The internet is dramatically changing the way drug dealers do business. Willard Foxton reports.
It’s amazing what you can find on the internet these days. A few months back, one of my, shall we say, “seedier” friends mentioned to me that he’d moved his drug habit “totally online”. He raved about it.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I used to have two dealers. One was scary and rude to me, the other was unreliable, he lied to me and used to deal me really poor quality stuff. But these online guys are incredible. They’re reliable, they have great prices on whatever you want… they even deliver right to your door.”
I was intrigued. With a little guidance from my friend, I started to find the search terms you need to go “extreme shopping”, as it’s known. I’d assumed it would all be 14-digit passwords on secure IRC channels, but, in fact, it was incredibly easy.
Classified ads websites are awash with drugs, both prescription and illegal. A typical ad, in the “Health & Beauty” section of Craigslist, no less, reads:
got the following at my disporsal – oxy- 10mg 60mg, 80mg and 5mg – Ritalin- 5mg – xanax – 10mg -opana- 30mg – fent- 10mg And perc – 10mg. Hydros Blues 10/500, and afghan hash Just get back to me if you are in need
While most of the substances listed are available on prescription, they’re still illegal to sell – and some of them, for example “perc”, (Percocet, a narcotic painkiller) is extremely strong and very addictive.
The more traditional illegal drugs are out there too, usually under code names that are fairly to decipher for anyone with even a passing familiarity with the drug scene. Marijuana is on as “420″, heroin is second hand goods in “browns” and cocaine appears as suspiciously cheap flats where you should “ask for Charlie”.
Misspellings – “herion”, “ketarmine” are one other way the dealers advertise subtly. But you can find anything. I even found an unusual kind of Somali chewing cocaine (“khat”) in the “Home & Garden” section on one classified website.
Often, once you buy something fairly innocuous from a new supplier, they will offer you harder stuff by email. A typical price list I saw offered anything up to 100 grammes of heroin: an enormous amount.
Alongside the serious quantities of drugs available online exists a bizarre modern commitment to customer service: for example, the price list above also offered that if you “order 50G + you get free next day Royal mail special delivery”.
I decided I wanted to meet the guys who were selling this stuff. After a few weeks of fruitless enquiries – despite the openness of their advertising, they are still drug dealers – I managed to meet with several.
The first was Jay. He’s a professional, a graduate of a redbrick university. Jay lives a very straight existence by day in a responsible job, but is simultaneously quite a fixture on the London Fields party circuit. We meet early on a Saturday morning. He’s unshaven but handsome in a vest and skinny jeans. It’s obvious he hasn’t slept.
Over coffee, he casually mentions he once shared a flat with the bassist from a well-known indie band.
Jay mostly deals what he calls “party drugs”: MDMA, Ecstasy, ketamine and cocaine. Coke is his biggest seller. He advertises on Gumtree as a flat with a landlord named Charles. He says most of his customers are “professionals who like to party”, like himself.
I ask how he got into online drug dealing. ”When I first moved to London (in 2006, he tells me later) the drugs scene here was awful. Your options were dodgy underfed characters coming up to you in club toilets offering, thug bouncers pushing crap cuts or seriously terrifying people in parts of town you don’t want to go.
“It started out with me just being the guy who was willing to go into that part of the city, talk with those people. I have a rapport, you know? After a year or so of doing that, I realised I might as well make some money off of it. Doing it online was just a way of anonymising myself.”
Is it lucrative?, I ask. ”I’m quite small-time. I probably move about 10 grammes a week. It makes me about £2,000 a month. Nice on top of the salary, but I’m not buying a yacht anytime soon.”
Jay’s never had a run in with the law. “I doubt the cops even know it goes on. Even if they do, I think they have bigger fish to fry.”
To an extent, Jay fits the profile Hollywood has set for a drug dealer: handsome, suave, a heavy user of his own product. But Alex, the next dealer I meet, does not fit the stereotype at all. If I had to place him from first glance, I’d say “app developer” – or even just “computer nerd”.
That is probably why he is making considerably more money than Jay. I meet Alex in a coffee chain which offers free WiFi to customers. He describes it as “one of his offices”, and says he moves to a different shop in the chain every time he checks his ads or sends mails, to conceal his IP address.
He’s an American – an undergraduate student at a large London university, well known for its large community of overseas students. He mostly deals in marijuana and prescription drugs, especially American favourites that users struggle to get on this side of the Atlantic. Adderall, the concentration aid, is his biggest seller.
He presents me with a huge set of facts and figures about revenue, profit and loss. I’m stunned. There’s even an Excel spreadsheet on his tricked-out MacBook Pro. He points to a graph.
“Adderall sales go through the roof this time of year, because of exams. Most of the rest of the year, the bulk of my clients are women. Girls love it because not only does it help you study, it’s also an appetite suppressant.
“You can see the network effect spreading it. As soon as one person starts buying from me, you will usually see four or five of their Facebook friends get in touch within a week or so.”
You track your customers on Facebook? I ask. ”Of course! It’s a great way of making sure they aren’t cops. It actually takes a huge amount of effort to create a genuine-looking Facebook.
Alex tells me he got into dealing at high school in the US, where he had an Adderall prescription but sold it on to local university students. ”Back in the states, I had an eBay shop. I sell the drugs the same way. You have to be organised, print the labels. I spend a lot of money on ink cartridges and stamps.
When I ask him how much he has made, he painstakingly explains to me how he has broken the money into multiple currencies “to hedge his risk”. He explains that overheads are high; he differentiates turnover and profit. All told, in 18 months of UK dealing, he reckons to have turned over about £200,000. £50,000 of that was profit.
I ask what he intends to do with the money. “I think I’ll buy in to a promising startup”, he replies.
The third and final dealer I meet is the most disturbing of the three. He’s called Merlin, and I meet him in Camden. Merlin is your drug dealer as imagined by Guy Ritchie. He’s a big man, drives a BMW, likes gold. We do our chat in his car, as he drives us around the area.
Merlin deals “serious drugs, hard drugs”. He’s dismissive of people selling marijuana. “That’s for batty boys,” he says. Merlin says he imports heroin, and online is only one of the ways he sells.
“It’s hard to expand. In London, you got the police – all racists – and they are all over anything you try to do. Plus, you got other sellers. Always trouble.”
Merlin now sells his “brown” online, nationwide. “You get a much better price for it outside of London. I used to send boys on the train to Bristol, Birmingham, but too much hassle with police, with other sellers, again. So these websites, they’re brilliant. We sells, it all done by the email, no-one knows us, we don’t know them. Perfect.”
He says he has no idea who he sells to. “You just emailing. It’s business. We pack it, ship it, forget it.”
Merlin says he’s been involved with the trade for years, and did time for dealing in the 1990s. But he enthuses about his online customers. “They no trouble. No begging. No stealing. No promises. If the money not in the PayPal account, you don’t send the goods”.
He despairs, however, at the state of drug dealing as a whole. ”The internet makes it good to sell, but it’s hard to get good brown these days. Used to be, man come over from Turkey, bring 30 keys [kilograms] with, sell it bulk to someone like me, then buy a shop on Green Street with the cash. You don’t see that no more.”
After having met Merlin, it struck me that he was the classic digital immigrant, running to keep up with the tech-driven disruption of the industry he grew up in. And, to be fair to Merlin, he’s handled the emergence of digital competitors better than most people in, say, the music or film industry have.
That said, personally, I suspect the future of drug dealing belongs more to Jay & Alex than it does to Merlin; with digital natives leveraging sophisticated methods to acquire, track and sell to other young people – and all at the click of a mouse.
Names have been changed to protect identities.