Since being placed on coronavirus lockdown, you might have experienced the primeval urge to buy something – tinned soup, bog roll, bread flour – in the hope it would ward off the sense of impending doom.
This collective urge might have caused pandemonium in the shops, but it pales in comparison to what England's 300,000 frequent heroin and crack users will be feeling right now. Their desire to buy, and buy again, is what drives Britain's £5 billion heroin and crack market, which accounts for over half of the entire illegal drug market in the UK.
But if you can't leave the house unless it's for exercise, food or essential work, how are people addicted to crack and heroin still buying their drugs? And how are those whose job it is to keep the drug trade ticking over in urban centres and rural towns managing it?
Last week, West Midlands Police reported a big fall in violence and robbery throughout March of this year compared to last March. When I asked for their figures on drug crime they said there were 509 drug-related offences last March and only 381 this year. But is the drug business really in retreat, or do police just have more pressing things to do, like stopping people from sunbathing?
According to drug market observers, including police, drug workers and drug users, the virus and its subsequent lockdown have already begun reshaping the way dealers go about their business – but it certainly hasn't stopped them. A well-placed police source with access to the national picture, involving feedback from all 46 police forces, told me the crack and heroin business remains highly functional, but slightly altered, across the UK.
He said several police forces reported that dealers are dressing up in supermarket and parcel delivery worker uniforms in order to camouflage themselves as they make drop-offs on street corners and in people's homes. Other drug market observers told me that dealers are going undercover as runners and fitness fanatics in order to shift bags of crack and heroin around their community. One drug world expert in Liverpool added that some dealers prepare for being stopped by carrying a box of groceries "for their gran". Others dress up as fast food delivery motorcyclists and even nurses in order to avoid being questioned.
Other dealers have decided to do away with personal vehicles, and instead are using taxi drivers – who are allowed to operate on lockdown – to deliver packages to people's homes. One drug worker from Sussex said: "A mini-cab driver told me he would normally be ferrying kids around on school runs, but now he's staying busy by driving all the dealers around town."
Social distancing is being adhered to by some street dealers. People on bikes sticking baggies through people's letterboxes is on the up, for instance, while some sources told me dealers in their area had started using a system of dead drops, leaving drugs in bushes, garages and under bins, where money is picked up and drugs are left, as a way to reduce direct contact. Some sellers have dispensed with cash and are now using contactless payments to avoid infection.
Many young dealers, who already hold a dim view of the heroin and crack users they sell to every day, are now wearing masks and gloves in order to reduce the chances of infection. One drug worker told me dealers in Hastings, East Sussex have compiled a list of "high risk" buyers who they demand non-cash payment from, and who now receive their drugs thrown from a car window. Some dealers are still passing wraps from their mouths to crack and heroin users directly, heightening the danger of infection among a group of people already at high risk of becoming infected.
One of the most noticeable changes seen by police forces across the UK was that those higher up the drug-selling food chain have been pulling back young runners and instead moving and selling drugs themselves, both in inner cities and across county lines. Detectives think this because drug crew managers have realised that, under lockdown, young people out in public are sticking out more than adults, and are deemed too risky to transport large amounts of drugs.
Nevertheless, the cash cow that is the county lines business continues undeterred. Dealing crews have switched from trains to cars and are increasingly reliant on renting and cuckooing local people's homes, ensuring drug buyers come to them and they have no need to sell on the streets. While some senior dealers are deciding to get their hands dirty, teenagers continue to be utilised.
Since the government announced its lockdown on the 23rd of March, Norfolk Police have been uprooting county lines gangs on an almost daily basis, including the arrest of a 17-year-old girl from London at Norwich train station on suspicion of Class A supply, and raids on nine addresses in north east London linked to a county lines drug line being run from Hackney to Norwich. In London last week, the Metropolitan Police put out a missing person's appeal for a 14-year-old schoolboy from north London – but according to his friends on Snapchat, he was "going country".
As the economy slows, Britain's county lines crews are re-upping as normal. Last week, police in Shropshire used a road "stinger" in a car chase to stop a BMW suspected of transporting drugs from Birmingham into Telford. In Devon, offices arrested two suspected dealers who had just driven from Liverpool with two ounces of crack and one ounce of heroin for sale in Torquay.
As for the customers, police forces around the UK conclude that, so far, there is no shortage of heroin or crack. In Bath, for example, heroin suppliers say they have enough stock to keep them in business until June. But it's not quite "business as usual", because as with legitimate products online and in the supermarkets, prices have gone up and all the special offers have vanished.
Most police forces – as well as drug users themselves – report either increases in the price of street level bags of crack and heroin, or reductions in deal sizes. In most parts of the country, dealers have now stopped their "three for two" deals, meaning users are now typically offered three wraps of crack or heroin for £25 or £30, instead of three for £20. In Brighton the price of a bag of heroin has doubled, although this steep price rise has not been replicated in most parts of the UK.
This is likely because, at wholesale level, the price of a kilo of both cocaine and heroin has gone up. In his analysis into the potential impacts of the pandemic on county lines networks, former National Crime Agency drug chief Tony Saggers estimated that, since the outbreak, the price of a kilo of cocaine for UK bulk buyers has risen from £35,000 to £40,000. A kilo of heroin has gone up from £20,000 to £25,000.
Yet street dealers know they cannot push prices too high, because lockdown is strangling the means by which many of the most prolific buyers of crack and heroin fund their habits: begging, shoplifting and sex work. Some drug workers I spoke to said drug users have become so desperate for drugs and cash they have started robbing drug dealers.
The unfurling impacts of Covid-19 on the local and global drug trade, from homeless heroin users in Hull to underground Chinese labs and Mexican cartels, is the drug story of 2020. Within Britain's highly addictive, highly profitable heroin and crack trade, lives will be changed. The pandemic will prove the final straw for some users and dealers, who will decide it's one risk too far and get out of the game. Others could find themselves propelled into this world, off the back of these strange and uncertain times.
What is for certain, as we are all finding out, is that the best way to survive is to adapt. And when the stakes are as high as they are in the street drug trade, people will try anything.