'I Was Quite Surprised' – How Dealers Have Adapted to Lockdown

A new survey aims to find out how the UK's drug market is getting on.
May 7, 2020, 12:50pm
coronavirus cocaine
Photo: VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown, Release – the national centre for expertise on drugs and drugs law – has been asking people around the UK about the impact the virus has had on buying illegal substances. Release has also set up a national monitoring network, made up of drug users and harm reduction activists, as well as people working on the frontline who report weekly on developments in their local markets.


The full results of the survey – which people can still fill in – will be coming soon, but what have we found from the hundreds of responses we've had so far?

It seems, despite claims that the lockdown has caused big disruption for people buying drugs, the market in Britain has remained relatively stable. Of those surveyed, 13 percent reported purity as being lower, while 9 percent actually thought what they had bought was higher in purity compared to drugs they purchased pre-lockdown.

Almost one in five reported an increase in prices, but one in ten said prices were lower. Only one in five drug buyers told us it has been harder to find the drug they wanted. Based on this evidence, it looks like the drug market may be much more pandemic-proof than a number of legitimate industries.

Of those who smoke tobacco or other drugs such as cannabis, 90 percent of respondents said they had cut down or stopped using smoking as a method of consumption – clear evidence that the message about the risks of smoking and coronavirus are getting through.

The survey also asked how sellers of weed, cocaine and the rest are behaving during lockdown. It seems, in the main, that there's high adherence to government social distancing advice among those who supply drugs, with two-thirds of sellers practicing the two-metre rule.

Other techniques being used to reduce transmission included wearing gloves (37 percent) and using different packaging for the drugs (29 percent). Just like Sainsbury's, over one in five dealers would not accept cash, preferring for their customers to pay by bank transfer or PayPal. Some people reported that their supplier was paying particular attention to the cleanliness of the cash they were receiving, with one respondent saying: "I was quite surprised, he was even disinfecting the notes."

Dealers have been operating a bit like Amazon. One respondent explained how their deal was: "Dropped in garden, phone call to let me know, bank transferred money." Perhaps looking for that unique edge over their competitors, suppliers are advertising the fact they have adopted new practices, with one respondent saying: "He said he's washing his hands and using gloves to bag up. Received several texts from other dealers with policies like this."

In many ways it is not remarkable that the drug market has been relatively stable up until now. Although it might feel longer, we're only six weeks into lockdown, and no one really knows the quantity of drugs that were already within the UK prior to lockdown and stricter rules at the borders. It's over the coming months that we are likely to see more significant changes, as disrupted trade routes and production take time to impact destination markets such as the UK. It is these changes we want to keep an eye on.

Just like other industries across the UK, most drug suppliers want to ensure consumers feel safe in buying their product at this time. Even if you don’t think it’s appropriate to give them a clap on Thursday evening, many dealers are making commendable efforts to keep the people they come into contact with safe.

Please help us complete the survey – and we encourage you to do this every time you purchase drugs so that we can see how things are changing. The survey is completely anonymous, we collect no identifiable information. The survey and associated research has obtained ethical approval from the University of Manchester. Or, if you don't want to take the survey, email us at drugreport@release.org.uk – maybe you haven’t bought drugs, but you have insights into the market that would really help us to build a picture of what's going on out there. The email is confidential.