Not everyone finishes their post-university year out as an international ketamine smuggler. But then, having spent a couple of undergrad years buying in bags of pills for raves – both to facilitate the party and to ensure that he never ran out of his personal stash – "Gav" was well placed to sniff out a commercial opportunity in the narcotics sector.
Back in the mid-1990s, ketamine was still almost completely under the radar, on both sides of the law. "Your standard gangsters tend to be psycho wankers," says Gav. "They tried to muscle in on it but didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Even the language was different: litres not kilos, volume not weight." More importantly, because it was still classed under the Medicines Act rather than Misuse of Drugs, the police were equally clueless. "Someone I know got arrested with a load, in powder form, and they had to spell it out to them what it was. Literally spell the word out. A couple of weeks later the police phoned them up and said, 'You can come and collect your property.' That’s how legal it was – the police were giving it you back!"
Gav – whose name has been changed because he agreed to speak to VICE on the condition of anonymity – had come across K on the London squat party scene, buying a litre for around £500 in 1996, selling (most of) it on as 50 individual grams, for around £30 a hit. "Hardly big business," he recalls, "but a good boost to your income when you’re on the dole after university. Plus, your main expense for the weekend is paid for."
The first opportunity to upscale came when some friends went to Goa for a two-week break which eventually turned into a six-month stay. Back then – as is still the case today – India was the world's biggest producer of ketamine, manufacturing tons of the drug for legitimate medical and veterinary use. Unlike today, the drug was easily bought from factories and chemists. Gav's friends saw an opportunity, and asked Gav if he’d mind receiving a parcel from them. They gave him a litre for his troubles, which he found out had cost just £100 at source. "I said: 'That’s £2 a gram! Jesus, that’s a lot of mark-up! Do you want to go back? Can I come?!'" A month later he was on a plane with a friend, sourcing a cheap charter flight from Teletext.
In those halcyon early days it was all a new frontier, the ketamine trade very much a cottage industry. "At one time, pretty much the entire European supply came from one person, one tiny little shop at the side of the road in Goa," Gav recalls. "Somebody discovered you could buy it at the chemists and no one would ask any questions. It was being manufactured in Mumbai as an anaesthetic."
On those first trips, Gav and his start-up associate would buy "around a grand’s worth, maybe £1,500", sending back 10 to 15 litres via the tiny local DHL office. The K came in large boxes of sterile 10-millilitre vials, which would be opened and the contents painstakingly transferred to litre bottles of rosewater. "Getting the liquid out of glass vials and into the rosewater bottles was extremely time-consuming," says Gav. "It was an absolute mission in the early days – you’d end up with both your hands bleeding. Getting the liquid in a cut hand was really fucking painful – quite ironic for a painkiller, really."
No one was entirely certain why rosewater bottles were used to smuggle the liquid ketamine back to the UK, but Gav had a theory: "I didn’t invent the whole rosewater thing – it was always a bit mysterious who did. But it said on the bottle that it was used for various things, including 'religious purposes'. This meant there was no import tax on it, so it was never stopped at customs. Winner!"
Once the bottling and delivery had been taken care of, next there was waste disposal to consider, which could at times become quite slapstick: "You can’t just throw it all in the bin, because it’s all quite incriminating. So you’ve got to find a way to get rid of this rubbish. Someone found a big hole in the ground somewhere – an unfinished construction site in the middle of the jungle. You’d drive off the road and turn your moped headlights off, because you didn’t want anyone to see what you were doing. You can’t see anything – not just because it’s dark, but because you’re off your head as well – and you’re lugging this big hessian sack full of tiny glass bottles, in the jungle, in the dark, while high, with monkeys and snakes to contend with, looking for a big hole in the ground, which was also dark, and you’re trying not to fall down the hole yourself – no pun intended. It was helpful when there was a good moon, actually."
Initially, everything save the bottling was taken care of at night, and that was usually done in guest houses away from the tourist area, where police circled looking for easy bribes. "We thought it was more undercover doing it all at night: the ferrying, the dumping, whatever. Actually, we realised you were much better off doing it in the morning, because people don’t think you’re doing anything dodgy in the morning. And there’s no police around."
Meanwhile, logistics at the UK end of operations boiled down to finding people willing to accept parcels. "In the early days it was low risk," remembers Gav. "You could do it in one parcel, to one address. Ten to 15 litre bottles. You can take the odd hit because the outlay wasn’t great, but as things went on you started to spread the risk by having multiple recipients."
As things scaled up, not only was Gav paying people to receive parcels – either in money or drugs, preferably the latter – but also to find him addresses, ensuring all his eggs weren’t in one basket. "At the start, it was all going to the same town, but by the end it was going all over the country. Some who I’d met, some who I hadn’t." With so many people living in rented accommodation with a high turnover of tenants, it was relatively easy to alight upon the golden combination of fictional name at real address. And as long as his recipients didn’t open it, they were fine: "Until you’ve opened it, you’re not responsible for what’s inside it, even if it’s in your name," says Gav.
Because of the relative novelty of the drug, and the fact that the majority of the supply was being funnelled into the London squat party scene or being taken out on the European Teknival circuit, Gav had cornered a market: "In the part of the country I was from, there was only us doing it. It was all mainly London. This paid off for me quite well. Their cops were better, more on the case, so if it was ever going to go wrong, it was going to go wrong in London. And if it was bad there, then it was time to knock it on the head. But then it didn’t go bad – for about ten years."
While things were going well, Gav reflects that it wasn’t as easy as it sounds, particularly not for the sort of people naturally drawn towards it as a career option. "Lots of people were terrible at it. They either spent all the money or sniffed all the drugs. You need a certain amount of willpower. It’s like filling up your wine rack and sitting there and not drinking it. Easier said than done. Especially when you’ve got small quantities. So, either don’t get high on your own supply, or have too much supply to be able to do any damage to it."
In order to get to the hallowed too-much-supply stage, scaling things up from those first exploratory incursions, Gav realised he would have to increase the cash flow (and even then there would be limits to how many 10-millilitre vials you could physically open before your bleeding hands protested). Initially, he raised cash from sponsors – people who would give him £250 up front, get a litre back, and allow him to buy two-and-a-half at source – but he quickly tired of the hassle he was getting from sketchy people who feared he might have done a runner. Dragons' Den it was not.
The game changer came when Gav was offered a credit card, simply by virtue of having graduated in the previous 12 months: "You didn’t even need a job or anything, which was handy." He started to live on the credit while in England and build up reserves of "folding money" to take on his increasingly frequent business trips to India, the profit from which would then pay off the card. The activity on his account didn’t escape the benevolent eye of the automated banking system, which duly increased his overdraft facility. He soon started to open other bank accounts, growing the overdraft limit until they, too, offered him a credit card. Eventually, he got to the stage where, once a week, he would simply move the money round in a big circle, paying off one card with another, then the next with another, round and round, making sure he always left each account a minimum of a penny overdrawn, the combination of regular use and permanent debt making each account attractive to the banks, to the point where he built up £21,000 of credit on one card alone. The business took off.
Gav was making approximately 200 percent profit on each trip – £100 cost price per litre, wholesaled at £300 back in the UK to two regular dealers – but as growth became exponential he still had to get hard currency into India. "Obviously you can’t really use credit cards over there. You wouldn’t have to be the world’s cleverest detective to work that one out after looking at the statement."
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On a number of occasions Gav took £20,000 through different airports, squeezed into the side pockets of his combat trousers. "I got very good at not setting off metal detectors at airports," he recalls. "I’d do things like buy plastic belts so I didn’t have to take my belt off, because your combat trousers would sag a little bit with £20,000 stuffed in the side pockets. You didn’t want to get padded down, because if you did they’d say, 'What’s that big lump there?'"
Once in India, there was the problem of changing the wad of £50 notes to rupees, which involved calling the exchange shops from pay phones and asking what the maximum amount they could change without ID was ("usually around five or six hundred quid"), then going round them, one by one. While "the Indians loved their £50 notes", they weren’t able to reciprocally furnish their British customers with high denominations. "If you go to India now, getting a 1,000 rupee note's not a problem. It was worth about £20. But you wouldn’t get one then. You’d be really lucky to get a 500 rupee note, and quite lucky to get a hundred. You’d get stuck with loads of fifties, which weren’t even worth a pound. The notes were worth nothing. People used to use 10 rupee notes as wraps to put their K for the night in. So in the middle period, when we were doing around 50 litres per trip, you were taking 5,000 of these notes. We ended up with rucksacks full of money. One time, me and a friend filled up a wardrobe with money and it took us all day to move it to the chemist, driving backwards and forwards. It was ridiculous."
Eventually, this problem was solved when "something changed behind the scenes there" and the Indians started accepting British currency. Not only that, the bottling was now getting done for them, too. The local economy was adapting.
Although Gav never entirely discovered what had happened, he suspects that two restaurateur brothers who first coined the phrase "English omelette" for K – on account of the visitors’ habit of cooking the liquid down to powder in frying pans – had muscled in and set themselves up as middle men. A mysterious figure also started to operate out of the DHL office – "Basically, they didn’t like people going down there all the time, as there was always a massive queue of people outside all doing the same thing: sending rosewater back to the UK for religious purposes!" – while people were even coming to the hotel to collect their list of names and addresses in the UK. "It got to the stage where you didn’t even see the stuff."
As the logistics became easier, so the entrepreneurial psychonauts were scaling up to industrial levels: "A chemist once said to me, ‘When you lot first turned up, someone asked if I could do 20 litres and I didn’t know whether I could fill the order. It took me ages to sort it out. Now, everyone who walks in my shop buys 200.'"
Consequently, what had been fairly inconspicuous was now out in the open: "When I first went over there it was a very small group of us – quite poor, quite messy people, basically stumbling around getting our thing done, with the bonus that no one knew what we were doing because it was on such a small scale. And we didn’t used to talk to anyone, probably because we were far too fucked to speak half the time. Advantageous, I suppose. When you’re lying on the floor dribbling, it’s quite hard to give away what you’re up to. But later on it got to the point where people who wouldn’t have ever dreamed of selling you a teenth of hash were off on a K-run to India.
"It got to the stage where any old idiot could do it. It used to be two to three weeks, and I’d make £2,000. Then it became three days. By then you’ve done the jet-skis, the paragliding, hired the speedboats, the taste of the local beer had got so bad you started making shandy, so you’d end up watching BBC News on loop in your hotel room, sticking your head in the fridge to snort coke you’d bought off some Nigerians just as the air-con had stopped working, because otherwise it would dissolve in the humidity. I’d spend more time waiting for the flight home than doing anything useful."
At the peak of operations, Gav was making "about two grand a week", tax-free, one from each of his two main dealers, ensuring that he kept wholesale prices low so they could make a tidy profit and thus pay him. Sound husbandry. But the boom years were now over and decadence was setting in. "You get too many people doing it, it becomes too well known, and then just collapses."
It was around 2004, Gav recalls, when "it became obvious things were getting worse". People were being stopped by Indian immigration on their way out of the country, while there were hiccups in the UK, too. Monitoring the DHL tracking system – which told you exactly when a parcel had landed and when it had cleared customs – Gav noticed that what had for five years taken about five minutes suddenly increased to two weeks.
Other weird things were happening, too: "A guy from DHL dropped off a parcel at someone’s house and said: 'Look, it’s none of my business, but there are a load of police around the corner.' Then parcels were coming through wrapped up in yellow-and-black tape: 'Opened for inspection: Customs and Excise', it would say. And the odd bottle was disappearing – maybe it was falling out of the boxes, but we were convinced that people in the delivery company had cottoned on and were just nicking it. No one’s ever going to complain, are they?"
If it was something of an act of serendipity that got the whole ball rolling, then in the end it was an act of hubris that brought it all down. "There was this Italian guy who started putting liquid cocaine into rosewater bottles and sending it back. He got busted and that’s when the police got interested. They looked at the record of what was coming through and were convinced they’d uncovered some massive coke-smuggling factory. It wasn’t. It was just this one guy who ended up in prison for ages – good, really, because he fucked things up for everyone."
Gav remembers reading a line in Howard Marks’ autobiography Mr Nice at the outset of it all. "It said something like, 'Don’t try and do it this way because it doesn’t work like this any more.' Well, it’s the same for K: unfortunately, it won’t work like this any more."