It’s time to admit it: Drug dealers should be considered essential workers

If there’s one thing living in and writing about the dope game for over a decade has taught me, it’s that the ‘cure’ we now have for addiction is worse than the disease

Niko Vorobyov
Monday 18 May 2020 10:54 BST
Boris Johnson dodges question again as he's asked a second time about taking cocaine

Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard stories about how the pandemic has disrupted the global narcotics trade. In Mexico, it’s messing up business for the Sinaloa cartel. No chemicals coming in from China equals no ingredients for fentanyl or crystal meth. A tiny microscopic virus did what a billion dollars of DEA funding could not. We’ve also heard stories of how dealers are getting around quarantine, sometimes dressing up as nurses or delivery drivers to give their clients their fix.

Like coronavirus, the drugs issue is a public health crisis. Since the pandemic is making us reconsider a lot of things, from our lifestyles to government spending, I’d like to propose we reconsider our drug policy.

One of my friends, a wine merchant, is still doing the rounds dropping off booze as he’s considered an essential worker. So, I would argue, are dope dealers. I’ve long thought my old occupation wasn’t that different from my friend’s – we both sold an addictive, intoxicating, highly-diluted substance. And I was basically a pharmacist running a drug store.

On paper, there are few differences between the professions that offer those services. Both provide ways of helping people unwind; giving something to take the edge off the global pandemic. Police may treat you differently if they see you with a paper bag of medicine or a pint compared with a bag of white powder, but our bodies only obey the laws of nature, not the laws of man. Obviously, too much of anything is bad for you – but so are a lot of things. Boxing, for example, can cause serious brain damage and I don’t see anyone trying to outlaw that. And before you mouth off in the comments, I recognise there are ways in which dealing drugs is worse, which we’ll get to later.

If we turn back the clock to 1920s America, drugs and alcohol were essentially the same. In 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, also known as Prohibition, making boozing against the law. Drinking moved to drug dens called speakeasies, sparking competition over the liquor business between men with names like "Baby Face" Nelson and "Machine Gun" McGurn, until the law was revoked in 1933. The same thing happened in Finland, and there are still laws like that in some Islamic countries today (though they tend to make exceptions for us heathens).

Drugs certainly can ruin lives – no-one’s saying it’s fun being an addict. But we need to stop pretending that taking drugs always leads to the worst possible consequences. Back in prison, I had a mate who we’ll call Ned Flanders. Lovely chap, but he was always getting on my case for not going to church. Before he went to prison and found Christ, Ned was a paranoid cocaine user who got pulled over by armed police on his way to blow away his ex’s new boyfriend with a sawn-off shotgun. A bit rash on his part, but you have to remember, most weekend candy-sniffers aren’t sitting in jail for attempted murder.

No-one wants to hear about your average, common-or-garden druggies, sitting at home getting high. It’s like watching a documentary about alcohol where they don’t show a 9-5er having a few brewskis with the broskis after work; only a drunkard passed out in an alley, surrounded by empty vodka bottles and lying in a puddle of their own piss.

Most of the customers I sold to were uni students. All of them (at least the ones I still follow on Facebook) now have steady jobs, a few even own houses and are happily married. Their lives didn’t spiral into a whirlpool of misery and despair after doing a few lines at freshers week. And it’s the same for most of us stoners, cokeheads and psychonauts. The United Nations even admits that at most, around 10 per cent of drug users around the world are “problem users”.

Michael Gove says he was 'fortunate' not to go to jail after taking cocaine several times whilst working as a journalist

There are, of course, ways in which drugs are worse than drinking. However, those problems exist precisely because drugs are illegal. For a start, many dealers can’t guarantee quality. I’m guilty of this.

In 2008, there was a major bust of safrole oil – one of the main ingredients in MDMA – in Cambodia, and the world’s ecstasy supply dried up. I didn’t know any of this had happened, so a few months later I bought a quarter-kilo brick of MDMA that wasn’t actually MDMA. My customers complained that something was off and it seemed a little “funky” – not in a good way – but I sold it anyway because I couldn’t exactly take it back.

Six years and one prison term later, I learned that the "Superman" XTC pills were causing a string of deaths around the UK because chemists were still using far deadlier chemicals to replace the safrole oil. Luckily, no-one died from my batch and the supply line now starts in China. A century ago, the same thing happened with whisky: in America during the Prohibition, tens of thousands died from poisoned moonshine peddled by gangsters and bootleggers (sadly this is still true in parts of Africa and Asia). Alcohol poisoning is just another form of overdose.

Then there’s addiction, which causes trouble not only for the user but others around them. Yet tobacco is as addictive as heroin and more toxic, but you don’t see smokers boosting TVs for their pack-a-day because cigarettes are relatively cheap. Drugs are expensive because of the extra risk dealers (like me) face running into the fuzz.

Buying drugs is also said to pour money in the coffers of organised crime, which is very literally destroying lives in a bloody fashion from the narco wars in Latin America to the housing estates of South London. But is that really any different from other ethically-dubious products, like palm oil?

For some reason, we place a moral value on cocaine which we don’t for shampoo – goodbye, orangutans. Just as "Machine Gun" McGurn lived up to his name raining lead over gangland Chicago, all the shootings and stabbings today are thanks to our modern-day prohibition. Who’s more to blame, the traffickers (who are simply giving customers what they want) or the politicians writing the laws that create this situation?

Across the world, times are changing: while Priti Patel, the home secretary, keenly reassured the public that despite the pandemic, she’s as committed as ever to fighting the drug war, New Zealand is preparing for a referendum to legalise cannabis. Switzerland has gone as far as legalised heroin, which is dispensed to addicts for free at clinics to keep them away from crime and nasty street smack.

There’s this idea that if we legalised drugs, we'd usher in the collapse of civilisation as we know it, but the evidence does not support this. Studies have shown that in the years since weed (the most popular drug) was legalised in Colorado, the number of kids smoking doobies has stayed more-or-less the same (and maybe even slightly fallen). Meanwhile, the number of tobacco smokers is a fraction of what it once was just a few decades ago thanks to successful education and public health campaigns. Can’t say the same about Just Say No.

There’s a stereotype of drug dealers as thuggish bullies, but this is statistically not true (certainly not in my case). While writing my book, I travelled the world meeting cartel leaders and contract killers – there are quite a few stops on the road between impressionable kids pulled into county lines rings and a Mafia boss dissolving his enemies in tubs of acid.

If there’s one thing living in and writing about the dope game for over a decade has taught me, it’s that the cure we now have is worse than the disease. Dealers are just a symptom. Yes, we live in a savage underworld selling dangerous products but the only way to fix that is by changing the system. People are always going to want to get high, decades of looking over their shoulder for Old Bill hasn’t changed that – if anything, it’s made the situation worse. So, for now, think of your local Candyman. At times like these, small businesses need support.

Niko Vorobyov is a government-certified (convicted) drug dealer turned writer and author of the book Dopeworld, about the international drug trade

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