The Forgotten History of European Drug-Dealer Activism
In a small Dutch city outside of The Netherlands, drug user activists from around the world gathered in 1999 for the fourth annual International Drug Users Day (IDUD) conference.
As Mat Southwell, a British activist, delivered a presentation, he could “hardly see the audience” he told Talking Drugs, “because everybody was chasing,” or smoking drugs off of foil. The event was like no conference he had ever attended. “There was so much smoke coming up from the audience. You could hardly hear people speak over the rustle of silver foil.”
One of the things that made the event particularly special for Southwell was the involvement of people who supplied drugs, something that he himself would soon be working on back in the United Kingdom. A group of Dutch suppliers called the Hard Drug Dealers Union sponsored the event run by the Dutch National Interest Group of Drug Users (LSD).
In practice, the sponsorship meant the suppliers sold well-priced and good-quality cocaine and heroin to attendees, while covering the costs of the supplies needed to consume them. “The suppliers had bread crates of heroin and crack. Layers of bread crates,” said Southwell. “I’ve never seen so much drugs in one place.” They even provided free cocaine and heroin for a “training on how to smoke your dope instead of fixing,” or injecting, said activist Theo Van Dam, founder of LSD. Outside of IDUD, the Union would provide daily customers free drugs on Sunday.
This drug-supplier organising didn’t last forever. By 2003, Dutch politics drifted rightward, and the final IDUD conference was held in Denmark that year. The suppliers were not able to come. In the years that followed, Van Dam lost contact with those involved with the Hard Drug Dealers Union.
Today, the contributions of drug suppliers towards harm reduction efforts remain mostly neglected by history, although some within the grassroots end of the movement still emphasise their critical role. The work of Van Dam in The Netherlands and Southwell in the United Kingdom is part of a mostly-forgotten history of drug dealers organising themselves and alongside drug-user activists to advance the health and wellbeing of people who use drugs.
The Basement and Dutch Social Dealers
In 1996, as the City of Rotterdam was cracking down on the public presence of drug suppliers and consumers, or what they called “nuisances,” the City officially supported the establishment of drug consumption rooms (DCR).
But some drug-user activists, like Liesbeth Vollemans, were skeptical of these newly above-ground programs. “It is only concerned with regulating and monitoring users,” she told journalists in 1999. Afterall, while politicians and police were debating DCRs for years, she had started in the late 1990s a network of private community spaces where good quality smokeable cocaine and heroin was sold and suppliers looked after customers as they consumed their purchases. She called it The Basement.
“The official [DCR] was really clean. It was only [for] using, not sitting and chilling,” Vollemans told Talking Drugs. In contrast: “The Basement was more cozy. We made it very nice, like a living room. There were two spaces, the living room and where people were using. It was like a cafe, everyone talking and using.” They’d even play bingo, and the winner would receive a free gram of cocaine.
Vollemans founded the first Basement with a supplier named Kira. “I was the boss of the house, and he was the boss of the drugs,” she said. With money from Reverend Hans Visser of St. Paul’s Church, a progressive church that permitted the sale and consumption of drugs on its premises in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, Vollemans rented an office building basement for the first location, telling the owner that the space was for people without work, not people who use drugs. “The drug users and people going to the office were going through the same entrance,” she chuckled.
There were about five Basements, Vollemans said, two located in the Nieuwe Westen neighborhood, and one in Oude Westen, Spangen, and Centrum. Basements were open daily for a set schedule, with one operating during the nighttime, and provided customers with consumption supplies in addition to their drug purchases.
Basement Spangen was divided into rooms for socializing, purchasing drugs, and consuming them, according to a 1998 study by researchers conducting fieldwork at the Basements. Customers entered through a ground-level front door into a room with a dining room table, coffee and juice, a sofa and chairs, as well as a television. In a rear room, the sales were conducted at a bar decorated with Christmas lights. Downstairs, customers could smoke their purchases on a couch or tables with chairs. Similar was the set-up of Basement Centrum.
“It wasn’t just selling drugs; they keep a good eye on everyone,” said Theo Van Dam, who enjoyed frequenting the Basement, noting that they made efforts to make it a safe space for women. According to Van Dam, Basement operators would help attendees avoid losing track of time and missing appointments–– “If somebody had to go to the dentist, they’d write it down––as well as provide them with something to eat––“There was somebody there who’d prepare healthy food, so people could eat over and sit around and smoke or inject, whatever they like.”
Vollemans noted the key role of serving food. “The dealer was cooking every day,” she said, citing dishes like chicken with rice, Surinamese style. (Kira was from Suriname, a former Dutch colony.) “That was important. People don’t eat so much when they’re using drugs.”
The Basement operated during a time when the obligations of suppliers were being reconsidered by activists.
The Basement operated during a time when the obligations of suppliers were being reconsidered by activists. Some suppliers, LSD, and the Rotterdam Junkie Union, one of the first drug user activist organizations, had developed the Rotterdam Social Dealer Charter, a list of principles for how suppliers ought to engage their customers.
According to Van Dam, the Charter includes the following principles:
- Declining to sell to youth;
- Limiting drug debts to €100,00;
- Ensuring stable quality;
- Ensuring stable quantity;
- Only selling drugs for money, and not stolen property or sex;
- Stable opening hours of the dealing address;
- Prohibiting loitering near the dealing address;
- Not engaging in violence;
- Serving a maximum of 50 clients per dealer.
Van Dam further developed these into a training for suppliers on how to be a so-called “social dealer,” or one who treats their customers with respect and dignity.
Van Dam’s social dealer principles include:
- Permitting customers to use purchased drugs at the dealing address;
- Exchanging used syringes for new ones;
- Selling stable-quality product;
- Standardizing the cost of one line to be 8 euro;
- Not imposing minimum purchase quantities;
- Selling more than just cocaine base;
- Conducting business for at most 12 hours per day, in order to reduce problems with neighbors;
- Maintaining gatekeepers at house addresses to keep it safe;
- Serving a maximum of 65 clients per day;
- Not selling to youth;
- Only selling drugs for money, not sex or stolen property.
Daan Van Der Gouwe, a former LSD member, Van Dam’s self-described “right-hand man” and now a drugs researcher at the Trimbos Institute, participated in drafting the principles. He told Talking Drugs that it “never got a higher level,” meaning it was not implemented with suppliers to the extent its authors would’ve hoped. Vollemans says, though, the concepts of the “social dealer” were in use at The Basement. “The dealers in the basements were social. They care about food in the house, and that it was a nice environment,” she said. The dealers “care about people.”
A core feature of The Basement was its “relaxed atmosphere,” as Van Dam described it. At Basement Centrum, researchers conducting fieldwork in December 1997 were surprised to find the smoking room was full, yet they were not “noisy and chaotic” like other house addresses with which they were familiar. “All ten seats are occupied,” one researcher wrote in a fieldnote, according to a translation, but “customers' voices were so muffled that we had not heard them from the sales area.” The researcher adds: “Here peace descends on my shoulders.”
Staff valued cultivating a quiet and calm space both inside and outside, employing a doorman to manage the flow of customers and discourage loitering out front. The relaxing environment, as observed by researcher Jean-Paul Grund, was an opportunity rarely found by street-based drug consumers, accustomed to the chaos of using in public, to enjoy “the flash,” or immediate euphoric rush, of smokeable cocaine.
The effort to keep a tranquil space was also a necessity, if The Basement didn’t want to be shut down by the police.
The effort to keep a tranquil space was also a necessity, if The Basement didn’t want to be shut down by the police. In 1995, just before authorised DCRs popped up, Rotterdam police cracked down on "house dealing addresses” considered to be nuisances, executing mass arrests. Despite increased law enforcement actions against some privately-operating dealers, other addresses were permitted to continue their operation on the condition that they didn’t pose so-called “nuisance” issues for their neighborhoods. “House addresses where these drugs are sold and used are often condoned as long as there is no trafficking in stolen goods, no sales of large quantities or too many customers and, related to that, above all, no unacceptable nuisance for the surrounding residents,” wrote Jean-Paul Grund in “Drug Use as a Social Ritual.” Such was the case for The Basement.
Some involved with The Basement even aspired to convert it into a legal business, something like the cannabis coffee shops of Amsterdam, according to Van Dam. “We had a thought: maybe we can make a kind of similar thing for hard drug dealers. But we couldn’t get it officially legalised,” he said. “It was really a pity.”
In the mid-2000s, the Basements closed down. They haven’t returned in a different form because there is no longer a need nor would it be politically possible, believes Daan Van Der Gouwe, a former LSD member self-described as Van Dam’s “right-hand man” and now a drugs researcher at the Trimbos Institute.
“The political climate has changed. Drug use is not so much tolerated as it was back then. From a user point of view, once all these facilities were established––drug consumption rooms, heroin-assisted treatment, hostels––users didn’t feel the need to organise,” Van Der Gouwe told Talking Drugs. Vollemans agrees.
Despite its eventual closure after about nine years, as Vollemans estimated, Van Dam still believes it was a promising model. “I enjoyed to stay there,” he said. “It was really a big success.”
Crack Squad and the “Protect and Serve Up” Charter
Before online drug marketplaces––or even just cell phones––pagers and public telephones were the means of communication between people who use drugs and their suppliers. With that came legal risks and harms.
Crack cocaine consumers in East London in the late 1990s and early 2000s were all too familiar with this. Their suppliers, according to drug-user activist Mat Southwell, would make them wait for unpredictably long periods of time at the public telephone from which they had ordered, and which tended to be surveilled by law enforcement, leaving them vulnerable to arrest. That behavior was in line with the broader belief among crack sellers, who tended to not be users themselves but were instead profit-driven businessmen, that consumers were “suckers and people you could rip off,” Southwell recounted.
The unjust treatment of consumers by their suppliers, in part, led Southwell and others affiliated with Respect Drug Users Rights, a grassroots group, to form the Crack Squad around 2002. Named as a parody of the Metropolitan Police Department’s unit dedicated to policing people like themselves, it created a “Protect and Serve Up” Charter––its name a combination of local slang for dealing (serve up) and the law enforcement mantra––to establish expectations for how suppliers ought to treat customers, similar to the Rotterdam Social Dealer Charter. In particular, it set standards regarding quality, the expected weight of different products, and required response times.
The Crack Squad’s Charter had two distinct functions. On one hand, it was to incentivise suppliers already providing quality product and services to keep doing so. “Let’s push people towards the people selling good product, and try not to buy from the people who are selling poor product or people who treat you badly,” said Southwell. “You’d try to use your consumer power to reinforce the teams who were doing better work. That was the plan.”
“We were giving people a clear message: we were empowered drug users who knew our rights.”
On the other hand, the Charter served to put disrespectful suppliers on notice. Members of the Crack Squad would slyly leave printed Charters in the back of suppliers’ cars to anonymously indicate customers’ expectations. “We were giving people a clear message: we were empowered drug users who knew our rights.”
Word got out about the Charter, and a group of suppliers in Brighton requested copies for their own use. The group believed they were already meeting the standards, and wanted to demonstrate to their customers that they were entitled to respect, good quality drugs, and fair prices, and that those suppliers were indeed providing “top quality treatment,” Southwell said.
There are lessons to be learned from the Crack Squad. For one, some in the market were hostile to their efforts. In one instance, a supplier tried to set up a drug bust for Southwell. On other occasions, that individual demanded his runners, who were also involved with the Crack Squad, to choose allegiance between him and the group.
Additionally, drug markets themselves are unstable, by virtue of prohibition, and that came with its own challenges. “Influencing very dispersed drug scenes was quite difficult. Also, Drug scenes change all the time. You can get one team going, and then the police bust them and they go away for two years. And then somebody more violent––it takes a lot of work to sustain this.”
Words of caution are not all that the story of the Crack Squad have to offer. It also can give insights to current drug user movements.
In Southwell’s own words, the Crack Squad poses a provocation to activists: “What would a consumer charter look like in a regulated, decriminalised environment?”
*Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard is an independent drug journalist and transgender critic. Previously, she was the original staff writer at Filter, an online publication dedicated to covering harm reduction and drug policy. Follow her on Twitter, @SessiBlanchard.