How Big-Time Dealers Move Drugs Around Australian Festivals

We followed the distribution network from runner to buyer.
03 November 2017, 4:07am
All photos by the author

If you've ever tried to score at a music festival, you've probably already met someone like Bubba. He is, for all intents and purposes, the guy. He's the one who'll nod when you ask if he knows anyone carrying. He's the one who'll make "the call," and take your cash, and a few anxious minutes later slip the satty into your hand. We've all done business with a Bubba.

But Bubba's not a drug dealer. This is despite the fact I've just seen him put a handful of MD caps into the palm of a paying customer—a customer who reached out to him here, inside the festival, specifically for that service. Obviously I have some trouble reconciling these two things: what I'm seeing and what Bubba would have me believe.

"The people interact with me," he tells me. "But I'll only organise it."

For what might often seem like a fairly basic, two-bit operation, dealing large amounts of drugs at music festivals can involve a highly organised chain of command. Bubba breaks it down as follows:

"It's like a hierarchy chart, the whole operation of this. You've got one boss that has all the stuff, and then you've got runners running around carrying it."

In other words: couriers. People who are willing to traffic the gear through the gates and into the festival. "The boss will give a set amount to each runner—say six runners—and each one might carry 50 caps and 50 imports [ecstasy pills]."

Shitty phone photos of the day's deals going down

As far as I can tell this is an inordinate amount. Get done carrying any more than 12 caps in New South Wales and you're in possession of what the law would deem an "indictable quantity," with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $220,000 fine. I mention that it seems like a lot to bring in. "Yeah it is," says Bubba. "But inside the price for caps is $35 to $45 each, and imports you're looking between $50 to $70. So look how much money they're getting."

Bubba needn't worry about the risks of trafficking in any case. His role is essentially that of a sales rep; someone who acts as a middleman and makes the transactions happen. He's the face of the brand. "People come up to me… cause I know the guy," he explains. "So I will go contact the runner, buy off them, and then I'll bring back the supply."

It's a five-star service, all geared towards making it as painless as possible for someone to obtain drugs on the inside. In a recent report from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), 93 percent of people said they found it either "easy" or "very easy" to get their hands on ecstasy, while less than one percent found it "very difficult." Here, within the closed economy of a music festival, I suspect those numbers might be even more convincing.

I think about that as I'm following Bubba around: meeting potential customers, calling runners, "organising" everything. Anyone even half-committed to scoring in here wouldn't have to go too far out of their way to do it—despite the staunch efforts of police and their dogs. Then I think about it again in the bar line. One mid-strength beer in here will set you back about $10. Three standard drinks and a bottle of water, and you've already paid the going price for a capsule of MDMA.

Fairyboy's acid

We hook up with a pair of buyers and head to an arranged location to wait for the runner. It feels like a few people around here are waiting for the same thing, and after a while I get talking to another middleman who asks that I call him Fairyboy. He also asks if I want to buy some acid.

Fairyboy says on top of MDMA he also deals LSD because it's easy to move; the dogs have no way of sniffing it out, and whatever tabs he doesn't sell he'll happily eat himself. It's relatively small time at about $20 a pop, but because of acid's low-risk mobility Fairyboy can be the dealer, runner, and middleman all at once.

Fairyboy passes a small handful of imports on to a buyer. "Do you have a testing kit?" I hear him ask. They don't. "I can personally vouch for these," he assures them—and then, as if by way of afterthought, reminds them to "stay hydrated."

For thousands of recreational users here today, it's as close to a tick of approval as they're going to get: a thumbs-up from the stranger who just sold them the drugs. The kits Fairyboy's referring to—a kind of litmus test used to determine a pill's main component—aren't illegal in Australia, and they can usually be purchased over the counter at your local chemist. But their conclusions are rudimentary at best, as Monica Barratt, research fellow at NDARC, is quick to point out.

"It's a presumptive test," she told VICE. "It's saying that an ecstasy-like substance is present, but it's not telling you necessarily what else is present… and the thing you can't really do is go for 'How many milligrams have I got.'"

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These two great unknowns—the potency of the ecstasy and the chemicals it's cut with—are the primary causes of overdoses, says Barratt. But things can get especially dicey in the case of these so-called "imports," where drugs "three or four times" stronger than what Australian consumers are used to get introduced into the market from overseas.

Bubba claims the imports he's just sold contain 200 to 300 milligrams of MDMA, a potentially lethal dose in some people's estimation. But without more sophisticated testing equipment there's no way he, or anyone else, can be sure. This isn't even his product; he just happens to be the one doling it out. I ask Bubba about this: whether he feels a duty of care towards his customers, particularly when the contents of the drugs are so murky. He pauses for a moment. "At the end of the day, no," he says. "If I don't know the person… It's their choice. I'm not here to babysit."

Then I ask if he—someone who's not a babysitter or a dealer but just a guy, standing in front of another guy, handing over drugs in exchange for money—ever feels connected to the spate of overdoses at events like this. In the past three years alone, at least seven people have suffered drug-related deaths at Australian music festivals. Does he feel any sense of guilt about that?

"It shouldn't have to come back to me. But if the person did buy the stuff off me and then he overdosed, then yeah I sort of feel guilty that I gave him the dealer's product. But it was his choice to take it, and it was his choice to buy it."

It's an interesting knock-on effect of this hierarchical business model, which seems structured around the very idea of passing the buck. These drugs change hands so many times that it's hard to pin down exactly who should be held accountable. And in the end, it seems, all blame lands on the user.

That's about as much as I get out of Bubba: he starts dipping into his own supply, and he's warned me he'll be no good to talk to after that. As a final question, I ask how many caps he's planning on taking today. "Twelve," he replies.

I don't know whether to believe him, but I figure it means one of two things. Either Bubba doesn't quite mean everything he says, or his attitude toward drugs is every bit as cavalier as it seems. As he continues to remind me, even while his eyes start rolling around in his head, he just wants everyone "to enjoy themselves."

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