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A top criminal lawyer’s guide to cocaine

Drug-taking is less glamorous when you know how the trade really works

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

21 May 2016

9:00 AM

As a defence silk, I come across some surprisingly intelligent drug dealers. Many of them are highly entrepreneurial and driven, and I’m often left wondering what they might have achieved if only they’d chosen a different career.

Sharp operators are drawn to the narcotics trade because vast profits can be made in very little time. But then the consequences of failure, especially at the heavyweight end of the market, are rather worse than a tumbling share price. And we all make mistakes. I was recently involved in a case where a criminal mastermind had been jailed for 15 years for heroin importation, but had kept on running his empire from behind bars using a prison phone. Such conversations are routinely recorded, so he devised a code to avoid any fresh unpleasantness with the law.

One day, he was talking to a new courier, giving him instructions. ‘Go to Heathrow and meet Imran off the plane,’ he said. ‘Pick up a car from him and deliver it to Saghir.’

‘But Saghir just bought a new car,’ said the courier, who — for reasons which will become apparent — came to be known as ‘the Little Idiot’. ‘It’s a bloody great Mercedes. Why does he need another one?’

‘Look,’ the mastermind repeated, in a steely voice. ‘Just meet Imran at Heathrow, pick up the car, and deliver it to Saghir.’

‘How do I get to Heathrow?’ said the Little Idiot.

‘Drive!’ said the mastermind.


‘But if I drive to Heathrow in my car to pick up a car for Saghir, then I’ll have two cars. How am I meant to get them both back?’

‘Listen, you little idiot,’ said the mastermind, his patience at its end. ‘These phone calls are recorded, so we speak in code. A “car” is the code word for a fucking kilo of heroin. Didn’t anybody tell you that?’

‘Ah, yes,’ said the Little Idiot. ‘I remember now. Sorry.’

The Little Idiot was arrested the following day on the M1 with a kilo of heroin in his boot, and 23 people went to prison.

I also represented a man who was using his business premises as the base for a huge cocaine-dealing operation. A minion would bring parcels of coke of 80 per cent purity to his garage. The dealer and his associates would then add various other substances until they had cut its purity to about 4 per cent. A team of couriers would collect it and transport it to market, and the overlord would sit back and count his substantial -profits.

The police eventually raided the premises, but all they found were scales containing small traces of cocaine, and bags of the adulterants used to bulk out the drugs. Suspicious, but not enough. The officers were leaving, crestfallen, when one spotted a CCTV camera on a wall. ‘Does that thing work?’ he said. The look on the overlord’s face told its own story. The gang members are serving an average of 14 years, doubtless wondering what possessed them to record themselves receiving, adulterating, weighing, packing and shipping many kilos of cocaine.

For some inexplicable reason, cocaine still has a glamorous reputation. These days, coke is everywhere, the chosen ‘livener’ of both the establishment and the anti-establishment. But I wonder if so many people would take the stuff if they knew a little more about how it reaches their nostrils. Many coke dealers are a good deal less sophisticated than the gang described above, and there is a fair chance that, in order to fool sniffer dogs, the gram you’re snorting off the top of the -porcelain lavatory cistern at the Old Red Lion spent part of the recent past stuffed up a dealer’s backside inside the plastic capsule from a Kinder Egg.

I’m sure your dealer is scrupulously hygienic, and will have washed his hands thoroughly after retrieving the egg — but I’m equally sure that the grubby glamour of the whole business will have been tarnished just a little by this knowledge. And are you even getting what you’re paying for? As per the above, the little ‘wrap’ of white powder that you buy on the street often contains little cocaine. The best you can hope for — if that’s the right word — is 10 per cent pure, but it can be as low as 3 per cent.

I once heard a learned drug-taker opine that you can tell it was ‘good stuff’ if it made your gums go numb. I was sorry to burst his bubble: all that means is that it’s been adulterated with dentists’ benzocaine. Still, that’s better than levamisole, a drug used for treating cattle with parasitic worms; or phenacetin, a painkiller banned as carcinogenic. Stick to a decent Côte-Rôtie — that’s my advice.

Gary Bell’s memoir Animal QC is out now in paperback.

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Show comments
  • Ingmar Blessing

    It’s time to legalize it and cash in the taxes. The dealers would have to get a new job. But since many are talented, maybe they can get something adequate in the banking industry;-)

    When it comes to trafficking drugs I always wonder why they do it via tightly controlled passenger planes. It seems much more safe to get a private jet and fly the stuff in directly from Colombia (or where ever). To get around the search at the custom you put the Cocaine along with a tracer into a (very) strong ball that floats just below the surface of the water. Now you make sure to fly over a lake, drop off the ball, land, and then you go fishing. No one will ever suspect. The only thing is that the lake has to be large enough. (in Germany e.g. lake Constance), well and you also need enough capital to invest. But when you’re operating in the 1kg league, that shouldn’t be a problem.

    • gunnerbear

      Yep…..get the stuff sold and taxed or even give away the stuff for free at the GPs….

    • Zanderz

      Nice idea. Put that in a business plan and I’m ready to invest.

    • Wh0_Is_J0hn_Galt

      The private aircraft and other methods you mention are ways that people import drugs but you don’t hear about them because they are usually successful. The people who get caught on passenger planes are the small time people trying to make some extra cash (for example the “Peru two”), or gangs who just want extra supply taking a chance. In reality most people get away with it, and the 1% who get caught by border customs agents are the ones who make the news, so you think flying on commercial aircraft with drugs is risky but in reality it isn’t. There’s even cheaper and easier ways than hiring private planes anyway, there’s a reason narcotic suppliers call Royal Mail the worlds biggest drug shipper.

      • post_x_it

        I arrived at Gatwick last week on a non-stop flight from Lima, just four days after BA launched the route for the first time.
        The bags were unloaded with an unexplained delay of over an hour, and when they finally arrived, we were all greeted by a phalanx of 20 customs officers who questioned almost everyone about their motives for having been to Peru.
        Without wishing to jump to conclusions, I can’t help suspecting that they plan to milk this new connection for all the seizures they can get their hands on.

      • Ingmar Blessing

        hmm does the mail delivery pay off? I wonder at what percentage they fish out the packages. 30%? 70%? And you’d need a lot of addresses and mail boxes in case one gets burned.

        If you can buy high quality for 10€/g (including shipping and process) and sell it on European streets for an average 80€/g, then you’d have a 25€ margin if 50% go through. Doing that with let’s say 1kg results in 25k € as profitable gap for a business model.

        hmm…hmm… that sounds quite delicious if I’m honest.

        The biggest problem I guess would be the distribution. Where do you get your customers from, who consume 1kg every month? Assuming you have 1k customers of whom each consumes 1g every month, you’d need about 4 dealers to cover their needs. And what does a good/discrete/non-consuming dealer cost per month? 5k maybe?

        That would end with 5k € and is actually a bit low for the risk of ending in prison for 5 years. Especially since the money needs to be laundered, which surely bites off another 20% of the profit.

        Am I getting the numbers wrong or is cocaine not so much of a great industry after all?

        • Giles Toman

          Perhaps they should introduce “Fairtrade” coke, offering a better living to the poor farmers out there in Peru and Bolivia?

          • Ingmar Blessing

            You probably won’t believe that, but I’ve been offered that once in Berlin. Price was 15€ extra but – allegedly – came without blood and straight out of a (organic!) coca-commune in Bolivia. We bought it. No idea if it was true or a marketing stunt of the special kind, but the feeling was good;-)

            Another idea to stay out of trouble could be to contact the police via a lawyer and tell them that no violence is used in the dealing, no children or pregnant women will be customers and that 20% go to a local charity. If they catch one of the dealers (or the delivery) they might give it a pass since no harm is done and the social risk has been minimized beforehand.

          • gunnerbear

            Or just ring HMRC and tell them you’ll be paying taxes…. 🙂

      • Giles Toman

        Big scale hides it inside products inside the zillions of anonymous shipping containers that travel the world every day. The customs cannot search inside every object in every box in every 40 foot container, when there are thousands being unloaded daily at Southampton, Tilbury, etc. Legalise it and tax it!

    • Tom M

      I used to fly myself around Europe at one time and was always fondly expecting someone to come up to me somewhere with a proposal. I used to muse as to what I would do if they ever did. It didn’t ever happen so the temptation wasn’t tested.
      Not to worry too much though. A private aircraft returning to the aerodrome after hours was always something the Customs and Special branch were keen on. We were almost on first name terms at one point. They would turn up at the areodrome in the afternoon mob handed (and armed) and sit and wait. Sometimes for hours. Turn the aircraft over when I returned and leave me to put all the carpets and seats back after they left. Usually without a word. They seemed nice blokes as well.

  • Callan

    “15 years for heroin importation”. Well let’s see, two thirds off for “good behaviour”. That leaves 5. Then under the government’s new happy clappy plan outlined in the Queen’s speech, only weekends to be spent in clink, so a further reduction of 5/7ths. Excuse me while I get the calculator. Erm roughly 18 months left, give or take. For making millions out of drug trafficking! That will sound like a very attractive career choice for far too many. And the crim can keep track of his profits and build up his contacts on his brand new ipad during his short stay at public expense. All in the interests of ensuring he doesn’t re offend. They are having a larf.

  • Zalacain

    Just legalise the stuff. Save millions in policing, make millions in taxing it. Like alcohol.

    • FancyLad

      Cocaine and weed maybe. Most of the crimes associated with stuff like meth or bath salts though, are due to a persons behaviour while high, and not to it’s production and distribution.

      • Zalacain

        We could take it step by step, see how far it’s sensible to go.

        • Steve Challenger

          What “stuff” would you legalise? Everything? If you can buy cocaine, could an individual buy his/her/its own antibiotics or other pharmaceuticals?

          • Zalacain

            Good point. But yes, I think I would legalise everything.

          • Steve Challenger

            Good, I need some date rape drugs. Not sure how well my schizophrenia will cope with the lsd but hey ho, give it a try. At last , all those middle class housewives can have a legal supply of Diazepam again. And all those people won’t have to pester their GPs for antibiotics to cure their head colds, they can just buy them.

          • Zalacain

            Obviously making them illegal has worked so very well. It is so very difficult to get these drugs in the UK today. With the added bonus that now we don’t even know whether the drugs that are illegal, but totally available, have been adulterated or not. Which do you prefer controlled but accessible or zero controlled but equally accessible?
            There is the added point that who are you say to a patient or a housewife what drugs are best for them? The vast majority of people are intelligent enough to follow doctor’s advice.

          • Steve Challenger

            The point is, they wouldn’t be following a doctor’s advice, they would be shopping at Holland and Barrett et al – and such places are concerned with profit not care.

          • Zalacain

            Clearly I have more faith in people than you do. I mean, if people are as stupid as you seem to think they are, why give them the vote?

          • Steve Challenger

            Good point. Perhaps we should have no gun control and unfettered access to lethal poisons too.

          • Zalacain

            Clearly you do think it’s a good point since you’ve completely avoided answering it.

            Unlike you I will address the points you raise.
            There are a huge number of lethal poisons which are freely available, ranging from different mushrooms to rat poison. So, I don’t see what you are trying to say there.
            As to firearms, I’m against them because (with the exception of hunting) they can only be used for harming or threatening to harm other people.

          • Steve Challenger

            Ok, to answer your questing re voting – it is a necessary evil, and thank goodness we don’t have referenda for all issues eg capital punishment. With regard to poisons, I was thinking about the instantly lethal stuff ,eg strychnine – rat poisons aren’t that lethal to humans. But getting back to the original discussion, who is going to sell these drugs? Doctors and pharmacists couldn’t do it under their professional codes. Do you really think the world would be a better/safer place if the entire nation is able to nip down to their local drug emporium and get off their heads on practically any substance known to man? Yes, yes, I know people can go out and get drunk on alcohol – you are never going to change that, but that doesn’t mean exposing people to a whole load of new and exotic substances will improve things.

          • Zalacain

            There are poisons that are deadly and either available or easy to put together.
            http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1487759/The-five-deadly-poisons-that-can-be-cooked-up-in-a-kitchen.html

            As to who would sell the drugs, I don’t think that this is an issue. Pharmacists could quite easily change their professional codes, or other organisations could sell them.

            Basically I think that we have a fundamental disagreement. I believe in personal responsibility which would be the basis for greater personal freedom. You have more belief in a state that looks after us and makes choices for us.
            Possibly we should just agree to disagree?

          • Steve Challenger

            not quite that simple, but I do agree to disagree.

  • Pretty_Polly

    So that’s why Dave is such a numb brain.

    Too many visits to the, er, ‘dentist’..

    Lol.

  • SunnyD

    I laugh at the cokeheads who sneer at the smackheads as I know only too well the s h i t that they’re putting up their noses – might give this book a whirl

  • post_x_it

    I clicked on this headline expecting earth shattering insights, or at least some juicy gossip.
    What have we learned? Er… so coke from street dealers isn’t very pure and may have been transported on the inside of a drug mule.
    If anyone found any of this surprising, please step forward.

  • Giles Toman

    It’s a good job that the police are too stupid to figure out dealer’s secret code words for referring to quantities of drugs, isn’t it? “Cars” “tickets” etc etc. Probably the cops have to call in GCHQ to crack the codes……

  • Babador

    It’s reassuring that most criminals are really stupid. They’re about as bright as the sniffer dogs who are too busy finding contraband sausages and cheese to detect drugs being brought into the country. Gary Bell’s book, Animal QC, is very funny. He’s got a bit of a dodgy past himself!

  • SonOfaGun

    Cocaine pushes your heart, causing the left ventricle to hypertrophy (enlarge) abnormally, and makes you more susceptible to heart attacks.

  • investigator

    Nothing here. Not a glimpse of the good feeling that comes from taking the stuff. All sunday school garbage.

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