This article originally appeared on VICE US.
From the deadly streets of Manila to Brazilian favelas, Colombian cocaine farms, and opium dens in Iran, former drug dealer Niko Vorobyov has traveled the globe to get a better understanding of the people that make the drug trade tick.
The result is a new book, Dopeworld: Adventures in Drug Lands. VICE sat down with Niko, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and brought up in England, to ask him what his journey taught him about humanity's bond with using, selling, and making drugs.
VICE: You appear to have jumped head-first into the dope world. Explain.
Niko Vorobyov: About ten years ago when I was a student, I made some bad choices. I wasn’t exactly Tony Montana, but if you needed something on campus, I was the guy to call. I sold weed, coke, and MDMA—everything you need for a good night out.
It was a bumpy ride: I ended up getting stabbed and robbed at one point, and by the time I got to the hospital I had lost so much blood the nurse was surprised I hadn’t passed out. The knife wounds fucked up my nerve endings too, so I couldn’t feel anything for a while. Eventually I was moving kilos, dealing with three different suppliers, and had a couple of guys working for me.
But you eventually got busted. What was prison like and what did you learn there?
I got off fairly light—two and a half years—but for someone who’s never been there before and only 23 years old, jail’s a real shock to the system. I had a lot of time to reflect on how I had gotten myself in this fucked-up situation, and I’d read a lot too. I read Mr Nice by Howard Marks, the famous dope smuggler, and El Narco by Ioan Grillo. Those were the two books that got me curious about what was really going on.
Then I started writing letters to the outside. That was one way to stay sane. When I got out, I wanted to turn this negative thing into a positive, and quite a few people enjoyed reading my letters, so I thought, why not go around the world and write a book about drugs?
"You know, I couldn’t just show up in a cartel-ravaged Mexican town with a clipboard and be like 'OK gentlemen, whose opium field is this?'"
Did you get high on your travels?
I don’t party as hard as I used to. I prefer stuff that keeps you grounded in the real world, so you’re not seeing pink elephants. But the weirdest shit I’ve done is ayahuasca; that’s a brew the shamans make in the Amazon to take them to the spirit world. I went to the edge of the universe and back. That’s one trip down the rabbit hole I’ll never forget.
How did you find the users and gangsters?
Well, don’t forget I used to live in this world, so a lot of guys I already knew or they’re friends of friends. In Mexico and the Philippines, where I didn’t know the lay of the land, I had to get a fixer. You know, I couldn’t just show up in a cartel-ravaged Mexican town with a clipboard and be like “OK gentlemen, whose opium field is this?”
What events stuck with you the most as you were writing the book?
One interesting experience I had was, I sat down—me, a former ecstasy dealer—with a father from the north of England who lost both of his sons to that drug in one night. They had six times the lethal dose. Absolutely heartbreaking, no parent should have to deal with that. And you’d think that’s the sort of person who’d hate my guts. But we were actually on the same side, because maybe if they had bought those pills in a shop or a pharmacy where they could check the ingredients and they’d know what dose they’re getting, his sons would still be alive.
But what stuck with me the most was seeing extreme poverty. We don’t know how good we have it in the West. There was one family I met that got caught up in the drug war in the Philippines. When the mother got locked away, the dad couldn’t provide for the whole family, and their youngest kid ended up starving to death.
Damn, that is fucked up. You were in Brazil and hung out with the notorious gang Red Command at a Rio favela. What was that like?
That was a crazy night. One of my friends called me and asked if I wanted to go to a party. The gang that runs the slum, Red Command, puts on these parties every week called “funk balls” [bailes funk], and it’s basically like a wild street party or a rave except with more 13-year-olds carrying heavy machine guns. Politicians here talk about “no-go zones” and crime-infested areas, but down there if they see the cops coming they’ll light ‘em up like Chinese New Year. But these parties are safe. The gang doesn’t want trouble on their patch.
You also visited an opium den in Iran.
Iran’s an awesome country to go backpacking—the people are so friendly and welcoming, they’re just ruled by this repressive regime. Drinking is forbidden [for Muslims in Iran] but opium’s pretty popular. I actually ended up smoking dope with the police twice. Once we got hotboxed by a cop giving us a lift. Another time we were sat by the river, the sun’s going down and we’re taking puffs from a vafoor, which is a traditional opium pipe, and this guy just pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of him in full uniform. And he was no ordinary cop but a basij, one of those thugs they use to beat up protesters. It goes to show how deep drugs are in our society, even in the Islamic republic.
Did you end up in any other farflung places?
It’s really interesting how they make hash in Morocco: They chop up the weed plant, then bang it through a drum to get the pollen out. There’s whole villages out there in the Rif Mountains who make their livelihood making hash for stoners to smoke in the coffeeshops of Amsterdam and Barcelona. One place I went to we don’t hear about so much is Tajikistan; that’s a small, rocky country in Asia where all the smack comes into Russia from Afghanistan. We drove along the border and just across the river was Afghanistan. Every now and then a poor hick gets shot carrying a backpack of dope along a winding mountain trail. But all these guys are small fry, I was told the Afghan military fly hundreds of kilos of heroin onboard their airplanes.
Having seen so many different drug zones, what are the connections and differences?
What people use to get high in different countries has little bearing on the law, and everything to do with culture. Opium smoking is a traditional habit in Iran, but alcohol’s frowned upon. They still like a drink there, of course, but opiates are weirdly more socially acceptable, at least in some circles. Meanwhile over in Japan, there’s a very conformist, collectivist culture which looks down on anything illegal. But the drug of choice there is methamphetamine. It fits perfectly with their fast-paced, workaholic lifestyle. If you’re pulling a manic 12-hour shift you’re not going to sneak away to smoke a fat doobie.
In the favelas of Brazil or the Mafia-run neighborhoods in Sicily the drug use was very obvious. But what I’d noticed in stricter countries like Japan is it almost seems seedier, in a way, because drug users and dealers are much more social outcasts. I met an enforcer for the yakuza, which is the Japanese mafia, and he was telling me how he was chopping up bodies of dealers. Dopeworld is everywhere, just in some places they’re better at sweeping it under the carpet.
How did you end up surviving your travels and did you have any close calls?
I try to plan ahead as much as I can and make sure I have contacts who can put me through to the right people. The scariest experience I had was probably coming face-to-face with a Filipino hitman. We were at a dodgy karaoke bar somewhere in the slums of Manila and he sat between me and the exit, wearing a balaclava and waving his pistol in my face while I asked him how many people he’s killed (32).
But to be honest I’ve always been drawn to danger, whereas I can go a whole day without checking my phone because I’m terrified of what a girl wrote back. I think it comes down to how you don't actually have to read those messages, whereas if you've sat facing a masked gunman it's kind of late to back off now. If he decides he doesn’t like you, there’s not much you can do—you’re here now.
What did the trip tell you you did not already know?
I think the most important thing I’ve learned is different perspectives. I used to think Duterte’s a mass-murdering asshole. I still do, but having been to Manila I kind of see why people support him. Even if their own family were murdered by motorbike-riding assassins, they think he’s doing the right thing. It’s a reminder we all live in our own little bubbles. I used to be a “LEGALIZE EVERYTHING, FUCK YEAH!” kinda guy. Now I’m just a little more cautious.
What about all the people you met, the users, dealers, gangsters, cops. What did you find out that most people do not understand?
Alright, let me get philosophical for a minute. Having sat down with gangsters and killers—and I’m not making excuses for them, by the way, some of them were evil fucks—but if you look at where they were born, how much violence they saw or was inflicted on them as a child, it’s no surprise they didn’t grow up to be astrophysicists. The same with drug addicts. If a little girl gets raped repeatedly by a family friend, how are you gonna tell her not to get high to numb the pain? And it’s the same with me. Maybe if kids at school hadn’t treated me like the weird immigrant kid I wouldn’t have been a drug dealer with something to prove and fucked up my life. Then again, I wouldn’t have written this book either.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about drugs and what conclusions have you come to?
We don’t want to admit it, but almost everyone does drugs. Either we drink or smoke or we rail massive lines on the weekend. Even caffeine is a drug. Why we’ve decided that smoking joints is bad but Jägerbombs are OK has more to do with social, cultural or political phenomena at a certain time, not the effects of the drugs themselves.
Our love-hate relationship with those pills, plants, and powders that tickle our minds is what I find fascinating and tried to explore in this book, as well as the unintended consequences of that relationship: police shootings; gangsters and organized crime; wars in countries like Colombia; how we’ve written off entire swathes of the population as junkies and dealers, the genocide in the Philippines; and how drugs have infiltrated every strata of society.
At the same time I’ve tried to come to terms with my role in this gigantic clusterfuck. Was I providing an overpriced but much-appreciated service, like a 1920s bootlegger, or pushing poison to the community? A bit of both, it turns out.