Book reviews

This new section of the website is dedicated to brief reviews of books, films or other media that we feel would be of interest. The reviews will only be indicative, will only be occasional and quite random, featuring ‘golden oldies’ as well as new items.

Recently there have been a spate of unique popular science books which not only look at addiction in a new way, but have also been written by those with lived experience of drugs and the drug culture. For most of the American medical, research and therapeutic mainstream, addiction is a disease like any other which in turn has dictated the development of treatment pathways. Some doctors like Stanton Peele have been challenging this orthodoxy for years. These books represent new challenges to traditional thinking.

Thin white lines

In the continuing debate about drug law reform, two books highlight the issue of whether or not the police themselves are likely to be a force for change

Taking Care of Business: police detectives, drug law enforcement and proactive investigation, Matthew Bacon, Oxford: OUP, 2016

Good Cop, Bad War, Neil Woods, J.S. Rafaeli, London: Ebury Press, 2016

By Harry Shapiro, Director DrugWise

In the UK, the battle for the hearts and minds of the general public over drug law reform has some way to go. And that despite well publicised celebrity, political and academic endorsements, several parliamentary and think tank reports, an endless stream of supportive editorials (most recently from the British Medical Journal), op-eds, blogs, articles and books and more ‘under the public radar’ activities of several user groups and campaigning organisations which even involve bereaved parents who you might think would be most unlikely reform advocates.

Theoretically though, the most powerful voices for reform could come from those charged with actually enforcing the drug laws – the police. Senior officers such as Richard Brunstrom when still Chief Constable of North Wales and more recently Mike Barton Chief Constable of Durham made public their views about the need for change. The former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire, Tom Lloyd is now an active reform campaigner.

In a remarkably frank assessment of the impact of drug law enforcement as part of the evaluation of the 2010 drug strategy, the government conceded that law enforcement had little measurable impact on prevalence of use or other metrics of performance. This is not that surprising; there are no robust baselines for drug law enforcement against which to measure performance; numbers of drug gangs, amount of drugs coming into the country and so on, let alone trying to ascertain who didn’t use drugs because of the law alongside the acknowledged unintended consequences such as violence on the streets. But you can imagine, as things stand in the history of drugs in the UK, the political, media and community storm that would erupt if the government announced that because the sums don’t add up, it wasn’t spending any more money on enforcing the drug laws.

But what do officers think about the value of the work they do when it comes to managing local drug markets? Little information finds its way into the public domain about the detail of drug enforcement. beyond media reports of big seizures at ports of entry and the high energy depictions in film and TV. The reality is much more mundane, certainly at street level. You can get a sense of what is going on here through the many ‘police interceptor’ reality TV shows, with the obvious health warning that ‘reality’ is always compromised by the presence of cameras.

In an idle moment, I tuned in to one such programme just as a patrol car was into hour five of sitting by the roadside unable to respond to any other calls based on intelligence that a local drug ‘kingpin’ would drive by. Eventually a scruffy VW is spotted and the chase is on. Well, not really a chase; as soon as the blues and twos light up, the guy pulls over. The car is searched but nothing found. The car is impounded and taken to bits until the team triumphantly unearth a couple of bags of cannabis and cocaine stuffed inside two Kinder eggs. Hardly Pablo Escobar but the apocalyptic voice-over trumpets another victory in the war against drugs. Except that if memory serves, the local ‘kingpin’ is back on the streets in short order. Even so, at least for the benefit of the cameras, the police seemed to think it was another job well done although assessing the cost of that one incident could be revealing.

If the police are understandably reticent about discussing day to day operations, neither has much emerged from the academic world probably because of issues of access. The first and up to now only study of British drug operations was Police, Drugs and Community (Free Association Books 1995) by the late Mike Collison, a criminology lecturer at Keele University. In 1990, Collison embedded himself for a year with a drug squad in a northern non-metropolitan town.

Now criminologist Matthew Bacon from Sheffield University has published Taking Care of Business: police detectives, drug law enforcement and proactive investigation. The two studies were undertaken in very different spirits. Although I am not an ethnographer, both appear to be conducted with all the necessary attention paid to academic governance, ethics and methodological rigour. The difference resides with the individuals. Mike Collison stated “the analysis to follow needs to adopt no prior moral standpoint on the question of prohibition (nor should it). My immediate concern is to write about drug law enforcement and simply assess some of its strengths and weaknesses” (p.4). And as you might expect, the account was depersonalised and detached.

The spirit of Matt Bacon’s book is far from dispassionate. Between April 2008 and May 2010, Bacon spent a total of 96 days with two specialist teams of drug enforcement detectives within two Basic Command Units, one in the north of the England the other in the south. He anonymised the officers by giving them character names from The Wire: for those familiar with the TV series, that act alone nails Bacon’s colours to the mast. But if that was too subtle, at various points in the text, he makes his views clear, saying at one point that ‘I am a vehement supporter of drug policy reform (p.248). However, in my view, this doesn’t undermine the credibility of the work: taken with Bacon’s insightful and personal field note extracts, the book makes for an engaging read. You are left with the feeling that after initial suspicions on the part of the constitutionally clannish specialist detective teams, they were prepared to let a young outsider inside their canteen culture to share their view of the world.

Bacon takes us on a trip through the world of the drug detectives, some of whom aspire to that ‘outlaw’ image of tackling the bad guys and how they can feel constrained (or not!) by modern policing imperatives where drugs work is invariably intelligence-led, and framed within the National Intelligence Model, dominated by the processes and procedures of managerialism and the restrictions imposed by organisational priorities at a time when the drugs issue has undoubtedly dropped down the political agenda. Officers I have spoken to view this as very short-sighted saying that without drug money, most other serious and organised crime could not function.

But while Bacon supports reform, he reports honestly on the views and opinions of the officers he engaged with over two years. In his concluding remarks, he states:

“While detectives rarely questioned the authority of the law, believing they were making a positive difference and remained motivated by operational successes on a case-by-case basis, their efforts were accompanied by a sense of futility and doubt. Many officers had a cynical outlook, they were defeatist, pessimistic about the future of policing drugs…..[However[ the majority of police officers remained faithful supporters of the status quo and resistant to change. Prohibition was viewed as the only morally legitimate and feasible policy option….Arguments for reform…were generally viewed with scepticism or given zero weight…the detectives were particularly dismissive of claims that enforcement was a waste of resources and exacerbated drug problems” (p.245)

But he goes on to say that a ‘significant minority’ were very much of a different view and if Bacon had interviewed him, Neil Woods would have been right at the heart of that group.

In his study from the early 1990s, Collison noted that drug enforcement undercover work was very restricted: it was viewed as almost impossible to manage, and could lead officers into situations where they could be corrupted or even become users themselves to maintain cover. Former Detective Sergeant Neil Woods puts graphic and harrowing flesh on Collison’s observation with his passionate and compassionate autobiography (written in a cinematic journalistic style by JS Rafaeli) Good Cop, Bad War.

Joining the police in 1989, Woods found he had a knack for interviewing suspects and getting them to talk, a talent recognised by superiors who in 1993 asked him to go undercover posing as a street heroin user. And so began a career lasting until 2007 developing his technique in various locations, primarily in some of the grimmer, poverty stricken outposts of the north west, Black Country and the Midlands.

Woods describes two levels of undercover work; level 1 was an already established technique of deep cover where an officer would work for many months on the same case attempting to mix with the high-end traffickers, the businessmen in suits who never went near the product. Woods operated at the much more embryonic level 2, posing as a street user aiming to take out the worst of the street gangs through buy/busts.

Level 2 was in its infancy; in the early days dealers had not cottoned on to what was happening. So while Woods found himself in some dangerous situations, somehow he always managed to find a way out and in the process took down some very unpleasant people, although being undercover for so long took its inevitable toll on his personal life and psychological well-being.

Woods was proud of the murderous thugs he helped put away, but this was undermined by the disappointment, disillusionment and disgust that seemed to dog his tracks. While he has praise for some of his colleagues, he displays growing contempt for other individuals and the culture itself; inter-squad rivalries, short-sighted obsessions with buy/bust numbers; examples of blatant corruption and managerial failings which in some instances, he says, put his life at risk.

Then there was the war on drugs itself. Woods increasingly saw this as an arms race; the more undercover operations took place, the more clued up the gangs became and the people who suffered most were the very vulnerable street users (some of whom Woods befriended) who became human shields, commanded to do the street deals under threat of extreme violence. For Woods, this reached the nadir when he was posted to an operation in Brighton which had the dubious honour of being the heroin overdose capital of England. Although no cases were ever followed through, Woods was led to believe that rather than shoot a heroin user for messing up, they would be given a hot shot. Heroin users lived in fear that their next hit would be their last. In the end, Woods resigned and instead hooked up with the US organisation Law Enforcement Against Prohibition eventually becoming chair of the UK branch.

All agencies acknowledge the importance of ‘multi-agency working’ in the attempt to limit the damage of drugs in the community. But the police too have demonstrated they are willing to play a more proactive role in harm reduction. For example, over the years, treatment agencies have received so-called ‘letters of comfort’ from Chief Constables allowing them to supply safer injecting paraphernalia in contravention of Section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act while the law played catch-up. More recently on-site drug testing has taken place with police approval. It is a tradition that the British police are independent from political control (although less so with the advent of Police and Crime Commissioners) and that independence and discretion goes right to the front line where it can operate for both good and ill.

In the end whose voices count in the moves to reform UK drug laws?  Neil Woods says his former career has been important in getting politicians at least to hear him out. Matt Bacon underlines this, “If there is any hope of walking further down the path towards a more effective and just approach to drug law enforcement, the wider policing landscape must be ripe for organisational change to occur”. Yet Bacon’s own research shows that old attitudes die hard and while Woods argues that many officers agree with him, the brutally crude remarks of those around him in his various postings – ‘who cares about another dead junkie?’ suggested he was a relatively lone voice.  It will take some seismic shift for more officers to make that great LEAP forward.

This is an extended, re-edited and updated version of a review published in Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy



High price; drugs, neuroscience and discovering myself by Carl Hart

HighPriceThis is the story of how the author escaped his upbringing in one of Miami’s toughest neighbourhoods to become the first tenured African American professor in the sciences working as a neuroscientist at Columbia University. In the course of his journey, Carl Hart became convinced about how and why the drug laws have been especially damaging for the black community and in doing so has become an ardent campaigner for reform.

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The biology of desire: why addiction is not a disease by Marc Lewis

BiologyofdesireThe author is another neuroscientist with a history of drug use which he detailed in his previous book Memoirs of an addicted brain. The disease model of addiction remains controversial; there are those that maintain that addiction is the result of a ‘diseased’ brain, while others maintain that addiction is entirely driven by external circumstances. Lewis makes the central point that the brain must be involved and yes, it adapts to new experiences and circumstances,  because if it didn’t, babies would never learn how to talk and nobody would ever learn how to play a musical instrument. Addiction is part of that same dynamic learning process.

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Unbroken brain: a revolutionary new way of understanding addiction by Maia Szalavitz


The author is an experienced science writer with – in this case –  a great facility for making the complexities of brain chemistry accessible (and is acknowledged by Carl Hart for helping him craft his story). She too also writes from the perspective of lived experience – and like Lewis takes the view that addiction is the product of disordered learning and not disease.

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The drug conversation: how to talk to your child about drugs by Owen Bowden-Jones

howtotalkDr Bowden-Jones is best known for his work at the London Club Drug Clinic, so the subject of his first foray into books comes as something of a surprise. But it is full of practical advice, case studies and clear information about drugs and their action. I think the publishers would do well to market this book beyond book shops. In the first place, my gut feeling is that many parents would feel a bit reticent about walking into a shop and buying a book like this or borrowing it from a library. So online purchase is more likely and for that, they would have to know about it. Secondly, I think those working professionally with young people would benefit from reading this book, not least so they can bone up on the drug information and if they are also working with parents or other carers, they might then want to recommend the book as a useful adjunct to face to face work.

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