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Drug dealing during lockdown
Photography Mikail Duran, via Unsplash

How drug dealers are working and selling in the coronavirus lockdown

People on both ends of the drug supply chain discuss how often they’re buying drugs in quarantine, extra safety precautions, and the impact of coronavirus on trade

“Facing an increasing number of COVID-related stresses in work everyday means it’s good to blow off steam with my housemate at night,” says 26-year-old Thomas*, who works in a hospital in Liverpool. Thomas is continuing to buy coke despite the UK’s stringent lockdown measures, and adds that, although he’s been picking up less than usual, it’s not through a lack of availability. 

“I still get the same texts every Friday from the same people,” he explains. “Many have reduced their hours slightly, although one guy is still keen to advertise his 24-hour service.” 

Despite the whole of the UK being confined to their homes amid the coronavirus crisis, it doesn’t seem much has changed when it comes to drug deals. “I still hop into the passenger seat,” Thomas tells Dazed. “It didn’t even cross my mind to get in the back for social distancing, and (my dealer) didn’t seem to care.” Thomas does however now wash his hands after the deal, and cleans the baggies with hand sanitiser.

According to a report by The Guardian on Sunday (May 3), the pandemic is likely to increase drug habits among recreational users, despite a supposed decrease in the buying of “party drugs” like MDMA and cocaine. “If you were someone who was verging towards problematic use,” Adam Winstock, the founder and director of the Global Drug Survey, told the newspaper, “you’re either going to use the pandemic as an opportunity to reduce use and improve mental health, or your use is going to escalate.”

Cardiff-based Lily*, aged 25, says her weed use has definitely increased during lockdown “for two reasons”. She explains that it’s in part because of “boredom and having very little else to do”, as well as not knowing “how easy it will be to get some whenever I like, or how long this lockdown is going to go on for”, leading her to pick up more than she would usually need.

25-year-old Madeline* disagrees. “I feel like the amount of times I pick up hasn’t changed,” she asserts, “just the circumstances in which we are taking it – obviously.” Based in Manchester, Madeline says she’s been buying coke and weed, the latter of which she has been smoking more of since lockdown. “I thought it might make the evenings where I had nothing to do slightly more exciting,” she explains. 

Unlike Thomas, Madeline has been forced to adapt her picking up methods, due to having diabetes and being considered ‘high risk’ when it comes to coronavirus. “I’ve been quite reluctant to meet my guy in person,” she tells Dazed. “Luckily I have a friend who has been picking up, and has a system of leaving money outside so our guy can drop once the money is there, making it non-contact. I’m not sure if picking up through a few people is better or worse, but I’ve been wiping down the baggies with antibac and hoping for the best.”

“I feel like the amount of times I pick up hasn’t changed, just the circumstances in which we are taking it – obviously. I thought it might make the evenings where I had nothing to do slightly more exciting” – Madeline*

Madeline says dealers are also being more cautious. “One guy won’t let you sit in the front of his car to pick up – only the back seat – has sanitiser, and stops working at 6pm. I think the hours of working have generally changed quite a lot – many dealers now only have specific hours of the day where they will deliver.”

Lily has also noticed dealers taking more precautions. “I’ve never bought weed from this guy before, but he was very keen to make it a contactless transaction – both payment and drop off – which I was very on board with. Because my friend told me he was reliable, I sent him the money ahead of him coming out to deliver. Now that he trusts me, he said next time he’d post it to me in an airtight canister so that he doesn’t have to travel.”

“If anyone gives me cash, I disinfect it on the spot,” south east London-based David*, who sells cannabis, tells Dazed. “I’ve got some funny looks, but better to be safe than sick.” David says that the coronavirus has “logistically been a bit of a nightmare” due to a surge in demand for drugs. “Some people are working, some people aren’t,” he explains. “Some of the old timers (dealers who are known to the police) can’t be seen out, so it limits delivery slightly.” David says he’s personally been “OK”, revealing that he had “a few days with nothing, but had a nice backlog, so business was back to usual once everyone figured out how they wanted to move forward”.

Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of drug expert organisation, Release, says that the market seems to be relatively stable and resilient, even in the face of a pandemic. Release has launched a drug survey, asking people in the UK about coronavirus’ impact on buying illegal substances. “What we do not know is how much stock was in the UK prior to lockdown,” Eastwood tells Dazed, “and this could be the reason that we are seeing the market still function in the way it is.”

“That being said,” she continues, “we have seen suppliers adapt their behaviours by only operating for a limited number of hours every day, only accepting minimum order deals, or charging delivery costs – in many ways, operating in a similar way to many other legal delivery companies.”

Release’s drug survey – the findings of which are coming soon – has observed a small increase in drug prices, as well as reports of lower purity and quantities being dealt, especially in the heroin and cocaine markets.

“We have seen suppliers adapt their behaviours – in many ways, operating in a similar way to many other legal delivery companies” – Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release

Eastwood says respondents are mostly reporting cannabis use, “which has remained very stable probably because most cannabis is domestically produced”. People are also reportedly experimenting more with psychedelics during lockdown, while MDMA has seen a drop in use, which Eastwood describes as “unsurprising really, given that its use is largely associated with social gatherings”. 

Although Release suggests the market is stable, David doesn’t think traditional models of sale will be able to carry on long-term if the lockdown continues much longer. “Most people will have to go onto an Amazon Business model and make people pay for postage to minimise being outside,” he says. “I have people in the coke industry who are operating business-as-usual, just scaled down a bit – all his drivers do have disguises though.”

Last month, it emerged that drug dealers had been dressing up as key workers to evade police questioning when they were out in their cars. Yesterday (May 7), it emerged that dealers were also dressing as joggers and using fake NHS ID badges to avoid inspection. According to the National Crime Agency (NCA), many were also dealing from supermarkets while pretending to stockpile toilet roll. The coronavirus has also made it harder to smuggle drugs into the UK, which one driver found out the hard way after being stopped at the Channel Tunnel with £1 million worth of cocaine hidden in a consignment of face masks.

“If anyone gives me cash, I disinfect it on the spot. I’ve got some funny looks, but better to be safe than sick” – David*, dealer

“It is evidence of how groups are changing their behaviour,” the NCA’s director general, Lynne Owens, said at a press conference in April. “There are fewer drugs in the UK and prices are rising. We know that some groups are finding it harder to transport their commodities and are adapting their methods.”

In some cases, drug dealers have reportedly been easier to spot during lockdown, with Sussex Police asserting they’ve made “far more arrests” in recent weeks. Detective superintendent Jo Banks told the BBC that lockdown had afforded the police “an opportunity to do more of the disruption because (dealers) do stand out”, adding that “their activity is drawing attention when you look at our streets”.  

With most of his customers coming to him, David hasn’t had to change his selling technique much, and isn’t especially worried about the police, nor about his finances taking a hit during quarantine. “When lockdown first started, one of my main suppliers went MIA,” he tells Dazed, “but this guy is resilient so it turned out OK in the end. It was just some privacy issues from the way he was operating, and everyone involved decided how they wanted to move forward. I did make a contingency plan for if he ever goes properly missing.”

*Names have been changed