According to the 2018 UK Festival Awards census, 27 percent of festivalgoers will take drugs sometime over their weekend. During testing for The Loop's drug-checking service in 2016, around 50 percent of users reported buying onsite.
If we crudely match up these figures with the 3.17 million people who attend UK music festivals every year, we can estimate that approximately 428,000 people will be looking to buy gear in the fields this summer. This leaves drug dealers with a key – but complicated – role in the festival ecosystem.
While we live under drugs prohibition, people will continue to smuggle drugs into festivals to sell to the masses. But how do they get them past security? How much of a tax are they adding? And which dealers should you avoid at all costs? I wandered deep into the valley of the internet to discover the secrets and logistics of the festival road men and women.
How do they pick a festival?
"I just go to whatever festival I like and sell there," says Carl, 31. This attitude – that the dealing ran adjacent to having a good time – was broadly replicated across the five dealers I spoke to, and Glastonbury, Boomtown, and Secret Garden Party came up frequently as thriving markets. (luckily, the last two have led the way in terms of onsite drugs-testing and mental health provisions).
"I did Boomtown nine years a in a row and made handfuls there," says Keith, 34. "Though one year I went to Download with half an ounce of ketamine and came back with nearly all of it."
Download's metal-loving crowd is traditionally associated with hard-drinking rather than drug-taking and, unsurprisingly, it can pay to go where the money traditionally is: "Secret Garden Party was a goldmine because everyone was posh and loved buying drugs, but didn’t know fuck-all about them," remembers Naylor.
Pre-festival pinger prep
Of those I spoke to, Keith's preparation was the most advanced: "I sold mainly ketamine, coke, weed and acid, using vacuum packed bags which I’d stash in a Pringles can. I'd take half the Pringles out, pop the stash in, stick a couple Pringles on top and then reseal with super glue. Easy."
Steve, a DJ and retired dealer who worked festivals across the UK and Europe for many years, prefers taking the gear in unweighed. "If you get caught with packaged goods they know you're a shot [drug dealer] and more likely to be sent to police," he says. "If they find all your stash together you can just pretend it's yours for the week."
Steve says he would take clingfilm in his bags, and scales that looked like a pack of playing cards or a phone, to avoid alerting security. He's not, however, averse to a little home chemistry: "I would bulk buy bottles of liquid acid at £150 a bottle and make my own sheets. You do this before the festival, though acid likes to be kept cool. I'd usually have a friend with a caravan and fridge, so they’d keep it there for me and I’d give them some drugs for the favour."
Generally, the most popular drugs were MDMA/ecstasy and LSD. "My nightly amount was about 100 microdots [LSD], 100 pills of ecstasy, half an ounce to an ounce of speed," says 45-year-old Faye, who was around for the birth of acid house and spent the 1990s and 2000s dealing at festivals and raves across Europe. The first part of this was with a gang: an experience she "wouldn't wish on anyone". In those days her boss bought all the gear upfront. "Then it got dished out just before the festival started. He gave us a price. We sold at whatever price we wanted, gave him back his money at the end and kept the rest."
Getting it through the gates, and the futility of sniffer dogs
"In the old days it was really easy to break in," say Faye. "You just went through holes in the fence or over the wall. You didn’t go through any security – it was such a doddle."
The dealers seem fairly sanguine about the chances of their drugs being found while entering the festival, though three had an inside track – either through being a part of production, or entering as a musician. "That gives you a certain level of protection," says Steve. "But the difference between now and ten years ago is huge. There was a huge change after the Ariana Grande bombing in Manchester [in May of 2017]. There was an increase in searches and there was much less special treatment for crew and artists."
Carl, who normally takes 200 pills into a festival, seemed unperturbed by the presence of security on the gate. "If it's a strict one then I put them in my wellies. They never tell you to take your wellies off, especially when it’s muddy," he says.
What about sniffer dogs, which – despite mounting evidence that they increase the likelihood of drug-related harms – still lurk around the gates of most major festivals? Mike, who once drove 200 pills and two ounces of MDMA to Serbia's EXIT festival, says, "I've worked in festival production, and I know that after half an hour their nose gets tired." Mike had this theory tested even further at UK border patrol: "I had several sniffer dogs around the car." His stash was all heavily wrapped in clingfilm and hidden inside the lining of his car. "I struck up rapport with the person conducting the search. They thought I was a squaddie just because I’ve got a shaved head and drive a Golf. Apparently that’s a popular combination for a squaddie, so they let me crack on."
Peacock to survive and thrive
Every festival dealer has different ways to engage the customer. "I'm a magnet," says Carl. "People always come to me. But then I’m the guy in a wig and sunnies and mad clothing. I'm also, to be fair, normally taking drugs quite openly. I have big pinger energy."
Mike dealt from his tent on the campsite before heading into the festival proper: word spread so quickly around his local area that he sold £8,000 of drugs in the first two days.
Steve preferred a two-pronged attack with his girlfriend, aided by a peacocking outfit. "I used to wear something like a crazy full body dinosaur costume." His girlfriend would try to find customers, while he'd watch her back and keep an eye out for authorities. His costume would also do its own work and bring the pill-hungry hordes to him. "I'd generally suss people out before propositioning. Maybe ask for a light or a Rizla and have a bit of banter before seeing if they wanted anything." He preferred dealing pills and LSD, partly because of the higher profits and ease of hiding them, but also the target audience: "With coke and ketamine you end up dealing with idiots and meltheads. They'll get you arrested by being too fucked themselves."
Sundays are a good day for reeling in the suffering. "Weed was always good on the last day, when everyone is dying," says Keith. "You walk around with a fatty and they come to you."
Profits, and The Dickhead Tax
"We used to make £5,000 over a weekend," says Keith, who – like Sam, Faye and Mike – has now thrown in his dealer cap. "Half of which was profit."
Carl says he'd normally buy his pills at £2 a pop and sell each for £10. You’d need to be packing some cash to buy a pill from Faye back in the Very Early Days: "I'd be selling them for £15 or £20 a go, but I was buying them for a tenner."
The generally accepted method for weighed drugs is as follows: charge the price it would be out of the festival gates, but give a third less to the customer. "If a £20 bag of weed would be between 1.6g to 1.8g in London, in a festival it's 1.2g," says Steve. "I'd explain to people that they’re getting taxed in this way and use that as a way for them to take a bulk deal: three bags for £10 discount, say."
Everyone extolled the virtues of not ripping off the customer and concurred on another doctrine: if you’re a dick to your dealer, expect to pay The Dickhead Tax: "I would charge different amounts to different people, depending on whether you were a friend, a stranger or an idiot," says Faye. "If they were a complete knob, I’d take the piss. And they’d deserve it."
Care for the customer
Both Keith and Sam have used The Loop's drug-testing service onsite before selling to their customers, while Sam says he "always, always tests my shit with a reagents kit". Everyone is generally forthcoming with rudimentary safety advice for their customers, especially in regards to ecstasy: "I'd always tell people to start with a half. I don't like the thought of people fucking themselves up too much at a festival," says Sam. "They're still people, even if they're cunts."
How does Carl know his pills are good? "I always do my own pingers. That’s my test."
How can festivalgoers ensure they end up buying the drugs they actually want? "Emphasising the dangers of what people are cutting drugs with is very important," says Sam. So get it tested if you can. Or bring a reagents test, which aren’t perfect but will help users ascertain whether their MDMA is in fact something dreadful like N-ethyl-pentylone, which was found regularly at UK festivals last year and can result in long and often traumatic trips. And always avoid those angry looking men charging through a crowd, shouting "pills, coke, ket" to no one in particular.
"Those guys are likely to be selling bad product," says Sam. "I've heard of so many people buying bags of crushed up paracetamol, or fake acid tabs. Nowadays it's even worse – people are cutting drugs with fucking dangerous shit."
Getting caught drug-handed
Some of our friends had run-ins with security while selling, but seemed to think everyone could co-exist in the same festival ecosystem providing you were seen to be: a) a good egg, and b) happy to hand your stash over if asked. Keith was approached by two men asking for MDMA and ketamine.
"I asked if they wanted any coke. They said an eighth, which I was wary about, but too smashed and greedy to turn them down. Turns out they were security. They said, 'Look, because you're not out here trying to do wrong by anyone we're just gonna take what you have and not hand you in.' This basically meant, 'Give us what you got so we can go shot it.'"
Security taking seized drugs and re-selling them is seemingly one of the great open secrets of the festival and nightlife business. "I know for a fact that security companies run a hustle where they take confiscated drugs and sell them back into the festival through a sort of phantom festival shotter," says Sam. "I'm a licensed SIA [Security Industry Authority] badge holder and have been involved in that."
Faye remembers one particularly nervy moment, after someone danced into her and sent a bag of pills spilling around a security guard's feet. "I froze. He got his torch out, shone it on the ground and beckoned me over. I was terrified. He said, 'I'm going to shine my torch on the floor, count to 30 and you've got that time to put them all in your pocket.' I thanked him and he said, 'It's OK, love, off you go.'"