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Consider the Dealer: Supplying Drugs And Harm Reduction In The UK

Ask most people to describe an online drug supplier and the words “selfish”,” violent” and “evil” are probably not far from their lips. Stereotypes are powerful beasts and difficult to slay.

As an “Old Timer” in the field, I remember the seismic shift that followed the emergence of “legal highs” with their focus on chemistry and technology. The early 2000’s saw a new wave of drug use that has influenced; it seems to me, the choice of chemicals available as well as the consistently unimaginative and ineffective legal framework we are burdened with in the UK. Policy stayed frozen in shock, while life changed, the drugs changed and importantly, drugs began their migration to online sales. 

And what of the suppliers?  If you are trying to understand a market, surely it is very important to understand the consumer, the regulator but also the seller? In truth, very little is known about these shy creatures that remain in shadow and yet they are the online supermarkets of a 36 trillion dollar market.

Only a handful of research papers have attempted to understand their motivations and practices, even the latest paper from The University of Australia, could only manage to recruit 13 participants…and they were offered cryptocurrency to get involved! So… I thought it would be interesting to contact some of them myself, to hear the view from the “shop floor” (Similar work is being done, much more comprehensively in the US by Drug Policy Alliance). 

This resulted in some fascinating conversations and a discussion paper that asked two big questions. How had COVID-19 affected their business and would they be willing to help me reduce harm to their consumers?  


People who sell drugs also practice harm reduction


Their answers to the first question mirrored what large-scale surveys and reports (such as The Global Drug Survey) had already told us. Essentially, I was told, drug use had developed its own version of the 5:2 diet- with shortages of product being followed by bulk orders encouraged through special deals and offers. As previous articles have pointed out, crypto-markets are weathering the storm rather well.

Interestingly, a range of unfamiliar and novel substances were available if your favourite chemical was not, (Alpha-PHP anyone?!).

The answer to the second question may come as a surprise. They were happy to engage with me in delivering safety messages on their page or in their packaging, including information on dangerous interactions with other drugs. As FilterMag.org recently reported, people who sell drugs do practice harm reduction.

It became evident that the suppliers I spoke to saw themselves as business people with a genuine passion for what they were selling. Many had used and enjoyed a range of substances themselves. Though the acquisition of wealth was a driving force, so were positive experiences with the chemicals they were selling. This is an interesting “twist” on the popular narrative of the dealer as purely motivated by money and also reminds us that the distinction between user and dealer is often paper thin.

Clearly, “my” sellers may not be representative of the whole sector and as recent research has pointed out (2), crypto-market suppliers can be seen as being on the frontline of the “gentrification” process of the drug business. 

However, these conversations show that some sellers recognise the importance of a healthy, happy customer base and are not primarily motivated by a wish to harm their “clients”.


Drug suppliers are in an ideal position to contact those who are hidden from drug services


As drug-related deaths soar in the United Kingdom and while drug laws and policy continue to shamefully compound drug related harm, surely we need all hands on deck to save people who use drugs, their friends and families, from freezing water. If we could stop the name-calling, we could recognise that drug suppliers are in an ideal position to contact drug users who are hidden from services and excluded from the rest of us. They are able to reach these individuals with life-saving interventions (needle exchange, foil, naloxone) and harm reduction messages. Some suppliers are willing to help. Shouldn’t we let them?


** Support harm reduction in the UK! Help Release monitor changes in the UK’s drug supply – and how people buy their drugs – that may arise following lockdown restrictions because of coronavirus.

* Renato Masetti BA (Hons) PGCE (Dip ED), is currently the Training Co-ordinator for Health Outreach NHS | EPUT, co-ordinating and developing training opportunities in the field of substance misuse. Ren is a qualified teacher and has a background teaching both adults and young people in a variety of settings. Contact: renato.masetti@nhs.net 

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