From the appropriate social distance, Dave offers cheery advice to a customer stocking up on ketamine as the lockdown in Germany’s capital Berlin begins to bite. “When you think a little more would be nice, go the hell ahead and have another bump!” he said, indifferent to nearby police officers. “Whatever feels good. Just go gently.”
Around the world, it is not just legal businesses that are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic. From “corona specials” to personalised delivery services, drug dealers are hustling to keep business flowing, suppliers are scrambling to find new routes as transport closes down and promoters are flouting the ban on groups by holding underground raves.
In Berlin, a city famed for its hedonistic nightlife and techno clubs like Berghain, dealers such as Dave are adapting to serve the large number of clubbers who find themselves stuck at home with little to do but get high. Social distancing and restrictions on movement have also spurred stockpiling, with the price of some drugs rising sharply.
“People are panicking, and not just about toilet paper,” said Lucy, who deals cannabis to her private customer base. “Right now I’m selling 500 grammes a day — before I would normally sell about 100 grammes.” Like all the dealers quoted in this article, she asked to be identified by her street name.
Jack, another private dealer, just received his biggest ever single order, worth €1,500. Preferences have not changed, he said — ketamine, an anaesthetic sold on the streets for its trance-inducing effects, and speed are still his top sellers. Many of his orders have doubled, and even tripled, in size.
Dealers see trouble ahead, however. Lucy’s supply chain through Spain, badly hit by the pandemic, has been completely shut down.
Illicit trade experts say it is inevitable that the black market would take a temporary hit. But drug traffickers have an advantage on legitimate businesses: “They are used to seeing distortions in supply chains caused by law enforcement, for example, or perhaps a particular airport detecting goods and cargo, and having to adapt,” said Jason Eligh, a senior expert at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime.
As restrictions on air travel are tightened, dealers say they are eyeing more routes by land and sea, hiding their product amid legally traded goods. One dealer of Lebanese hashish said he expected his partners would try to smuggle the resin in among medical supplies. “They will find a way — they always do,” he said.
In Berlin’s Görlitzer Park, home to a notorious drug market, trade in illegal substances continues despite the lockdown. During a recent visit by the Financial Times, police could be seen searching vans on one side of the park, while at the other end, crowds of dealers — many wearing face masks and gloves — hawked their wares as usual.
“We’re afraid, too, man, for ourselves and our families. And we’re worried about the borders — prices are going to go up,” said one dealer. “But for you — I’ll give you a special price.”
Experts say talk of prices rising should be taken with a pinch of salt — it takes months for effects on supply to filter thought to street level, and some traffickers are just exploiting the crisis to gouge prices. Berlin’s dealers who once sold cannabis for €10 a gramme can now charge €15-30.
Regardless, trafficking analysts expect the coronavirus crisis will have a lasting impact on the drugs trade, from the development of new routes and partnerships, to the potential rise of organisations that better exploit the crisis.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, an illicit trade expert at the Brookings Institution, said she expected a push into automated transport — just as it may be for legal businesses.
“Amazon and others will be delivering groceries via drone to your doorstep, and in a similar way we will reach a time when drug dealers are delivering your daily, weekly, or monthly hit via a drone to your windowsill,” she said.
Jack, the dealer, predicted growing use of the “dark web” of the internet — where drugs can be posted for delivery to anonymous addresses.
In the short term, the disruptions caused by the virus could be deadly. Europol has warned that increased competition may spark violence, as groups compete for transportation access, as well as supplies needed to make drugs such as the synthetic opioid Fentanyl, which requires “precursor” chemicals from India or China that are running low.
The adaptations have a cuddlier face in Berlin. On private channels in WhatsApp and Telegram, dealers assure their customers that their goods were packed with latex gloves. One dealer urged buyers to think of the health of his couriers: “Please everyone — hand disinfection! Stay healthy and watch out for yourselves.”
Lucy’s clients now ask for their drugs to be delivered to their homes, in order to maintain quarantine. Some customers refuse to buy from her Asian couriers, out of racist beliefs they are more likely to carry the virus. “People are getting a little crazy,” she said.
There is a class element to how coronavirus will impact drug usage. Mr Eligh, of the Global Initiative, said that while wealthier customers can use at home, poorer addicts may continue to congregate as they look for places to take their drugs, and are more likely to be overlooked by health initiatives. “You are going to see the poorest in society far more affected than the upper middle-class and the wealthy,” he said.
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While some are neglected, others are going off grid on purpose. For Berliners in the know, an underground scene continues to rage, replete with full bars, lighting and DJ sets. The raves are held in warehouses and remote apartments, dealers say, with the events co-ordinated via secret chat groups that alert people of the time and place the night before. Pre-paid tickets can cost up to €100 each and special lookouts are hired to watch out for police.
“DJs, promoters: they all still want to make money during this,” said Dave. “There was a big warehouse party last night — I’ve got a couple of mates who went and I haven’t heard back from them yet. They’re probably still going.”