Everything You Wanted to Know About the UK Drugs Scene
After 40 years of fighting the war on drugs, most of the facts have been buried in a nuclear bunker of complete bullshit, so pretty much the only way of getting some rational, adult information about them is by throwing a bunch of chemicals at your brain to see which ones stick and which ones lead to horrible birth defects in your children.
But to save us from some blind traipse into a future of mephedrone children that make those flippered thalidomide babies look like cute, aquatic Pokémon, journo-sleuths Max Daley and Steve Sampson have put their combined 20-odd years of covering the drug trade into a single, definitive guide called Narcomania. It’s full of fun facts on every aspect of the UK drug scene and how it has evolved over the past 30 years, minus all that narc shit you get in tabloids about how smoking weed leads to giving toothless blowjobs.
VICE: OK, first things first, where in the country can you get the best drugs?
Steve Sampson: Ha ha! I think in any major city across the country. Traditionally, drugs were of their highest quality at the port of their entry into the country, so if you lived in Liverpool you would be getting a far greater quality of cocaine or heroin before it got cut and moved down into the regions. In terms of highest quality of drugs, London has always been a great distribution point and one of the wealthiest, you’re going to get your premium quality drugs where people are prepared to pay the highest amount for them. Cannabis is pretty ubiquitous across the country these days with home growing. If you went to any city or any town in this country you can get a high quality of cocaine, it’s whether your budget can allow it.
OK, understood. How pure is your average wrap of pub coke?
Cocaine is mixed to meet people’s pockets these days; a local gram for £40 is likely to be ten percent pure as opposed to 90 percent for a £90 gram. The average gram sold on the street is no more than 20 to 30 percent.
I’m really not surprised by that. How pure is a kilo that comes in from Colombia?
The average purity of cocaine seized at the border is 65 percent. But by the time you get to the streets, which may only be about two stages of remove at most these days, you’re suddenly down to ten percent. That profit is being gargled down within the country these days rather than being fed back to points of supply.
What do drug consumption habits look like regionally—are the Scottish all on smack, is East London a hive of ketamine abuse?
The biggest drug takers are in the northeast and northwest. Ketamine is huge in Bristol and Bath, mephedrone injecting is big in Barnsley and South Wales, crystal meth is mainly limited to London and crack cocaine is rarely sold in Glasgow.
There’s a north/south divide in the way that drugs are taken, possibly. I think there’s a very functional and ubiquitous use up north; a heavy-drinking Scotsman up in Glasgow might take drugs in the way they drink or smoke, while down in London you might have a light salad for lunch and a glass of wine, so there’s a bit of a cultural approach to it.
From what’s written in the book, it’s pretty safe to say that you’re an anomaly if you’re a young person and you're not taking drugs. What was the tipping point where drugs became so widely acceptable instead of just being a bohemian thing?
I think it’s being recognized by others, but the key thing was the ecstasy era really, because all of a sudden you had millions of people every weekend interacting with the drugs trade like they never had before. That laid the foundation for them to grow into the cocaine generation after that. It was also the time where judges began to see drug users not as addicts but as middle-class kids who use drugs, but were also professionals, consumers and voters. It was the era where recreational drug use became a phrase and entered the language.
What’s the craftiest method you’ve encountered people using to smuggle or sell drugs?
The craftiest method in terms of smuggling was a bloke importing tropical fish infused with cocaine I think, or maybe they had little bags inside their stomachs, I’m not quite sure. Unfortunately for him, all the fish died… but he got quite close to it! You’ve got the technology these days to infuse the suit that you’re wearing with cocaine, but if you look at the legal high industry, drugs are increasingly manoeuvring around the law rather than being limited by laws. If you buy drugs over the internet you just get them posted to you by Royal Mail.
Do you think the banks passively turn a blind eye to money coming in from the drugs industry, or do you think they're more proactive in courting profits from drug cartels?
There are questions to be asked: Why were there so many banks vying for business in Mexico at a time when the war on drugs was pushing up the profits for those cartels who had nowhere else to go? Banks were competing in Mexico for what was, in fact, drug money—when one bank refused to give a certain type of account, another would give it. In the book we look at Wachovia and HSBC, but they weren’t the only ones.
Nobody walks into a bank with a suitcase full of dirty money, they present this money as clean, so it’s up to banks to question whether their story holds together. But once there are vast profits involved for everybody and you know another bank will take the money, you might put pressure on the compliance officer trying to ask those questions to push the deal through.
As you probably know, drug dealers are pretty paranoid people who constantly think their phones are getting tapped. But it says in your book that police are so wary of over-committing resources that they basically try to avoid arresting drug dealers after 3 PM. How big-time do you have to be to actually get a police investigation on your ass?
In general terms, the police aren’t monitoring the drug landscape to see what’s going on, they offer a service now, so if there’s a large amount of drug dealing going on they will deal with that specific problem. They’re not really interested in much else than where violence or guns are involved. If you were to set yourself up selling a bit of cannabis you probably wouldn’t hear from the police for fucking months, even if they knew exactly what you were doing. If you set up a pop-up crack shop you’d get shut down within 24 hours, that’s nothing to do with moral opinions, it’s purely to do with violence and the probability of gun crime.
How about if you’re taking drugs?
If you’re a pretty average person taking drugs you’re highly unlikely to have trouble with the police. If you’re taking the average “student” drugs they probably see it as more of a pain in the neck than anything else. It’s all about how you present yourself. For a lot of people looking like a little gangster is going to get themselves in as much trouble as actually being one. Most people end up getting arrested for drugs because someone has informed on them, not because police have investigated them. The resources of the police are such that they can only respond largely when there’s some pressure on them to do so.
How much of the drugs that enter the country are actually seized by police?
I think the figure that’s quoted in our book is about one percent; it really is a fraction of what gets in. There was one conversation I had with a chap who had access to the Serious Organised Crime Agency who said that if people knew how easy it was, then more people would do it.
Another thing I’m really interested in is the online side of the drug trade and deep-web sites like Silk Road, how safe are you selling or buying drugs on there?
All drugs markets exist because the police want to be able to watch them, they don’t exist outside of the police’s control. Markets exist because people want to be able to, hopefully, follow them to find the supply of drugs, they’re there because they want them to be. Silk Road has got the American law enforcement agencies on them. Whether it’s worth them financially closing them down or keep them going and watch a few people, I don’t know.
If you were to put an estimate on drug policy in this country changing, if ever, what would it be?
You have the grip of things like The Daily Mail, but there will come a time when the editors of these papers will disappear. There’s only so much time Dacre can keep his hands on The Daily Mail. Times will change, there’s a demographic shift going on but it’s one of those things that could not happen in our lifetime. I don't see legalization as something that’s around the corner, especially when there are stories doing the rounds about the Met using temperature-monitoring drones to find cannabis farms.
Follow Aleks on Twitter: @slandr
Follow Max Daley and Steve Sampson on Twitter: @narcomania
Hungry for more drugs?
Wild Things: The $wiftest Pigeon
What is the sound of one million yuan flapping?
VICE News: Sisa: Cocaine of the Poor
A new drug called sisa is tearing its way through Athens' poor.
Wild Things: The Dog Hunter
In the close-knit world of dog hunting, Tom Varney is a legend.
Ground Zero: Syria - Snipers of Aleppo
Picking off the enemy, one by one, day by day.
VICE News: The Battle of Taksim Square
The protestors started throwing stones and Molotov cocktails, and it all escalated.