Where should we draw the line? (photo by Barry Lewis/In Pictures via Getty Images)

March 9, 2021   6 mins

For the past year, while the majority of Britain has been working from home, an often overlooked but, in his own way, “essential” worker has continued to go about his business: the neighbourhood drug dealer.

That isn’t to say that it has been an easy ride. Britain’s first lockdown seriously dented drug dealers’ freedom of movement, and their supply has been hit by a number of significant domestic and international drug busts. In the world of narcotics, at least, the past year will no doubt come to be remembered as an era of stockpiling, increased prices and lower quality cocaine as dealers “trod” heavily on their wares with more cutting agents — not to mention the resulting boom in the cannabis market.

Yet in many ways, today’s itinerant drug dealers, able to roam from door-to-door, are perfectly suited to life in lockdown — and that’s a thoroughly modern phenomenon. Once upon a time, punters, users, abusers, junkies and “nitties” (those itching, scratching, semi-feral addicts) had to venture out of their homes and scurry off into the night in search of a little dope.

In the early eighties, when I was barely a teen, I had a friend who wanted to score some weed and made me traipse with him to a “shebeen”, or illegal drinking club, operating out of a dingy squat in Stratford, East London. The place was occupied almost exclusively by Rastas who were either smoking big fat spliffs or selling tiny bags of weed. My pal, despite still being in his school uniform, scored a £5 bag containing a few buds, twigs and seeds and rolled a crappy joint. I took a puff of it, coughed my guts up, pulled a “whitey” and ran out of the gaff as paranoid as hell to the toilets in Stratford Shopping Centre, where I locked myself in a cubicle until I calmed down.

In seventies and early eighties London, Rastas were to selling weed what the Royal Mail was to postal delivery services; they had a near monopoly on the trade, certainly at street level. In the absence of hydroponic technology, globalisation and, it must be said, what would become the British public’s penchant for exotic and eclectic highs, weed was a cottage industry with deep roots, and routes, to Jamaica. Anything stronger was the preserve of bohemians, the clubbing elite and the rich and famous. Even then, unless you were well-connected or in the entertainment industry, if you wanted drugs you needed to go out of your way to get them.

But in the decades since, Britain’s love affair with narcotics has taken on a whole new meaning. According to the Home Office’s latest figures, roughly three million people took recreational drugs in England and Wales last year, with around 300,000 in England opting for opiates and/or crack cocaine. In terms of valuation, the illicit drugs trade is worth an estimated £9.4 billion a year — which makes it larger than the UK music industry (£5.2 billion) and gaming industry (£2.9 billion) combined, and with an annual turnover bigger than several major high street chains, including Boots (£6.7 billion) and Primark (£5.9 billion).

Given that chronic weed, amphetamine and cocaine use appears to be as British as a Sunday roast, it’s no wonder that, in recent years, enterprising foreigners have moved into the UK drug market, “sniffing” easy money to be made. Indeed, thanks in part to the EU’s obsession with freedom of movement, its porous borders and, it must be said, our police forces’ flawed racial profiling which dictates that only black people sell, buy and consume drugs, Eastern European dealers have been able to force their way into a lucrative market.

Eastern European dealers sussed early on that consumption is Britain’s metier, and they made hay with it. While scrawny British inner-city “hood rats” thought riding around on stolen scooters selling crack was a major step-up from dealing on street corners and council estate stairwells, Serbian and Albanian dealers were taking orders on WhatsApp and Telegram encrypted messaging services and delivering to punters’ doors in modest, but comfortably air-conditioned saloon cars. These dealers innovated the use of social media, with many advertising flash sales and “buy two, get one free” offers to regular clients, using price differentiation to offer “standard” and “premium” cocaine. Most importantly, they offered a reliable, consistent and relatively risk-free service.

In other words, they run their “phone operations” like businesses, rather than trap house outtakes from Top Boy. This contrast in modus operandi between Eastern European and native drug dealers is down to what you might call a differing account of “psychological subjectivity”. In other words, if you don’t think and act like a drug dealer, you won’t get caught like one.

Only last week, for instance, the Metropolitan Police publicised an operation it led which resulted in 154 arrests in London relating to County Lines activities: Officers “were also proactively on the look-out for suspicious activity in their efforts to tackle violence, the Met’s top priority,” it added. Two operative words here, “suspicious” and “violence”, provide a clue as to why Eastern European dealers have been so successful; they were, for a long time, absent from their crime narrative in Britain.

Just as with stereotypes surrounding the Italian mafia, Jamaican Yardies and Chinese triads, the image of the black-clad Bond-villain Russian invariably springs to mind when we talk about any criminal east of Berlin. But while Eastern European gang members are no strangers to violence, many of the dealers I’ve spoken to are singularly focussed on doing their job, and therefore distance themselves from any violence which may attract unwanted attention. Our conversations are usually prosaic: about football results, their children back home and, increasingly, how the traffic congestion caused by the closure of some bridge over the Thames is affecting their delivery times. If anything, Eastern European dealers in London operate more like Uber than the Barksdale Crew from The Wire. 

And since lockdown, this work ethic has made it easier for them to adapt. One dealer I know is pretending to be a more orthodox “essential worker”, wearing a hi-vis jacket and driving around in a van as a cover. Others have changed their shift times, now usually working from just 4pm-6pm or weekends only. Some have even upped sticks and left the UK altogether, putting their phone operations on a skeleton staff until the much-anticipated summer boom.

One of the savvier young London dealers I know — who recently escaped a county lines operation after a “nitty” held him up for his stash with a hypodermic needle, and was then nearly stabbed to death by the gang he now owed money to — has gone “freelance”. He bought a scooter and uses a Deliveroo box as a cover story to sell crack, a move that’s become so common that the Met have started to randomly “stop and search” delivery bike riders.

More recently, though, the Met — perhaps realising that it could prove more fruitful — has decided to target the middle-class drug trade. When I worked as a producer on the Channel 5 documentary series Gangland, a constant refrain I heard from dealers was that gentrification is contributing to Britain’s ever-expanding drugs market. The Government certainly agrees; last week, it was revealed that it plans to launch a middle-class “information campaign” to make “snorting cocaine as socially unacceptable as drink-driving”.

Certainly their value to dealers cannot be underestimated. Aside from being spendthrift, reliable and creditworthy, middle-class punters are mavens when it comes to spreading the word about who’s got A-grade cocaine or ecstasy. If you’re a dealer, being able to boast that you have doctors, lawyers and media types in your contacts book is certainly a nice marketing touch. After all, the bourgeoisie love nothing more than knowing they’re in good company, even if they are contributing to a trade that results in Mexican gang members being decapitated every now and again.

I learned just how valuable middle-class coke users are during the 2019 general election. Having got wind of a high-profile political client who was being “served up” by the friend of a source, I attempted to broker a deal with one of Fleet Street’s finest for the story. But at the last minute, the drug dealer baulked at my offers of fame, fortune and the opportunity to change the course of British political history. “Bro, it ain’t worth it,” he told me. “He’s my best customer.” When it comes to middle-class dealing, discretion is key; another reason why the professionalism of foreign dealers sells itself.

Just days before lockdown, The Sun reported that “London has become a hotbed of international criminals – from Albanian cocaine kingpins and African street gangsters to Turkish Cypriots”. When I asked an old source in the East End scene if this was yet more tabloid bluster, he simply said: “I moved to Essex to get away from that shit. Now they’re moving in here. You can’t compete with them.”

In some ways, I suppose it’s to be expected that a capital city of nine million people has its fair share of foreign dealers — just as it has its fair share of foreign businessmen. And with the UK bracing itself for the end of lockdown restrictions this summer, no doubt these “essential” workers are already preparing for the inevitable narco-bonanza that will follow.

David Matthews is an award-winning writer and filmmaker.