This article originally appeared on VICE UK. In September 2017, Colin Oliphant—a low-level drug dealer and user—was relaxing at a friend’s house in Fife, Scotland, when his drug supplier, William Richardson, confronted him over a $270 cocaine debt. Richardson, a convicted heroin smuggler, came armed with a hammer and hit Oliphant with a blow so forceful that splinters of his rib blew open his lungs, killing him within hours. Richardson, who was "full of bravado" after the attack, was convicted of culpable homicide at Edinburgh’s High Court earlier this month.
This week at Manchester Crown Court, three members of a drug gang were jailed for carrying out a lethal punishment beating on Ian Bendall, also over a drug debt. Bendall, a long-term heroin user, had started selling drugs for Alexander Smith but had reportedly run up a $400 debt. In June of last year, Bendall was bundled into a car, taken to a wasteland, and subjected to a "brutal" attack in which Smith and two other men stamped and kicked him before dumping him outside his Bolton home. He died from the beating four days later.
Debt represents a specific realm of risk if you do business in the drug world. It's not only a major cause of violence, exploitation, and death—usually metered out to those occupying the lower echelons of the drug trade—but also an essential part of what makes the drug business tick.
The repercussions of not paying even the smallest debts can be medieval in their severity. Stories of people being killed for less than the price of two pints are not uncommon. Last July, two dealers in Hemel Hempstead, England, were jailed after they stabbed Adam Watt to death because he ran off without paying for a $10 bag of crack. Last August, a Liverpool heroin dealer, Michael Cullen, was jailed for 12 years for slitting customer Christopher Hall’s throat with a Stanley knife because he did not pay him for a $20 bag of heroin. The wave of violence across British prisons has been fueled by inmates finding themselves in debts over synthetic cannabis.
There are multiple tales of drug debt–related kidnapping, sexual violence, and torture, sometimes carried out by specialist drug debt enforcers, with the level of sadism usually rising with the amount of money owed. One police expert hostage negotiator I spoke to told me that his force got at least one call-out a week to advise on a drug debt–related kidnapping.
The intensity of the violence around drug debts is not just a mark of the hot-headedness and thuggery that characterizes parts of the criminal world; it's also vital tool used by drug gangs to send out a message to both the law-abiding and criminal communities: They are not to be messed with.
A drug dealer selling pills and weed socially will increase his customer base and therefore profits by having a reputation as easy-going. But in the more professional and cut-throat street heroin and crack-selling markets, or in the highly lucrative cocaine smuggling game, it is essential not to be seen by customers or rivals as an easy target for rip-offs. The drug selling game is built on a mix of respect, trust, and brute force. As one Glasgow cocaine-trafficking gang told a kidnapped debtor before torturing him, breaking his leg with a sledgehammer, and blowing his kneecaps off, "It’s not about the money, it’s the fucking principle."
"I would say 90 percent of drug market violence is directly linked to debt," a former undercover drug squad officer, Neil Woods, told me. "But it's not just about the money. Image is key. The dealers who don't get grassed up are the ones who thrive. In order to not get grassed up, a reputation for violence has to be cultivated. The collection of debts is where that image is cultivated. It has become a culture thing as much as about the actual cash."
Drug debts are contagious. It's not just those who owe money who are targeted, but also their family and friends. In Liverpool, the knee-jerk threat of the teenage dealer calling in a debt is no longer a fistfight around the corner. Instead, it’s: "I’m going round yer ma's." Last March, a disabled grandmother from Manchester, Barbara Dransfield, had most of the bones in her face broken with a baseball bat because her son owed dealers $130 for cannabis. In August, two drug-debt enforcers were jailed after biting a man’s nose off at a Christmas party in Teignmouth, England because of his son’s $1,300 drug debt.
Research into drug-debt intimidation in Ireland carried out by criminologist Dr. Johnny Connolly at Limerick University’s Centre for Crime, Justice, and Victim Studies has uncovered an escalation in violence directed at drug users' mothers and grandparents in the past decade.
"It starts with a knock at the mother’s door, with someone saying their son owes money. They either have to pay up or risk the consequences," says Connolly. "Sometimes these drug debts lead to extortion. There are people who have had to re-mortgage their houses. Even for runners caught with drugs who protect their bosses and go to prison, the debt is transferred to their families."
It’s a toxic problem that remains largely submerged. Despite the regularity with which drug-debt violence is reported in court reports, the vast majority of incidents go unreported due to fear and have become an accepted part of life in some communities.
The Irish research found evidence of women being coerced into performing sexual acts to pay off drug debts, and teenagers committing suicide because they couldn't pay them. Half of the drug debt victims were physically attacked, and a third had their property damaged. Yet very few ever reported this to the authorities. When the evidence thrown up by the reports into drug debt could no longer be ignored by police, they found themselves hamstrung. "The Guardia’s National Drugs Unit was determined to do something about this," says Connolly. "They met victims in plainclothes outside of police stations, but no one wanted to take it to prosecution. They were too scared. There was nothing the police could do."
Drug debt is not an accidental part of the illegal drug market—it’s built into it because the drug economy is loaded against those on the bottom rung. "There is so much drug debt because the market is a pyramid selling scheme," says Woods. "Dealers are always looking to expand sales in order to make more money. In so doing, the dealer loans extra drugs to their regulars, creating the user-dealer, who is encouraged to use more. The business model means that debt is an inevitable every day pressure, and so is the violence that goes with it. The result is a system of bullying. It's the weakest who really suffer."
Oddly, violence is probably the least toxic symptom of the debt cycle because drug debts are increasingly used as a primary method of expanding the trade itself. Dealers utilize debt as a form of coerced recruitment, a way of dragging in people who perhaps might not normally have got involved into the drug trade. A study in Norway into how drug dealers managed debtors found that most preferred to either extort and control their victims over using violence.
Those who have accrued small debts are asked to sell drugs to pay them off, or store drugs or guns. Either way, they are unwittingly being sucked into the drug market. It’s a tactic used by drug gangs in persuading teenagers to become part of the rising "going country" phenomenon across Britain. Drugs debts, including staged robberies of runners, are also used to maintain people in debt bondage and to prevent them going on the straight and narrow.
What can be done? Connolly believes more research needs to be carried out into how changes to drug laws, such as regulation, would impact the drug trade. Until then, the only way out for the authorities under prohibition is to act as mediators between the drug gangs and the debtors. "Drug debt is a central component of the drug trade: It’s an enabler; it facilitates the operation and the expansion of the drug trade. So, if you make the drug trade illegal, you have to deal with reality," he explains.
What's certain is that the illegal drug trade will keep on spewing out victims whether they end up in jail or in a mortuary. While wider society may view them as people who had it coming, it’s important to note that the victims of the kind of violence and control instigated by drug debts are almost entirely those with the least power and the least choice.
Alice, the partner of a man who was killed last year over a drug debt, told me his death was down to incredibly harsh justice. "I guess the more involved he got in his own drug use, the more he had to find money," she said. "He obviously started to sell drugs for this man under the pretense that he will have money for his own drug habit. Yet, you don’t give a drug taker a large amount of drugs and not expect them to take the drugs themselves.
"When I cleared his apartment after he died, he had nothing of value left; he'd sold it all. He knew I would have got the money for him; if only he had asked. But I don’t know if he was given the time to ask anyone. I feel sorry that my daughter has lost her dad, and I have to explain to her every few weeks why her dad cannot come alive again."
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