Photo by Giorgi Nieberidze
If the greatest architects, theorists, and social planners who've ever lived were revived to design the perfect marketplace for drug dealers, they'd come up with a dorm. A nest stuffed with trainee adults, bankrolled by mom and dad, waiting like baby birds with their beaks wide open for their next life-changing experience. Dealers might not be allowed to actually vomit the drugs into the mouths of students, but dorms—which are often called "halls" in the UK—nontheless remain a drug merchant’s wet dream. Which is why they've been living in them for decades.
Nearly three quarters of Britain’s 2.5 million university students have taken illegal drugs. So it follows that somebody has to be there feeding the country's future politicians, business leaders, and unemployed actors their weed, MDMA, cocaine, and ketamine (that last substance is up to ten times more likely to be used by students than non-students).
In fact, the student drug market is so sought after that dealers have been known to enroll in colleges specifically to take out student loans and sell drugs on campus. Then, of course, there are all the student dealers—those who begin their higher education with good intentions, but realize that working at a bar isn’t much fun and start selling drugs as a source of quick cash. If you live in halls and don't know who this guy or girl is yet, take it as a sign that you should get some more friends.
While it’s always been a thriving cottage industry, the student dealing scene blew up virtually overnight in 2008, when thousands of undergrads around the country set themselves up as mephedrone merchants to meet the demand for the new drug, which was legal at the time. Now illegal, mephedrone has become less popular in halls than it was, but the phenomenon undoubtedly made it seem more acceptable to sell drugs on campus; a 2012 survey by Varsity, the student newspaper for the University of Cambridge, found that one in seven students who used drugs also admitted to selling them for profit.
“Some of my mates back home sold drugs, but I never liked the look of it—a bit too dangerous for me. But when I came here it seemed a natural thing to do," said Rob, a 22-year-old philosophy student from Merseyside who attends a big university in Northern England. Last Friday, he was up till 7 AM selling drugs from his front room. “I ended up with about 30 visitors—it’s always like that on Friday night,” he told me. “They’ll buy MDMA in the evening, and the same ones are calling back for ketamine and weed for the day after. I only made £200 [$335], but it’s better than £6 [$10] an hour in a bar.”
Photo by Chris Bethell
This is steady work—unlike most of the students Rob knows, he always pays rent on time. The only downside to being a student dealer, he says, is that during exam season in May and June “it’s not a profitable profession.”
When he arrived at college three years ago, Rob tried to get a job in one of his city's bars. The only problem was that hundreds of other freshmen had the same idea, and Rob got rejected from everywhere he applied. So when students in his halls began asking him for weed, he started selling it to them from his personal stash. Then, as tends to happen when you start selling drugs, economies of scale kicked in: The more he bought, the cheaper it got, and he was able to cover his own weekly weed allowance while selling the rest for a profit. Word spread in halls, and soon his profits enabled him to start paying off debts and happily afford going nuts on nights out with his friends, who were all relying on their parents to refill their bank accounts.
“Selling drugs in halls was too easy, because it all took place in a bubble,” Rob said. “Students knocked on the window if they needed anything. There were no police or locals to worry about, just a couple of security officers looking after 3,000 students who all wanted to get high. I knew if I hadn’t taken advantage of the situation I would have regretted it.”
In his second year, Rob moved out of halls into a rented house in the city’s ghettoized student district. In order to pay the rent he added MDMA and ketamine to his repertoire and started earning between £500 to £1,000 ($850 to $1,700) a week. “I don’t think of myself as a drug dealer in the popular sense of the word,” he told me. “It’s more like a hobby that pays for drugs, going out, rent, and holidays.”
Even though his current home is some distance away from the safe haven of student halls, business has continued very much as normal, because students will always prefer to buy from other students. In fact, Rob estimates that there are around 50 student dealers at his university, who will mostly sell exclusively to student clients.
“I only deal to university students; otherwise it defeats the whole purpose of selling in the student bubble,” he says. “They buy off me because I’m not threatening. For them, it’s better than chancing it with an outsider. There’s an element of trust, which goes both ways.”
Photo by Jules Suzdaltsev
But Rob and the thousands of other student dealers at the UK’s universities and colleges tread a fine line. In the last year, three of Rob's friends who were also dealers at his university have been arrested by armored cops in dawn raids and now face prison sentences. He says they got caught because they made the mistake of selling drugs “outside the student bubble”—at clubs and festivals.
There's a catalogue of cases around the country in which student dealers have ended up in front of a judge. In September last year, Salford students Cara Donnison and Daniel Campbell, both 20, were locked up for two years each after being caught with £2,500 ($4,200) worth of ecstasy, cannabis, and ketamine, alongside plastic snap bags and weighing scales, at their halls of residence.
In January of this year, Michael Thompson, 22—a history student in his final year at Sheffield University—was sentenced to three years in prison after police intercepted a package addressed to him from Holland that contained £600 ($1,000) worth of ecstasy pills. A raid on his apartment, which was near the university campus, found 46 bags of ecstasy tablets, cannabis resin, weed, ketamine, Valium, and LSD.
A man I spoke to named Patrick, now a librarian in his late 20s, is still suffering after being caught a decade ago with 100 ecstasy pills when he was a student dealer at the University of Sussex. At the age of 18, he was given three years in a young offenders' prison; the experience ruined his career and his relationships and left him permanently on edge.
And it’s not only the police that student dealers need to be on the lookout for. Rob’s supplier, a student at his university who is close to just being a full-time drug dealer, was raided by a group of locals who busted through his back door and demanded everything he had. He handed over three laptops, three mobile phones, a load of ketamine and £2,000 ($3,400) in cash. A similar incident ended the fledgling drug selling career of a student in Nottingham—masked men armed with a pickaxe busted down his door and ransacked his apartment after one of them had bought weed off him.
Photo by T. Kid
Unpublished research carried out last year into the student dealing scene at Plymouth University found that most student sellers enrolled there were “social dealers”—people who passed on drugs for no profit or in order to finance their own drug use. However, three of the 30 current and former student dealers interviewed by researchers were profit-motivated dealers with a wider circle of customers who dealt to pay their way through school.
“'Findings from our study suggest that universities act as an environment in which many drug-using students progress to small-scale social supply roles,” said Dr. Leah Moyle, a research fellow at Plymouth University’s Drug and Alcohol Research Unit.
“We spoke to students who had been involved in selling relatively large quantities of class-A substances, but who had no previous experience of commercial drug supply. The prospect of making a relatively good income in a short space of time often outweighed the risk of undertaking 'one off' periods of drug dealing activity. In the university context, these students felt relatively protected from law enforcement and often had access to a ready-made customer base of friends and acquaintances, through which drugs could easily and discreetly be distributed to.
“Our findings also indicate that, in the university environment, engaging in a supply role on behalf of the wider social group can act as a kind of social cement, and that our respondents often wanted to 'do their bit' for the group by accessing drugs for less well connected friends.”
The study concluded that “social supply” should become a distinct criminal offense in order to differentiate the type of low-level dealer most common in universities from career drug suppliers driven by profit. Which is a nice thought, as well as making a fair bit of sense. But considering that last year the Home Office was still doing stuff like banning khat—an incredibly mild herbal stimulant—any softening in the government's drug policies looks highly unlikely.
As is the case with the larger narcotics industry, the university marketplace is going through huge changes. Mephedrone flung open the door to the online trade of new and familiar psychoactive substances in 2008, and change has been rapid since then. What’s more, while the array of highs available today would bewilder the average student stoner of the 1970s, the alphabet soup of research chemicals and gray market substances is surely going to multiply as authorities keep on banning them and chemists keep on tinkering with them until they’re legal again.
Of course, while the landscape might be changing, the law and the risks are not. So if you are going to chance dealing, maybe consider who might end up busting through your door—armored police, or a bunch of masked maniacs waving pickaxes at your roommates.
Additional reporting by Liam Deacon
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