Image Credit: Cannabis Tours (Creative Commons)
Content warning: strong language and references to drug abuse and violence
Names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees
The world ground to a halt during the first lockdown in March 2020. Most industries were crippled by the pandemic; from arts to retail, people found that their industries and thus their employment hung precariously in the balance. But where certain jobs are drying up or disappearing entirely, other industries are seeing a drastic shift. In the first of this series, I spoke to cam girls and OnlyFans models, finding out how lockdown had seen their earnings skyrocket as they experienced a previously unseen level of demand. With this edition of ‘Conversations’, I’ve decided to dig deeper to find out how the pandemic has impacted the UK’s illegal drugs industry and how dealers have had to resort to new means of operation within ‘the new normal’.
The UK drugs trade is worth an estimated £9 billion and surprisingly this figure didn’t drop in 2020, as supply and demand still seem steady. I wanted to find out why that is, and how dealers were still operating, and profiting, during the pandemic.
A few months ago, I set out on this insane mission to speak to drug dealers and find out how Covid has impacted their lives. Many dead ends later, I managed to find some contacts who were willing to talk to a journalist – three dealers and sellers working in different areas of the industry who had, in some way, felt the strain of the pandemic. Their stories paint an interesting picture of how Covid has affected their trade.
My first contact with the industry came from a dealer in the North West, mainly selling or ‘shotting’ cannabis, ketamine, cocaine and ‘party drugs’. For the process of anonymity, let’s call him Tony. Like many dealers in this field, Tony buys his product in bulk from Eastern Europe and the pandemic has caused the cost on the supply end to skyrocket.
“It’s mad,” Tony tells me. “Costs keep getting higher and higher and less people are buying. People still want to buy weed and, if anything, I’m seeing a boom on that but there’s no appetite for pills or powder and that’s where I make most of my money. Most of my clients buy for nights out so that’s no longer an option. Had to almost double my coke costs to make any profit short of cutting it.”
A study by the Global Drug Survey in 2020 found that access to illegal drugs has decreased across the UK over the past year, with supply chains and dealers being hit hard by the virus and customers finding it harder than ever to obtain drugs. 29 per cent of those surveyed agreed with Tony’s sentiments, suggesting that prices had increased. 10 per cent said it took longer to acquire. 19 per cent bought larger amounts because of this cost inflation. I ask Tony if he’s had to move to bulk buying to combat the skyrocketing prices of his suppliers.
“Yeah, I’ve kind of got a stockpile building up,” he jokes. “People were stocking up on toilet roll while I was stocking up on weed. I bought big early on but now I owe a lot of people a lot of money and I need to start shifting otherwise I’m f**ked.”
This question hangs awkwardly. I can tell Tony doesn’t want to explain what this means, but I can guess it’s not going to end with him and his supplier having a nice chat and a cup of tea.
It’s clear Tony needs his business now more than ever, and I wanted to find out how exactly he had been working during lockdown and how the pandemic had altered his day to day operations.
“Yeah it’s certainly been a change of pace,” he laughs. “I used to spend a lot of time on the street but now it's home deliveries. [During the] first lockdown I was dealing on the street but ended up getting Covid pretty badly. If I can’t be working I can’t pay rent so that’s when I moved to deliveries.”
“Were you cautious about the virus before then?” I ask him.
“Nah not really mate. Didn’t really think I’d get it you know.” He tells me “getting Covid was a bit of a kick up the arse to be honest. A lot of my clients still want to meet in person but I can’t be doing that anymore. It just ain’t safe, even with masks and gloves. It’s all deliveries now.”
“I even know a couple of guys operating out of Liverpool that have started using delivery bikes and Deliveroo jackets which is mad,” Tony continues. “Just show up at your door with a brick [2 pounds of cocaine] in a Deliveroo sack. The hustle is real mate, people should be out on their doorsteps clapping their drug dealers.”
This brings me onto my next point – Covid aside, the drugs trade isn’t exactly a safe business and I wanted to know whether Tony had witnessed any conflict. With gang violence, organized crime and the drugs trade intertwining and resulting in hundreds of deaths a year in the UK, I ask Tony if he’s seen any of this violence first hand.
“Of course,” he chuckles, in a way that suggests I’ve asked a somewhat naive question. “I got stabbed in the stomach dealing on some gang’s estate a couple years ago. Been threatened with guns, machetes; a mate of mine even had to have 30 pellets removed from his back a few years back. Drugs are a dangerous game mate.”
Moving back to Covid, I wanted to find out about who’s been using during the pandemic, and why people are still buying and selling during a national lockdown. Despite supplies being at an all time low and access becoming increasingly limited, drug offences increased by 27 per cent over lockdown and this figure puzzled me. I ask Tony why he thought this might be.
“I think people just need to relax,” he explains, “and why not smoke up if you’re furloughed and sat at home all day? It’s no surprise weed and tranquilizers are selling more than anything else. People just want something to help them relax and chill out, you know?”
While business seems to be precarious for dealers like Tony, it’s even more risky for those who are required to travel. Tony connected me with another dealer, Walter (again, not his real name) who operates out of North London, running drugs to small towns and cities across the Midlands.
“The moment we were all told to stay at home, I was fked,” Walter explains to me, “getting [the] train [to go] North became risky ‘cause it was no longer normal. I make most of my money selling OT [“out of town”: slang for county lines operations] and suddenly that was no longer an option. I can’t drive so it’s been a bit of a fkery.”
Walter doesn’t work for himself like Tony; he’s a runner for a drugs gang in North London and is tasked with moving amounts of money and drugs between cities, no questions asked. Like many other county lines dealers, he juggles dealing with a day job to make a little extra cash. I ask him how this has been over lockdown and whether this has affected his income and his employment.
He laughs. “I’ve been fked, got laid off from my day job so now my only cash is from dealing. Normally that’s fine as I make a decent bag [amount of money] from dealing but now I’m not getting any work ‘cause I can’t travel. Been fked to be honest.”
“What sort of stuff are you moving?” I ask Walter.
“Mainly coke, brown (heroin) and benzos [benzodiazepines – tranquilizers similar to Xanax or Valium].” He explains that “prices are soaring because no one can move it. We’ve had to seriously cut our coke and brown to make any money. Most of our business is from going country so that’s really f**ked us up you get me? Hold on one sec bruv.”
Walter tells me he’s getting an incoming call, ends the call and doesn’t ring me back. I suspect I was beginning to bore him, or perhaps he hadn’t taken well to my curiosity. Either way I found my number was blocked.
Thankfully Tony gave me another contact, a Darknet vendor who’s been making real money over lockdown and has agreed to talk with me over the secure messaging app Telegram. Tony tells me he offloaded a lot of his product to this seller, who has been doing big business during the pandemic. We’ll call him Pablo.
Operating on the Darknet, Pablo sells and ships products to buyers across the UK and the Netherlands. Working out of a basement in an undisclosed location, he and his girlfriend package and ship thousands of units a month. He also works as a middleman, selling drugs to other dealers across the country now they are unable to buy from their usual suppliers.
I ask Pablo whether the lockdown has helped his operations.
“I think it definitely has,” he tells me, “people can’t get product on the streets so they’ve been buying online. Prices on the street are getting higher and mine are staying pretty stable so I think people like that.”
“Do people prefer delivery to picking up?”, I message back.
“Yeah I think people think it’s a lot safer, especially with Covid,” he replies. “No different to an Amazon package right? We’ve been getting a lot of new customers over the past few months because it’s much safer.”
I ask Pablo how he manages to keep his prices so low with suppliers facing an increasing strain and supplies of recreational drugs seeming harder than ever to acquire.
“I buy most of my product domestic so there’s no problem getting it into the country,” he explains, “you’d be surprised how many farms and labs there are in the UK. A lot of people are being f**ked over buying from overseas suppliers right now so that’s why their prices are higher.”
While some vendors like Pablo buy from domestic farms and labs, most buy imported and this usually comes at a cheaper price, but with a greater risk. Covid has seen these international supply chains, usually run by organized crime, crumble as it’s become harder to move product into the UK. I ask Pablo whether he thinks these supply chains will recover in the years following the pandemic and why he prefers his way of business to buying imports.
“It will take a while,” he explains. “I think a lot of people prefer business done this way so I reckon this is how we’ll operate for the future. Hopefully prices will come back down as Covid goes away but for now we’re doing fine. We’ve been doing more business than ever and it’s probably because we’ve kept costs low and people prefer ordering online.”
I thank Pablo for his help, and within five minutes I see his account has been deleted – the only record of our conversation being a few screenshots on my phone.
Speaking to Tony, Walter and Pablo, it seems that the UK drugs industry has seen a dramatic shift over the past year. As production and supplies hit an all time low, while demand seems steady, many dealers have had to resort to new ways of operation over lockdown. Home deliveries, Darknet dealing and even Deliveroo jackets now seem part and parcel of the trade, as many traditional means have been replaced with creative solutions. It’s hit certain people harder than others. County line dealers like the elusive Walter have been unable to move product, while more sophisticated operations like Pablo’s Darknet service have been flourishing.
While the future of the industry looks to be changing, as the supply and demand fluctuate, one thing remains certain. Drug dealers will always find a way to sell – even in a pandemic.