It’s been a tough year. Between not seeing friends, putting careers on hold and praying that coronavirus avoids everyone you hold near and dear, loads of people craved a chemical shortcut to escape all the stress.
The stats speak for themselves: 43 percent of illegal drug takers in the UK said their consumption grew over lockdown, according to a survey carried out between April and September last year by the legal aid charity Release.
Weed and benzodiazepine use has reportedly increased due to the pandemic, with the Global Drug Survey (GDS) reporting a 44 percent uptick in UK cannabis users among those surveyed. In a follow-up GDS report, more than a third of respondents said they used MDMA, cocaine, amphetamines and ketamine less frequently compared to before the pandemic.
With party drugs out and downers in, has Britain’s drug trade changed?
“It’s all been the same. Business as usual, init,” says Nino*, a middle-aged street pharmacist from the Snow Hill area of Bath, specialising in both wholesale and retail amounts of cannabis and cocaine. “Some of it’s better, in fact. Weed, especially, ‘cos people are staying in and smoking more ganj. That’s something you can do when you’re not going out.”
All the dealers VICE talked to, from the street-level hustlers to industrial-scale growers, said their sales hadn’t taken a hit over the last 12 months of quarantine, with the notable exception of ecstasy and MDMA.
What had shifted, however, was the method of delivery. Since the streets quietened over lockdown, the police took the opportunity to more proactively tackle crime and stepped up their use of stop and search, meaning anyone handing baggies over outside risked drawing more attention to themselves.
“There were way more feds [police patrols] at the start of lockdown and it was a real hassle moving about,” Nino recalls. “I wouldn’t even bother coming out at night, I’d just send one of my runners. Everything’s calmed down a bit now.”
As the streets grew quiet, more purveyors of illicit substances began offering home deliveries, dispatching drivers to drop off orders by car and sometimes disguising themselves as nurses, takeaway drivers, and other key workers (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Like everyone else, dealers were worried about spreading the virus. According to the Release survey, 62 percent of customers said their dealers respected social distancing measures, compared to only 52 percent of the general public around the same time.
“Yeah, I like to be COVID-safe,” says Nino. “When it all started I was way more strict – I made sure I kept a two-metre distance at all times. It got a bit awkward handing over the money. I’ve got a few drivers, too, and I make sure I text my customers beforehand. When they get in the car to pick up, they need to be wearing a mask.”
With nothing better to do this past year, people mostly stayed indoors getting high. This was good news for a new type of player in the dope game: the online drug dealer.
Sasha* is a darknet vendor of a variety of psychotropic wares, including heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, hash, ketamine, prescription meds and LSD, with over a thousand reviews from happy customers who received their orders in the post.
“COVID-19 and lockdown has not affected business [sales] at all. In fact, more people are at home browsing the darkweb than ever before, IMO,” Sasha tells VICE, adding that even coke and MDMA sales have remained consistent and profitable.
According to Release, face-to-face exchanges still make up nine out of ten drug deals in the UK, but darknet markets are becoming more popular. Sales on the online platform Empire (before its operators exit-scammed and disappeared with $30 million of users’ money in August) tripled from November 2019 to March the following year.
That said, the life of the online drug dealer isn’t all smooth sailing. Travel restrictions made it harder to move product across the globe, leading to steeper prices for some items, although bulk coke shipments from South America are still slipping into Europe largely unchecked.
“There have been problems as a lot of our products come from the Netherlands and there were big delays at the height of COVID,” Sasha acknowledges. “Also with us sending out orders to customers, there were many delays due to reduced postal service.”
The weed market has largely avoided the kind of stress placed on certain other drugs, as most of what’s smoked in the UK is homegrown (importing hash from Morocco is a more complicated story). But sourcing new buildings to grow the plant has grown increasingly difficult during COVID.
“We haven’t been able to check out a few properties in Scotland and Wales because of the shutdown,” says Yannis*, a professional cannabis grower who also acts as a fixer for larger grow-ups, helping them find space and guiding them on all things botanical. “It’s a shame because we were looking at a few nice farmhouses.”
But with lots of time on their hands, more and more people have begun growing themselves. “The main change during COVID is there’s more people growing,” Yannis adds.
He cites the rise of two types of growers. The first didn’t qualify for government furlough schemes and “went back to growing because their legit business had been forced to close – it’s a case of making money to put food on the table”.
The other is “the personal grower for whom gardening is therapy”, Yannis says. These aren’t organised criminals like a few of his other clients, but are mostly smokers who’ve taken up growing as a lockdown hobby. It’s a way of making some extra money, with the added satisfaction of looking after and keeping their own plants free of unwanted additives.
Even with a global pandemic, there’s no getting around the law of supply and demand. Demand for drugs is as high as ever, which a recently laid-off workforce is more than happy to supply, if not as openly as before. So long as Britain remains a nation of sesh gremlins, our favourite poisons are just a call or a mouse click away.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
With thanks to Mr S. and the Fox.