Woods’s book are not about drugs them­selves but about the once unimag­in­able lev­els of cor­rup­tion that the pro­hi­bi­tion of nar­cotics has made pos­si­ble.

“In the old days, in­for­mants were an in­cred­i­bly use­ful tool,” one of Woods’s sources, an­other for­mer po­lice of­fi­cer, tells him in the book. “The drug money has changed all that—to the point where a lot of crim­i­nals are now be­com­ing in­for­mants specif­i­cally in or­der to ma­nip­u­late the po­lice. Hav­ing a cor­rupt of­fi­cer in their pocket has be­come just an­other tool for any se­ri­ous gang­ster.

“Even­tu­ally, it got to the stage with me where so many of the top ech­e­lons of any OCG [Or­ga­nized Crime Group] were all reg­is­tered in­for­mants, that it be­came im­pos­si­ble to prop­erly in­ves­ti­gate any­one—be­cause they all have their own high­level cops pro­tect­ing them.

“So, for any real de­tec­tive try­ing to in­ves­ti­gate or­ga­nized crime, you don’t know which crim­i­nal is un­der the pro­tec­tion of which of your bosses. Sud­denly your in­ves­ti­ga­tion is get­ting sab­o­taged from above, be­cause you’re pok­ing your nose into ar­eas that might threaten some­one else’s in­for­mant.

“This means you can’t ac­tu­ally solve cases—and if you push too hard it will harm your own ca­reer ad­vance­ment,” the for­mer cop la­ments. “So any tal­ented, am­bi­tious de­tec­tive look­ing at the drug trade is now hob­bled from the start.”

Woods tells the Straight that af­ter 14 years as a po­lice of­fi­cer who waged the drug war and then a sub­se­quent decade spent fight­ing against it, he’s come to view pro­hi­bi­tion as sig­nif­i­cantly more harm­ful than the pub­lic un­der­stands.

“We’re sleep­walk­ing, not re­al­iz­ing just how hor­rific is the sit­u­a­tion that’s been cre­ated,” Woods says.

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