Erik* had been driving for Uber for over a year when it happened. To that point, almost every trip Erik logged on the ride-hailing platform was destination-to-destination, with the occasional passenger dropped off along the way. But one night in 2015 was different.
It started as any other pickup would in Schertz, Texas, a modest town 22 miles outside downtown San Antonio. Erik rolled up to a house, the passenger hopped in, and off they went. But then the passenger asked Erik to make stops at a couple gas stations en route to a final destination, a sketchy motel in San Antonio. It was the same routine at each stop: Without ever going up to the register, the passenger would briefly encounter an employee and then come back out to Erik's vehicle. The passenger would linger inside each gas station for under a minute, according to Erik, and never walked out having made an obvious purchase.
Otherwise, the passenger acted "pretty normal" the whole trip, Erik told me. "My engagement was small talk that he wasn't too interested in reciprocating."
"I've used cannabis," Erik added, "and when I knew it was in my vehicle I could take necessary precautions. But it also means I know what a drug transaction looks like." He recognizes that peculiar trip "for what it was," Erik admitted.
There's no way of ever being entirely sure that trip was a series of handshake drug transactions. But if any technology—and Uber fashions itself as a tech company, after all—invariably gets used for good and ill, then of course the so-called Uberization of things now includes drug dealing.
How many people actually go through with it is another question. There have been only a handful of criminal cases involving Uber and illegal drugs reported in the US, all confined to the East and West coasts. If it's not already pervasive, could this sort of activity ever scale?
"You have a massive drug market which requires extralegal delivery mechanisms and a widespread, independently operated network of drivers for whom it is an ideal means of masking their activities," said Josh Klein, a technologist interested in commerce, black market economies, and Big Data.
Which could be why Uber People, a popular independent web forum for rideshare drivers, is rife with colorful anecdotes involving passengers who drivers claim used the ubiquitous ride-hailing app, which currently operates in over 200 US cities and is estimated to be worth $62 billion, to facilitate drug deals.
"Prohibition didn't work with liquor," Klein added, "so why is it surprising that a highly evolved digital platform leveraging Big Data and distributed providers works well in solving essentially the same problem?"
Or, as one Boston-based UberX driver wrote on an Uber People thread titled "Crazy Riders": "Hookers, pimps, and dealers have been using taxis for 400 years, is it really surprising that they'd use Uber as well?"
That's what happened in January 2015, when police in Thousand Oaks, California, roughly 35 miles west of Los Angeles, pulled over an Uber car for a vehicle code violation. It was a routine enforcement stop until the two passengers, both white males in their early 20s, were found to be holding $2,000 and a quarter-pound of butane honey oil, a form of highly-potent cannabis concentrate.
The boys told authorities they intended to sell the hash oil and were using Uber to get them to the deal, the Los Angeles Times reported. (The driver had no idea he was ferrying passengers who not only had illegal drugs on them, but planned to sell the stuff.) After being arrested on controlled substance possession charges, the passengers plead guilty in court and were placed on probation, according to Sergeant Victor Fazio of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, who supervised the investigation. Fazio added that the driver was not implicated as being a co-conspirator, but rather simply an unwitting driver for drug dealers.
Fazio said drug traffickers using internet ride-hailing services to facilitate business is an "interesting phenomenon," albeit not widespread. "We've interdicted drugs on buses and planes and ridesharing [sic] and taxi cabs and vehicles and on bicycles," he told me. "Drug dealers will use whatever vehicle they can to get their drugs from point A to point B, so Uber or Lyft would surely be a part of that."
"Drug dealers will use whatever vehicle they can to get their drugs from point A to point B, so Uber or Lyft would surely be a part of that."
Uber declined to answer my questions about what the company does with passenger and ride information of suspected drug deals; if that information can or has been used to implement artificial surge pricing in suspected zones of illegal drug distribution; if Uber reports or targets persons, residences, or businesses entered as destinations on rides suspected to involve illegal drug activity; whether the company has any data related to cases involving drivers who either unwittingly or knowingly ferried illegal goods and substances; and how drivers are trained to handle situations in which they believe passengers might be carrying illegal narcotics and using Uber as a means of distribution.
In a written statement, an Uber representative told me, "We are committed to making Uber safe for our riders and drivers, which is why we have a team of former law enforcement officials and investigators who work diligently to assist officers pursuing any kind of criminal activity related to our platform when presented a lawful request for information."
It's unclear if these Uber passengers were dealing or picking up drugs. Which is beside the point.
As far as Uber and the law are both concerned, passengers who happen to be carrying drugs on them while being driven in an Uber are not the same as passengers who are trafficking drugs (or trying to, at least) via Uber. Possession is one thing; possession with intent to sell is a thicker knot of issues. Uber is not aware of any drug trafficking arrests made in relation to its platform and does not suspect this sort of activity is taking place at scale.
But drug trafficking arrests have been made in relation to Uber's platform, whether or not the phenomenon is widespread.
Over the past two years there have been at least four criminal cases, including the one in Ventura, involving Uber and drug dealing. Not all weed-related either—three of those four cases involved sizeable loads of hard narcotics.
In January of this year, a convicted drug dealer was caught muling kilograms of heroin to a luxury apartment complex in southeast Baltimore. The Drug Enforcement Administration believed he'd been trafficking between 10 and 20 kilos since late 2015. He was caught riding in an Uber.
And it's not only passengers. In October 2015, a Boston man arrested on heroin trafficking charges claimed to be working for Uber. He was stopped for running a stop sign. Police found two-and-a-half pounds of heroin in his Subaru. A few months prior to that, in August 2015, an Uber driver in Glendale, California, was arrested on suspected drug trafficking charges. Authorities said the man had been driving for Uber for two years when they seized a trove of illegal substances, including MDMA, cocaine, psilocybin, and methamphetamine, as well as rifles, a shotgun, pistol, and nearly $20,000 in cash from his private residence.
Here in New York City, host to some 19 million Uber rides between April and September 2014 and January to June 2015, Uber driver José del Rosario Fernández was recently arrested for allegedly ferrying large quantities of heroin as he gave rides to unsuspecting passengers in his Toyota Highlander, which was registered in his name and used as his Uber vehicle. Fernández was arrested, released on $10,000 bail, and currently faces multiple charges, including conspiracy and possession of a controlled substance. Fernández's attorney, Patrick Brackley, could not be reached for comment.
Kati Cornell, director of public information at the New York Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, which is currently handling the Fernández case, was not aware of any criminal cases other than that one with defendants who worked as drivers for either Uber or Lyft. By contrast, "it is fairly common for us to prosecute livery car drivers in connection with drug crimes," Cornell said. "This is nothing new."
She added, however, that her office does not collect data on the frequency of livery cabs used in drug crimes. In other words, we just don't know if traditional taxis (in New York City, at least) are more or less prevalent in drug deals compared to rideshare cars, if it's the other way around, or if things fall somewhere in between.
But drug dealing via Uber is happening—in NYC and beyond. And there is an argument to be made for ride-hailing services like Uber being just as appealing as traditional taxis for any enterprising drug dealer looking to decrease the probability of being held liable for his own actions.
"Ridesharing in my opinion gives the potential for dealers to cut their risk at the cost of profit," Erik told me. "It's a rational decision, though not a societally beneficial one. Very capitalistic, though. Transfer the costs to others, reap the benefits."
That memorable night ride in 2015, with the quiet passenger who asked to hit multiple gas stations before being dropped off for good at a seedy motel, was a one-time occurrence for Erik. But that doesn't mean he was any less uneasy than he was as it was happening.
As an Uber contractor, Erik owns the car he uses as a driver for the ride-hailing company. That's why he worried about potentially being considered culpable for the actions of passengers engaging in illegal activity no matter if he knew it or not, a common concern among rideshare drivers. No one—not even drivers who knowingly give rides to drug dealers or are themselves drug dealers—wishes to be charged as a felony accomplice. It nagged Erik the whole way from Schertz to San Antonio.
"I felt uncomfortable because of possible legal ramifications," he told me. Suddenly he realized the extraneous risk: hiding drugs in his car. As someone who has worked in the ridesharing industry, Erik would safely deliver passengers and their belongings to their destination. The "what ifs" occasionally made that quite stressful.
Erik has kept his Uber profile active but has not driven for the service in the last year. Maybe one day he'll want to get back into the game, so he's keeping the option open. But he knows the deal.
"The drug trade will always continue," he said. "Ride-sharing only allows people to unknowingly share the risk."
*Not his real name.
With additional reporting by Camilo Salas.
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