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The Rise and Rise of the UK's Student Drug Dealers

It's all pretty sweet till armed police or men with pick-axes kick your door down.

(Photo by Giorgi Nieberidze)

If the greatest architects, theorists and social planners who've ever lived were revived to design the perfect marketplace for drug dealers, they'd come up with a student halls of residence. A nest stuffed full of trainee adults, waiting like baby birds with their beaks wide open for their next life-changing experience. They might not be allowed to come along and actually vomit the drugs into the mouths of students but nonetheless halls remain a dealer’s wet dream. Which is why they've been living in them for decades.

Nearly three quarters of Britain’s 2.5 million university students have taken illegal drugs. So it follows that somebody has to be there feeding our future MPs, business leaders and unemployed actors their weed, MDMA, cocaine and ketamine (that last substance is up to ten times more likely to be used by students than non-students).

In fact, the student drug market is so sought after that dealers have been known to enrol at colleges specifically to take out student loans and sell drugs on campus. Then, of course, there are all the student dealers – those who begin their higher education with good intentions, realise that working a bar job isn’t much fun and start selling drugs to supplement their loan. If you live in halls and don't know who this guy or girl is yet, take it as a sign that you should get some more friends.

While it’s always been a thriving cottage industry, the student dealing scene blew up virtually overnight in 2008, when thousands of undergrads around the country set themselves up as mephedrone merchants to meet the demand for the new – and then-legal – drug. Now illegal and more unreliable, it’s become less popular in halls than it was, but the phenomenon undoubtedly made it seem more acceptable to sell drugs on campus; a 2012 survey by Varsity, the student newspaper for the University of Cambridge, found that one in seven students who used drugs also admitted to selling them for profit.

“Some of my mates back home sold drugs, but I never liked the look of it – a bit too dangerous for me. But when I came here it seemed a natural thing to do." Rob is a 22-year-old philosophy student from Merseyside who attends a big university in the north of England. Last Friday, he was up till 7AM, selling drugs from his front room. “I ended up with about 30 visitors – it’s always like that on Friday night,” he told me. “They’ll buy MDMA in the evening, and the same ones are calling back for ketamine and weed for the day after. I only made £200, but it’s better than £6 an hour in a bar.”

(Photo by Chris Bethell)

Unlike most of the students he knows, he’s always on time paying the rent. The only downside to being a student dealer, he says, is that during exam season in May and June “it’s not a profitable profession”.

When he arrived at uni three years ago, Rob tried to get a job in one of the city centre bars. The only problem was that hundreds of other freshers had the same idea, and Rob got knocked back from everywhere he applied. So when students in his halls began asking him for weed, he started selling it to them from his own personal stash. Then, as tends to happen when you start selling drugs, economies of scale kicked in: the more he bought, the cheaper it got, and he was able to cover his own weekly weed allowance while selling the rest for a profit. Word spread in halls, and soon his profits enabled him to start paying off debts and happily afford going nuts on nights out with his friends, who were all relying on their parents to top up their accounts.

“Selling drugs in halls was too easy, because it all took place in a bubble,” says Rob. “Students knocked on the window if they needed anything. There were no police or locals to worry about, just a couple of security officers looking after 3,000 students who all wanted to get high. I knew if I hadn’t taken advantage of the situation I would have regretted it.”

In his second year, Rob moved out of halls into a rented house in the city’s ghettoised student district. In order to pay the rent he added MDMA and ket to his repertoire and started earning between £500 to £1,000 a week. “I don’t think of myself as a drug dealer in the popular sense of the word,” he says. “It’s more like a hobby that pays for drugs, going out, rent and holidays.”

Now, even though his home is away from the safe haven of student halls, business has continued very much as normal, because students will always prefer to buy from other students. In fact, Rob estimates that there are around 50 student dealers at his university, who will mostly sell to student clients.

“I only deal to university students, otherwise it defeats the whole purpose of selling in the student bubble,” he says. “They buy off me because I’m not threatening. For them, it’s better than chancing it with an outsider; there’s an element of trust, which goes both ways.”

(Photo by Jules Suzdaltsev) 

But Rob, and the thousands of other student dealers shifting drugs at the UK’s universities and colleges, tread a fine line. In the last year, three of his friends, who were also dealers at his university, have been arrested by armoured police in dawn raids and now face prison sentences. He says they got caught because they made the mistake of selling drugs “outside the student bubble” – at clubs and festivals.

There's a catalogue of cases around the country where student dealers have ended up in front of a judge. In September last year, Salford students Cara Donnison and Daniel Campbell, both 20, were locked up for two years each after being caught with £2,500 worth of ecstasy, cannabis and ketamine, alongside plastic snap bags and weighing scales, at their halls of residence.

In January of this year, Michael Thompson, 22 – a final year History student at Sheffield University – was sentenced to three years after police intercepted a package addressed to him from Holland that contained £600 worth of ecstasy pills. A raid on his flat, close to the university campus, found 46 bags of ecstasy tablets, cannabis resin, weed, ketamine, Valium and LSD.

Patrick, now a librarian in his late twenties, is still suffering after being caught a decade ago with 100 ecstasy pills when he was a student dealer at the University of Sussex. Aged 18, he was given three years in a young offenders prison. The violent experience ruined his career, his relationships and left him permanently on edge.

And it’s not only the police that student dealers need to be on the lookout for. Rob’s supplier, a student at his university who has one foot on campus and the other wavering towards just being a full-time drug dealer, was raided by a group of local guys who busted through his back door and demanded everything he had. He handed over three laptops, three mobile phones, a load of ketamine and £2,000 in cash. A similar raid ended the fledgling drug selling career of a student in Nottingham, when masked men armed with a pick-axe busted down his door and ransacked his student flat after one of them had bought weed off him.

(Photo by T Kid)

Unpublished research carried out last year into the student drug dealing scene at Plymouth University found that most student sellers enrolled there were “social dealers” – people who passed on drugs for no profit, or in order to finance their own drug use. However, three of the 30 current and former student dealers interviewed were profit-motivated dealers with a wider circle of customers, who dealt to finance their way through university.

“'Findings from our study suggest that universities act as an environment in which many drug-using students progress to small-scale social supply roles,” says Dr Leah Moyle, a research fellow at Plymouth University’s Drug and Alcohol Research Unit.

“We spoke to students who had been involved in selling relatively large quantities of class-A substance, but who had no previous experience of commercial drug supply. The prospect of making a relatively good income in a short space of time often outweighed the risk of undertaking 'one off' periods of drug dealing activity. In the university context, these students felt relatively protected from law enforcement, and often had access to a ready-made customer base of friends and acquaintances, through which drugs could easily and discreetly be distributed to.

“Our findings also indicate that, in the university environment, engaging in a supply role on behalf of the wider social group can act as a kind of social cement, and that our respondents often wanted to 'do their bit' for the group by accessing drugs for less well connected friends.”

Because some dealers sell for minimal profit, the study concluded that “social supply” should become a distinct criminal offence, to differentiate the type of low-level dealer most common in universities from career drug sellers driven entirely by profit. Which is a nice thought, as well as making a fair bit of sense. But considering that last year the Home Office was still doing stuff like banning khat – an incredibly mild herbal stimulant – any softening in their position looks highly unlikely.

As with the external narcotic industry, the university marketplace is going through huge changes. Mephedrone flung open the door to the online trade of new and familiar psychoactive substances in 2008, and change has been rapid since then. What’s more, while the array of substances available today would bemuse the average student stoner of the 1970s, the alphabet soup of research chemicals and grey market substances is surely going to multiply as authorities keep on banning them, and chemists keep on tinkering with them until they’re legal again.

Of course, while the landscape might be changing, the law and the risk is not. So if you are going to chance it, maybe consider who might end up busting through your door – armoured police, or a bunch of masked maniacs waving pick-axes at your flatmates. 

Additional reporting by Liam Deacon

@narcomania