Book Review: “Drugwars: inside story of Britain’s..” war on drugs users

TO KNOW THE TRUE STORY BEHIND A WAR, ASK THE PEOPLE WHO FOUGHT IT

An observation van is running surveillance on a high-level Bradford gangster. Suddenly the van is surrounded by men in balaclavas and tied shut. Out comes the can of petrol. It is set alight and the two cops inside barely escape with their lives. This incident is never reported. The gangsters clearly have informants inside the police and alerting the public would undermine the force. Everyone shrugs it off – with so much money in the drugs game, corruption is part and parcel of the whole deal

In our community of “drug users, ex-users and substitutees” (as the Germans call their excellent harm reduction users advocacy group- JES,) there is more than one opinion about the epiphanies of people like the compelling authors of “Drugwars.” Neil Woods, for example was an Undercover Cop in the Drugs Squad. These opinions range from rage at the audacity of a person, who can spend years ensuring illegal-drugs users are put behind bars to huge relief that others who are/were in the drugwar-trenches are speaking out against “punishing prohibition.” It is fine to publicly condemn drug laws as they well-document in this book, but it isn’t easy for all of us at the Usersvoice (UV) to observe their continued great careers, while 350 000 of us we are still behind bars, strung out and /or living with a blood borne disease that may well be killing us.

That said, the following quote from Suzanne Sharkey, a spokesperson for LEAP (Law Enforcement Action Partnership), who I first met at Drug Policy Alliance gathering is the US, is expressing the thoughts and feelings of many x/current cops I have spoken with – I first met LEAP Allies in the USA at DPA gatherings eons ago: “When I look back at my time in the police I feel ashamed, I feel a sense of failure. I feel ashamed that I wasn’t arresting career criminals. I was arresting people from poor socially deprived areas with little or no hope whose crime was just non-violent drug possession, a complete failure of the war on drugs. I believe that one of the biggest barriers to seeking help for people with problematic substance use is the current drug policy.” (Yes I must admit, I didn’t seriously-seek help for my addiction til I was utterly broken & Cops were smashing my flat door down.) Their work is increasingly waking different communities up to the implicitly-destructive force we know as the drugwar.


The overall message of “Drugwars: the inside story of Britain’s Drugwar,” is that trying to enforce the UK Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) has undoubtedly created more harm in our communities than the drugs ever could. From the increasing corruption of Law Enforcement (LE), to the spread of HIV/AIDS, to the deaths related to poisoned impure drugs, to the huge numbers of crimes enacted daily and the £billions wasted trying to stop the crimes, it is increasingly difficult to countenance why successive governments continue implementing the so-called war on (some) drugs… In 2001, mature student and daughter of Blue Collar worker somehow got to study MSc Social Policy at the London School of Economics, LSE. In at least one lecture, professors mentioned that virtually all wannabe-Prime Ministers in their pre-election speeches said “We promise to be tough on crime AND the causes of crime.” I don’t need to spell out what that has meant for the UV Family. In this way, the general public get to feel secure in their homes while the causes of crime continue unabated. My laptop was stolen from my home long after I stopped injecting drugs , and I was getting bored of answering the cops questions when they came round to investigate, so I asked them; “what is the statistical likelihood of it having been stolen by a poor strung-out illegal-heroin user?” Without a seconds thought one replied “60%.”

In 1993, a great orator and my Life Partner, John Mordaunt RIP, declared that “There is no war on drugs. There is and always has been a war on drugs users” to the World’s Media at the World AIDS conference in Berlin. One way to understand that declaration is to note that five decades of aerial herbicidal-spraying of coca has not reduced cocaine use in the world. Same for opium and marijuana. That no sooner is one hectare burnt or cut down in one region, when another inevitably pops up elsewhere. Ultimately, as Andy Zapp put it succinctly, the ‘drugwar’ is just another Business. While we have an appetite for smoking , eating and injecting these herbs and medicines, there will always be an economic entrepreneur out there who will make shed-loads of money from it. Mordaunt hadn’t met Omarya, a very small-scale Columbian Cocalera, who’s home was almost burnt to the ground with her and her baby in it… Still , you get his point. Sadly, this war was lost aeons ago, but what is infinitely worse, is the carnage it has left in its wake; what some social scientists call the collateral damage of this war: Crime, death, disease and mass incarceration of mostly black and brown fellow users.

I like the historical perspective of this book; that we are taken from decade to decade highlighting the way that LE has become increasingly corrupted as the drug scenes morph from one sub-culture to another. Let’s go back to 1964 then; there were but “342 registered.. heroin addicts. Drugs were something ….majority of people simply didn’t know about.” So what the hell happened? Perhaps one of my girlfriends summarizes it well. “I was taken off heroin without any consultation, and put on a methadone script, which I didn’t take, want. It was 1969 and the heroin trade was beginning to flourish, so we began buying illegal heroin instead. Various prescribing docs had either died or been busted so we had to score somehow. Simple as that.” Around about this time, luminaries like the Community Theologian, Ken Leech; Bing Spear – Chief Inspector at the Home Office Drugs Branch – may they both RIP – and Dr Hawes began warning about the exodus to the criminalised heroin and cocaine markets that would ensue. Rev Leech echoed a particularly prophetic tone in warning that there would be significant rise in use/abuse among working-class communities, already suffering in other ways.

But were the establishment listening? Not many. Methadone was viewed as the antidote to the medical needs of growing numbers of heroin injectors, as it was largely only prescribed in oral form and has a substantially longer half life. According to Prof Trebach, we also underwent the influence of the USA, who generally treated illegal drug use as a moral failing and imprisoned users more often than not. Soon, “Stop and Search” Laws in the UK became a blunt instrument which to this day, punishes black users disproportionately. Towards the end of the 1970s, Heroin was the drug du jour, as the book shows, partly as a consequence of the growing illicit trade not to mention the numbers of impoverished families, a few of whom sold drugs to support their families as well as their “hungry habits.”

On page 109, our authors point to another seismic event impacting the global heroin trade and thereby access to tons of street opiates: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Heroin profits bought guns for the enemies of the Soviet Union. The global politics of the heroin trade is not my expertise but suffice it to say that countless paramilitary organisations have bought their guns with drug profits, not just the Mujahideen.. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mujahideen

As a chronic pain patient, who has watched countless friends die from AIDS, I should say that some survivors are grateful to the growers of bright Afghan poppies; not just grown in Afghanistan either. Without derivative painkillers, many of us would be living in dire pain – Medical Marijuana does not work for everyone. The spread of HIV/AIDS (due to most countries denying us access to evidence-based /successful /Harm Reduction Treatments) is certainly one of the biggest crime against humanity enabled by this war. I’ve heard some liberals argue that harm reduction programs that ensure access to clean injecting paraphernalia will suffice: that no laws or UN Conventions need to be changed. This maybe true where blood-borne disease-prevention is concerned but tell that to the millions who have been incarcerated on simple possession charges..

I have to say and I know I am not only speaking for this X-injector, I am glad now that people like Neil Woods and the Durham Chief of Police (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tyne-47526545) are speaking up. Their voices vindicate countless speeches drugs users and our allies have given at conferences all over the world

And so let me return to the Key issue that is highlighted in this book. The drugwar has increased corruption within police forces all over the world. How many cops will say no to a quick £1m? Apparently quite a few, but increasingly this is not the case and is thus testament to why this book is so important and should be read.

This book really should be read by the millions of concerned citizens, who know there is something wrong with putting sick (or not) drugs users behind bars but just can’t figure out what it is.

Would we recommend that heroin and cocaine be sold in our local street corner stores, as Whiskey can be… OF COURSE NOT! But at least let those who’s lives are completely saturated, destroyed by the impure & expensive drugs of criminal markets have a legal option so that slowly slowly they can improve the quality of theirs and their family’s lives. That is a Key Message of Neil and JS’s book and and in 2019, we already have 16years of proof from Portugal that this approach works in reducing crime, AIDS and drug-related death. After discovering that 1% of the Portuguese population were heroin-dependent, they decriminalised all personal possession. Most interestingly, they did NOT see a rise in numbers of people turning to heroin.

At one gathering several years ago, Tom Lloyd (another ‘recovering’ police officer) asked me to address a group of Cambridge clinicians: I recall even then LEAP members were saying that, given much of the petty crime in the UK is being committed to fund drug habits, why don’t we set up supervised heroin programs as is the way in Switzerland? As the book says, much of the answer to that question lies in the so-called “special relationship” between the US and the UK. I remember shortly after our sister Marsha Burnett, 1st Woman & X IDU addressed the failure of the war at the UNGASS (UN General Assembly Session on Drugs), 1998, we in the UK began lobbying our government to set up a safer injection room. The reason that never happened was directly related to that political and economic relationship – (so much for ‘special relationship’)

I read this book reluctantly. Having been through my own ‘war’ with drugs, (which i later discovered was mostly about self-medicating real illnesses) did I really need “Drugwars” reminder of how morally and economically wrong this war actually is? Probably not to be frank, but I am glad I persevered and got through to the end, sobbing for hours after. And why? Right now, the UK is suffering some of the worst cuts to health and social care services, ever seen. Most of you reading this will not this book review to tell you how this has affected drug treatment services, as the significant rise in drug-related deaths tragically-indicates.

It is almost farcical that some of our best friends /allies  resisting this violent corrupt war are Cops and recovering cops, as in X-cops who escaped their own violent front-lines. In the absence of the vibrant politicized Harm Reduction movement we had decades ago, needs must that leadership against the ‘war’ happens somehow. And however pissed-off this makes some users feel, painful reality is that the Police are, rightly, and wrongly (as is terrifyingly described in “Drugwars“) still a socially-respectable work-force in most peoples minds. Ultimately, they are more likely to be taken seriously than many Activists, and researchers who would, as Prof David Nutt discovered, be sacked if they publicly condemned this war on some drugs.

It is way past time nurses and other clinicians, outreach workers, youth workers and counsellors were put back in charge of the decisions governing the treatment of chemically-dependent drugs users, and law enforcers can be freed up to address actual crimes like rape and murder. That if we commit crimes other than possession of illegalised drugs, sure we should not just get away with it BUT whatever else happens, a legal version of our drug of “choice” is always offered to us in order to arrest the need to make ‘easy’ money to support raging drug habits

This could happen. It has been our way in the UK before as in the British System. Lets get back to that more pragmatic and compassionate future before another 1000 significant others have to grieve the loss of their overdosed loved ones…

We can “Do Better.” The UK is famous in International Harm Reduction circles for averting a huge HIV/AIDS epidemic, so we know *** We can do Better than this.We can indeed “Do Better.”***

Thanks to Neil Woods, Suzanne Sharkey and Tom Lloyd, for casting an editorial eye over this.

Below, Paul Flynn MP, who sadly died recently. May he forever Rest in Peace and Power. In Parliament, he was a true great of the UK Drug Policy Reform Movement. THANK YOU

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