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How Mobile Phones Changed Drug Dealing

This is how your mum and dad used to get their pills.
Illustration: Dan Evans

Last month, during the World Cup, a friend of mine received a text:

"SPECIAL OFFER ON AGAIN FOR 1 DAY ONLY FOR THE FOOTY! **2 -50£** TAKE ADVANTAGE!! DYNOMITE FLAKE!! WILL BLOW UR FUKIN HEAD OFF!! IT'S COMING HOME!! C'MON ENGLAND!!" read the message from an evidently patriotic cocaine salesman.

"Wow," I said. "Isn't technology something?"

In 2018, technology has become inextricably linked to the sale of illegal drugs: smartphones and social media make dealers accessible to users at all times, while the dark web facilitates the clandestine retailing of everything from hormones to heroin. Yet drug dealing looked very different until about 20 years ago, when the sudden proliferation of mobile phones spelled the death of one marketplace and the birth of another.


People often ask Jason* how drugs were sold before mobile phones became ubiquitous. "Well, I say to them that it was a lot easier," he tells me. Jason is a former drug-user who worked on the helpline of a well-known drugs charity for nine years, providing advice and information to the public. "It was a very different thing, and I think it was a lot safer, too."

Today, when Jason walks down the street near treatment services, he is very often accosted by drug dealers offering phone numbers. "They'll say, 'Call me, yeah? I'm 24 hours.' It wasn't like that before," he explains. "These guys are what we call the 'urban entrepreneurs'."

These relatively small-time drug dealers piled into the drug market in the late-1990s, when mobile phones and crack cocaine use were spreading across the UK. "These guys typically don't last long. They're all being watched, listened to, cross-referenced," says Jason, "and they all make the same mistake: they carry on until they get arrested. People getting caught these days are dealing in small amounts and trying to make as much money as possible."

In the drugs market of two decades ago, the majority of low-level dealers were themselves users, and not necessarily trying to turn a profit. "It was seen as being part of a community," says Jason. "People used to take [drug dealing] in turns – they weren't pushing; you were probably just keeping your own habit."


While today's users have easier access to drugs, they also have a greater chance of being ripped off or mistreated by a dealer they don't have a good relationship with. The interpersonal relationships fostered by user-dealing created a sense of solidarity among some hardcore drug users, which in turn facilitated peer-to-peer information regarding harm reduction and, says Jason, resulted in a safer experience.

Photo: Lev Dolgachov / Alamy Stock Photo

Outside of user-dealing, drugs were mostly distributed through two channels. The first, Jason calls "frontlines" – areas which hosted street vendors, typically located in the red light district of a town. The second were "head pubs" – bars where drug dealers were known to gather: "Every large area had a head pub, and then maybe another one vying for it. The give-away was that these places always smelled like patchouli."

Inside head pubs, "official" vendors permitted to sell drugs onsite would materialise at certain times. "They obviously knew the landlords and the bar staff," says Jason. "You might even notice a queue forming next to that person. Even in London, certain people would be let into clubs because they were known to be bringing in stimulants. In the 90s, when the rave scene and all-night pubs started going, people weren't staying awake on bloody alcohol! There was kind of a blind eye turned."

Elsewhere, a trip to the frontline of an area would likely entail visiting a street corner, a phone-booth or a front business. One infamous chicken shop in Hackney would put heroin in their snack-boxes: "You'd go in and ask for chicken and chips, give them a £50 note, and then crack or heroin would be put in a box with the chicken," says Jason. "And then you had a fruit shop with the mankiest fruit you've ever seen; it was just a cover to sell crack. I mean, the fruit was rotten."


Frontlines were often tense environments, and the drug dealers working them were hyper-vigilant. "Certain bars had backrooms where you could get Es," former drug-user Peter* tells me. "One, I remember where we went into a backroom and it was basically controlled by a drugs gang, and they got paranoid and made us take the Es right there and then."

Modern festivals are a microcosm of what it was like to purchase drugs before the advent of mobile phones: people looked for the right place, used eye-contact, sized each other up and tried to figure out who was selling. A recent study suggested that hangovers are an integral part of the experience of a night of drinking; Andre*, who began taking speed and ecstasy in his early teens in the 90s, thinks the same may have been true for the experience of visiting a head pub or a frontline.

"It was kind of like when you were a kid and you heard a single on the radio once, and then you waited until you could get it in HMV," he says over the phone. "Then when you finally got it you ran home and listened to it over-and-over. In a way, you appreciated it a lot more. Even trying to get a block of hash, we'd be waiting on corners for hours."

It's unsurprising that technology has tapered the interactions and experiences formerly associated with drug use. Neoliberal atomisation, the economic process in which individual consumers are produced in lieu of communities, has affected every corner of society – even those inhabited by addicts. As mobile phones rendered workers contactable at all times – permanently tethering people to their work – drug dealing too became 24/7.


John*, another frontline drugs worker whose own history as a user led to a career in the field, has observed firsthand how mobile phones changed the relationship between drug dealers themselves. "They're able to connect with each other more easily, and to potentially disguise what they are doing," he says. "Burner phones, which have very little memory, are very difficult to hack into or obtain data from."

"If you ever see anybody with two phones – one expensive phone and one cheap – it's likely they're a drug dealer," he adds. "That's usually the higher level."

He wonders whether young people can comprehend the difficulty associated with acquiring drugs before mobile phones; how much waiting around and uncertainty was involved. "If you called someone and they didn't want to get back to you, then you were pretty much stuck," he explains. "And when drugs were purchased, people tended to buy larger amounts, as it was likely to be a long time before they got hold of another drug dealer."

I mention the unsolicited texts my friend has been receiving, and ask how they fit into the picture. John explains that on the lower end of drug-dealing, the use of coded language has mostly disappeared. "People are so fucking stupid," he says. "The texts spelling out what drugs they sell, I've seen so many of them! When the police grab the phone – which is literally the first thing they will do – they have all the evidence they need for prosecution. It's your own fault, really, if you do get caught."


Fiona Measham, Professor of Criminology in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, suggests that drug users don't message in code because they have less fear of being caught than before.

"Drug-use is so widespread and normalised now; the police are no longer really interested in chasing and arresting users," she says, when I ask her about this phenomenon. "I'm from Manchester, and if you go shopping in Manchester city on a Saturday, all you do is smell cannabis. Loads of people walking around shopping, smoking a joint – I think the lack of code for users is part of the wider phenomenon of normalisation."

Following a brief period in the 2000s, tracking mobile phones started to become useful to policing, but things quickly moved on as high-level drug dealers wised-up. Soon, the police began relying on other methods of surveillance.

"I was involved in a case where I remember the guy was baffled by how the police got him because people kept throwing away their phones. But the police had gotten his car, and the car that the main dealer used was basically his mobile office," says Measham, adding that the man thought one of his underlings was informing the police about his activities. "He didn’t have a grass at all; it was just that everything was being listened to by the police because they'd bugged his car."

As more of our economy becomes dependent on technology, drug dealing will likewise continue its journey away from the open markets now predominantly seen at festivals: "That's the key thing," says Measham. "Now, it's about supply and demand via various different communication channels, whatever they are."

*Names changed to protect identities.