Looking outside London, I reach out to links in Manchester and speak to a 35-year-old man, a web developer, who uses cocaine two weekends a month. “Dave” found his dealer, Jack, when he was sitting in a bar in Chorlton in the south of the city having a drink with his partner two years ago.
Dave was handed a small business card by a young man who walked into the bar like he was flyering the place. But instead of a nightclub promo, the card simply read: “Jack. 24/7”.
“I was a bit pissed, so I called the number and asked what it was on about. He laughed and explained his prices,” says Dave. “I ordered a half. Gave him the name of the bar I was in. Less than 20 minutes later this Jack lad texts me– it wasn’t the kid who flyered me, it was a younger lad who did that. The text just said: ‘Outside.’ So I go out, this car flashes his lights, and I got in, sat down, paid and got the coke off him. Job done. I was chopping out 20 minutes after picking up the business card.”
Jack’s reliability would put most supermarkets to shame, says Dave: “He’s uncanny, this kid. He’s exactly 15 minutes, every single time. It’s pricey – 50 quid for five points [0.5g], but it’s always the exact same quality: absolutely banging. I don’t know how he does it.”
The speed of Jack’s service is due to a number of reasons we will have to deduct, as he wouldn’t answer my questions: he deals exclusively in cocaine, meaning his customers aren’t waiting in a queue while he serves up weed or pills to other drug users. He also works in a restricted postcode area outside the city centre, where road traffic is lighter, meaning he’s more mobile.
The quality of Jack’s product is due to multiple events in a long supply chain that stretches from the tropical jungles of Colombia to the city streets of south Manchester. First up, supply:there is more cocaine being produced today than ever and purity is unprecedentedly high, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
Ten years ago, Colombia alone produced 600 tonnes of cocaine a year – and that was 60 per cent of the global supply of 1000 tonnes. In 2018, the Latin American nation produced 1,379 metric tons of the drug, according to the UNODC, with Peru cultivating enough coca to make 490 tons; plucky underdog Bolivia adds a solid 250 tons, according to White House data.
So, there’s more than double the amount of pure cocaine being produced in Latin America than a decade ago. That’s one billion more uncut grams. That increased supply means lower prices, higher profits, and often, higher purity as well as greater availability and demand.
More of it is getting here, too, though not all is getting through: five years ago, cocaine seizures in the busy Belgian port of Antwerp – one of the EU’s principal cocaine gateways – came to four tons. Today, that figure has increased 12-fold, with 50 tons seized last year.
Cartels seem prepared to lose shipments at a level never before seen. But then, it’s just a simple plant extract whose value is artificially inflated by prohibition. Gangsters understand this; governments deny it.
Production growth in Peru is in part due to deteriorating security conditions in the hinterlands where the coca is grown – and where the government is weakest. Colombia, meanwhile, has gone into a frenzied cultivation overdrive as government peace talks with the disarmed guerilla FARC fighters, who controlled much of the land where coca is cultivated, promised farmers cash payments to stop growing. These payments were based on the amount of land they had under coca cultivation. The cocaleros simply planted more.