For months now, signs around Amsterdam have been warning passersby to "ignore street dealers." Apparently, someone has been selling white heroin as cocaine, so far causing three British tourists to die from overdoses, so I guess they are necessary.
A while back, a man I'll call Dennis tried to sell me "coca, coca" about two feet away from one of those signs. We got talking about the current drug market and his personal life, which has been something of a roller coaster. Dennis has spent more time in jail than I've spent riding the tram, and has seen the drug business change drastically in the past 40 years.
VICE: How do you feel about the fact that one of your colleagues is selling heroin as cocaine?
Dealer Dennis: I think it's inhumane to pull a dirty trick like that. That stuff will kill you. I don't understand why he's doing it. But it's not really hurting my business or anything. Tourists mostly ignore the signs, so it doesn't really affect me. Some dealers are selling test kits with their cocaine now, but I don't.
How did you end up becoming a coke dealer?
When I was 17, I was really good at football. I was doing really well, until I got a girl pregnant. After that, it all went downhill fast. I couldn't handle the responsibility and didn't want to accept that I had a kid. Meanwhile, I was using more and more and had started selling on the streets.
How did the selling work?
I knew people that had kilos of the stuff lying around for a good price. I'd sell it on the Zeedijk, in the heart of Chinatown near the red light district. I was making lots of money – a gram of coke went for about 300 gilders [$170] then. It was easy money; there were people coming and going all day and night. Amsterdam was really a drug city in the late 1980s.
Isn't it still?
Not as much as it was back then. It's terrible out on the streets now. People are selling all kinds of shit. Like lidocaine, for example. If you put that on your gums, it will numb them a bit, just like with cocaine. Those drunk English tourists always pretend to feel something, but it doesn't really do much.
"A lot of tourists only come here to do drugs—not to see how beautiful the Netherlands are, or to have a nice bit of cheese. I stop them from only using drugs on their holiday by selling them fake shit."
What was it like when you were arrested for the first time?
The more you sell and the more profit you turn, the more you feel like you're invincible. Until an undercover cop tapped me on the shoulder one day and I had to go to jail. It wasn't half as bad as I thought it would be, though. I was like, "Oh, is that it? That prison was like a hotel!" And there were so many drugs inside, even more than on the outside. Anyway, once I got out, I started thinking about ways to make sure I wouldn't get arrested again.
So you changed your tactics?
At first, I'd just have all my drugs on me and sell them myself. Afterwards, I had people working for me: One had the drugs on him, another would go looking for customers, and I'd collect the money. If they nabbed me, they couldn't really touch me, because I didn't have anything on me. But I took good care of my customers. Not like those guys that use their users, you know. I'd sometimes pay for a hotel room if they didn't have a place to go, or give them some food if they were going through a rough time. I was also pretty easy about lending money.
Was business good then?
On good days, I was making 1,500 to 2,000 gilders [$840–$1,200] a day. But I did indulge a little at times. And I would get arrested every now and then, but I never spent more than two, maybe four, months in prison. At a certain point, the Netherlands was suddenly overflowing with cocaine, which really drove the price down. Suddenly coke was only going for 25 gilders [$14] a gram. Everything was still going relatively well though—until the euro was introduced.
Yes! No one had any cash anymore after we got the euro. The police also got a lot stricter all of a sudden, and they installed cameras everywhere. Before you knew it, you'd be locked up again. I was doing a lot more time. The euro really killed the business.
Were you still using at the time?
I'd been with a girl that I'd met on the streets for about nine years. I'd told her: "Listen, I'm going to take care of you, but I just got out of prison and I'm a user. So please, I really don't want any kids." One day I came home, and she told me she was pregnant. I freaked out. I told her I didn't want to have a kid, and she left me.
Do you feel guilty about that?
Absolutely. I felt embarrassed about my drug use. I didn't want my kids to grow up with an addict for a father. When she left me, I just fell apart. I was smoking coke every day. I'd wake up and just smoke and smoke. I didn't want to see anyone, stopped paying my bills, built up mountains of debt. I'm still struggling with that now.
Are you still using as much?
No, I quit about two years ago. My mother became ill and needed help. Half of her body is paralyzed, and she can't sit down or stand up on her own or go to the bathroom. I made myself useful by taking care of her. I take care of her every day now; sometimes I cook her a nice Surinam dish, she likes that a lot more than the traditional Dutch stuff. Before she got sick, we went to Surinam together and I didn't use for a week, even though there's plenty of drugs there. Someone in the hotel where we were staying asked if I wanted to bring some drugs back to the Netherlands. I said: "I'm here with my mum, man. Come on."
What are the biggest changes you've seen in the drug business?
People are cutting their stuff more and more. The quality has just gone downhill. Before, Surinam dealers used to have the best coke, but those days are over. The Moroccans have taken over the trade now—that's where I get my stuff too. And sometimes I sell flour or baking powder.
"It's terrible out on the streets now – people will sell all kinds of shit. Like lidocaine."
Flour? You offered me "coca, coca." Would you have sold me the fake stuff?
No, no. I only sell that to drunk Brits. I might run into you again. You seem like a nice guy, but you never know who's carrying a knife or a gun. I usually have both coke and flour on me, and decide on the spot which one you'll be getting.
I think of it as drug prevention. A lot of tourists only come here to do drugs—not to see how beautiful the Netherlands are, or to have a nice bit of cheese. I stop them from only using drugs on their holiday by selling them fake shit. And you can't die from snorting a bit of flour, so I think it's a good solution.
Why don't you just get a job?
I'd like to, but social services thinks that I committed benefit fraud because I was selling fake dope while I was on benefits. So I have to pay back about 40,000 euro [$43,000]. And I still have to pay off water bills, medical insurance, and rent money from the time when I was still an addict. So I'm a bit short on cash. I'm on welfare, and have about 60 euro [$65] a week to spend on food or something like a pair of shoes. I stopped using two years ago, but those debts don't just go away.
How are your kids doing?
Very well. I have four, with three different women. My youngest daughter had her birthday this week, which was nice. Only my eldest son knows about my past. He's doing very well with his degree and stuff. I feel bad that I wasn't there for him in the past, but I'm very proud of him now.
Have you every thought about starting a delivery service instead of selling on the street?
I'm afraid that I'll start using again if I have the stuff on me for too long, so I don't want to do anything big anymore. This is all very small-scale. I sell a gram or two in the weekend, just to have an extra tenner to spend during the week.