A FORMER police officer who took down a notorious smuggling ring has said that the war on drugs is unwinnable. 

Ex-Detective Sergeant Neil Woods spent years working undercover to catch heroin and crack cocaine dealers, including the notorious burger bar boys who terrorised parts of the Midlands.

He now believes that drugs should be decriminalised and says that keeping them illegal only fuels drug dealers profits and harms vulnerable people with addictions.    

After one high-scale bust, he was told that he had only interrupted the flow of illicit substances for two hours.

He said: “These gangsters were raping people as part of their reputation building and part of their intimidation.

“They were taking over the heroin and crack supplies in Northampton and causing absolute carnage.”

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Mr Woods, who is now chairman of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), was speaking at a seminar arranged in Greenock by the Inverclyde MP Ronnie Cowan, vice-chair of the all-party group on drugs policy reform, asking whether the UK should take a health-based approach.

He said: "I put people in prison, just from my undercover work, for over 1,000 years, and that seemed like an impressive total.

“But then you think ‘I only interrupted the supply for two hours into the city’. Because policing drugs cannot get rid of the demand. It doesn’t get rid of the market – you can only change the shape of the market.

“Eventually the penny dropped for me – that the reason for year after year after year the gangsters were getting more violent, was actually down to me, and people like me.

“Because the drug war is a never-ending arms race. There’s no chance of a peace treaty.”

He added: “Not only is policing drugs causing harm to individuals, it’s completely futile and an enormous waste of money. It’s also creating monopolies of organised crime which are corrupting our entire society, including the police.”

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The panel also heard from senior medic Rod Thomson, deputy president of the Royal College of Nursing, who said that putting drug-users behind bars only causes further harm for them and their families.

Mr Thomson believes that lives are being needlessly lost because addicts hide their problems from doctors and emergency staff for fear of attracting the attention of the police.

The former psychiatric nurse, who is now director of public health in Shropshire, highlighted a case in Glasgow a number of years ago where a number of addicts fell ill after using a batch of contaminated heroin.

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The problem was only identified when two nurses working on with separate patients compared notes and realised they were dealing with an outbreak.

Mr Thomson said: "That detective work was made much harder because we could not have free meetings with the people who were affected.

"We had to take sources of heroin from wherever we could find them and compare what was being used on the streets.

"People were hiding even from us, who were trying to help them. From the point of view of nurses up and down the country, having a system which hides the problem and pushes people away from the help they need makes life harder for the people with these problems, their families and the people trying to help them."

He added: "All of the various policies we have in place just make it harder for people to get help."

The seminar, attended by aroun 85 people on Thursday, also heard members of the public share their views and experiences with drugs. 

One audience member, who admitted to being a drug user, said that the public was "light years" ahead of politicians on the issue of decriminalisation, to agreement from most there.

Afterwards, Mr Cowan said: “I was delighted to welcome a range of speakers that encompassed experts from ex drug users, the medical profession, law enforcement and harm reduction.

"As we move towards a health based approach to drug addiction it’s important that we understand the range of issues involved."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “The Scottish Government recognises drug and substance misuse as firstly a public health issue – and has already transferred responsibility for this area from justice to health ministers last year.

“As Public Health Minister Aileen Campbell recently announced, we are refreshing our national drug strategy, which will be founded on the principle of ‘Seek, Keep, Treat’,  in recognition that keeping people engaged with services is one of the most effective ways to stop people dying from substance misuse.

"This will challenge service providers to adapt their approaches to meet the needs of each drug user."