Popular mythology suggests drug dealers reside in sprawling Miami chateaus or New Jersey strip clubs, indulging a life of vice and earthly pleasures before meeting their destiny in a hail of lead. The reality is rather different: In 2021, a drug dealer is as likely to be a 12-year-old child at the end of a county line as a smooth-talking gangster in a velour tracksuit.
A 2019 report found the European drug trade to be worth at least €30 billion a year, with 2017 analysis pegging America’s at nearly $150 billion. That amount of product needs a lot of normal people to shift – but what are the things that concern your everyday roadman? I reached out to both present and former dealers around the world to dig through their worry box.
Henry, 23, Oxford, UK; former cocaine, ecstasy, ketamine and weed dealer
Number one worry is police, of course. Second, I would say, is set-ups. Third: selling improper or impure stuff that leads to someone being hurt.
Dealing can be a very lonely thing, too. You’re always paranoid about being robbed, though it’s just something you learn to deal with and take precautions. I had a friend stabbed 112 times by his best friend and then dismembered afterwards. I’ve nearly been stabbed a couple times. That shit plays on your mind constantly and I started down the road of heavy benzo use to kerb the anxiety from it all – anxiety and guilt. I ended up hurting a lot of people close to me and was taking up to ten to twelve milligrams of Xanax per day. I started using loads of ketamine, too.
I lost everything partying and from the ket addiction – I’ve had two bladder surgeries since. I’ve got my own legit business now and am in recovery. I still check for police every time people knock on the door, though, and always shit myself if I see blues behind me when I’m driving!
Oliver, 30, Ohio, US; former Xanax dealer
I was selling acid on Snapchat, then started buying Xanax off the darkweb. Soon, I was selling 500 bars a week and could have sold more, but didn’t out of fear. At one point, three people a week [lower-rung dealers] would go to jail a week off the Xanax I was providing them. Also, the rate at which people went through them made me feel uneasy. I had one girl who wanted ten bars, then 100 the next week, then 100 the week after that. She was dating my friend, so I knew she wasn’t sharing them. I was also selling to people who did heroin and that made me fearful of them overdosing or dying.
I’m naturally a caring person so seeing the negative effects my behaviour had on others really hurt me – even if you try and rationalise it away by thinking, ‘If they didn’t buy from me it would be someone else, and at least I’m selling them the real product’. But living in fear definitely fuelled my own drug use. I ended up going to prison and have stopped now, but the urge to go back is so great.
Ash, 21, south west England; weed dealer
My biggest worry is competition from friends. I live in a small city and serve primarily students, so, when my friends saw me doing well, some took my lead and also started. This was difficult and I didn’t want conflict with people I considered friends, but they were eating into a small market. Fortunately, I explained the situation and helped them find other hustles –though I have noticed a couple of new people with the start of the new uni term. They are keeping me on my toes.
Getting set up and robbed is always a concern, but because I’m mostly serving to nice stoner students, I’m probably the least at risk of anyone I know. Dealing for me is a bit less worrisome than someone pushing Class As – but if I get caught, it still means prison time at the end of the day.
Noah, 30, Australia; former crystal meth dealer
The big worry, for me, was other dealers and problem customers. You’re not going to be on the cops’ radar if you’re small time, so it’s other players you have to worry about. That could mean getting ripped off or rolled, or having customers taken so you lose your income stream. Most of the time I was working on credit, so would get product on consignment and then repay it after. It was just simpler that way, but any hiccups with the sales would then leave a big sword of Damocles over your head.
This led to me having an ever-increasing fictional debt held over my head –yet no matter how many drugs I moved, the interest kept stacking up. It was a leverage game and it keeps you in a state of perpetual fear. I ended up getting worked over pretty badly, resulting in me getting kidnapped and tortured by the organisation I was worked under. I only survived because of a police tactical raid on the place I was held. That’s what got me out of the game in the end, but it left me with PTSD.
Billy, 24, UK; magic mushrooms and LSD dealer
I sell mushrooms and trippers [LSD tabs] and I really worry about how people will react – they are such powerful, life-changing chemicals that it's not something to fuck around with. I don't share these mushrooms for money, it's all about how they can benefit you. You can't just throw that at someone for £20 – you could mess them up.
I just don't ever sort anyone out for the first time – if they've done them before, acid or mushrooms, and I know them on a good level, then it’s fine. I'm not going to say, “Nah, find someone else.” If I sort a friend of a friend, I make sure I get a vouch. My pals know I care about this and most have had to fight me to get me to sort them trippers themselves. They know I'm not fucking around and giving some 16-year-old kid an eighth of mushroom to take to prom!
Steve, 21, Sydney, Australia; former MDMA, cocaine and ketamine dealer
The main thing I used to worry about was the quality of the product. I’m in Australia and everything is more expensive as none of the standard party stuff is produced here. Everything needs to be imported. Because we're an island in the middle of nowhere it's harder to get stuff in.
Due to these high prices, it was a priority to know the exact qualities and safety of the product. I’d have to test every pack, or sometimes pass it to friends, as well as using testing kits. The product sold itself if it was top-shelf. If the quality dropped, your customers drop, and that then requires more work to get rid of below-par product. That’s a constant stress!