How Do People Even Find Drug Dealers?

As more people get vaccinated and the weather gets warmer, many people are reemerging into the world—and trying to find ways of having actual fun in it. As is the case during a normal spring or summer, but especially one with such a focus on hanging out outside, the idea of tripping on psychedelics at a beach, park, or nature trail when it hits 70 degrees out might seem particularly appealing.

Over the past year-plus, people may have fallen out of touch with their dealers—who also may have moved or stopped operating. These people might now be wondering how to start from scratch in terms of finding drugs in the first place, and how to do that as safely as possible. Buying drugs illicitly always has its risks, but if a person is looking for a new dealer after all this time indoors, there are some ways they can try to find a new connect while actively putting safety and harm reduction first. (You know, if “they” were “potentially” curious about that kind of thing.)

What are some of the risks of buying drugs on the underground market, especially from an unfamiliar seller?

First, let’s tackle the obvious: It’s never all the way safe to buy substances on the underground market. “Sellers operating outside the law are generally uninterested in customers’ welfare and not terribly fearful of the usual repercussions that can attend mistreatment of customers,” said Jonathan Caulkins, professor of operations research and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College (meaning he’s a drug policy expert).

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As a result, drugs are often laced with other substances. “This may be done to cut down on costs, increase the likelihood of buyers becoming addicted, or to intentionally cause harm,” said Matt Glowiak, a substance abuse counselor and professor at Southern State University.

“Recently, lacing with fentanyl specifically is causing a lot of accidental overdoses,” said Nzinga Harrison, Chief Medical Officer for the addiction treatment center Eleanor Health. “Fentanyl has been found in cocaine, pain pills like Oxycontin, and downers like Xanax when bought underground.” Increasingly, it’s also been found in other drugs, like ecstasy, ketamine, and even weed. It’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and accounts for the majority of over 36,000 synthetic opioid deaths reported in 2019—and fentanyl deaths are on the rise, increasing by 63 percent between 2019 and 2020.

Drugs may also contain unknown substances simply due to poor manufacturing. “Even when they want to mix a ‘good’ or ‘pure’ batch of this or that chemical, [manufacturers] can end up leaving behind all sorts of reagents (e.g., butane left over in BHO cannabis products) or get unintended reaction products when producing synthetic drugs, some of which are more dangerous than the drug itself,” said Caulkins.

Since most dealers aren’t manufacturing their own drugs, they may not know exactly what they’re selling. Cocaine, for example, often changes hands six or more times between production and final sale, said Caulkins. “Even if you are buying drugs from your best friend, not an anonymous seller, the friend would usually have bought from someone else,” he pointed out.

Even if a buyer is able to find better-quality drugs, of course, they could face legal repercussions if they’re caught buying or possessing them. “Depending on the drug and circumstance, legal consequences may be anywhere from a small, nominal fine to decades in prison,” said Glowiak.

How do people even find dealers, let alone “good” ones?

If a person is able, it’s safest to buy from a friend or acquaintance or someone recommended by a friend or acquaintance, said Glowiak. “Although there are still risks involved, it is much safer to purchase from someone one knows personally,” he explained. This way, the seller is more likely to have some accountability to the buyer, so may be less inclined to sell them low-quality drugs or rip them off, and the buyer may also be able to ask mutual contacts what their experiences buying drugs with the seller have been like.

“My own personal experience involves asking friends/family for who they use, or if they might know someone else who might know someone,” said one mushroom grower and seller in the Austin, Texas area who chose to remain anonymous for legal reasons. Once a seller is recommended to a buyer, the buyer can ask their mutual contact how long they’ve known the person and how much they trust them, he said.

Sellers may even require mutual connections or referrals in order to supply new clients in the first place, in order to mitigate their own risks of arrest or other legal consequences. “I never took many walk-ins, since it’s harder to vet,” said one anonymous former psychedelics dealer in central Florida. “Without someone to confirm they weren’t a cop, I didn’t really want to deal with them.”

If buyers aren’t able to find anyone through their contacts, they can try to meet new ones by joining local groups who might be able to point them in the right direction. Heath D’Alessio, a facilitator for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, suggested buyers attend meetings for their city’s psychedelic society, if it has one, or similar groups, to meet people who might have connections. “If you’re buying drugs locally, tapping into the knowledge of your local community of drug-using people is one way,” they said.

The founder of a Canadian organization that manufactures and sells psilocybin mushroom capsules, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid legal repercussions, recommended that people join local plant medicine communities, which they might find on Facebook by searching for groups with terms like “psychedelic community” or “plant medicine community.”

“Find the community of supportive people first to ensure you’re provided with safe ethical medicine,” she said. The dealer said it’s best not to just immediately go posting about wanting to buy in the Facebook groups, though—they should try to get to know the people before asking them for hookups. “I just get to know people in the community and usually a connection will pop up,” she said.

One anonymous dealer said she’s sometimes found buyers through Tinder or Grindr. She put terms like “420 friendly” on her profile, and people would test the waters with questions like, “How friendly?” Then, she would bring more weed than two people could consume to the date, and the buyer would catch on that they could buy from her.

In any case: If a person doesn’t know their seller beforehand, it’s a good idea to Google them to look for things like records of violent crimes or robberies, said Glowiak.

How do people communicate with new dealers before and during a sale?

Most sellers prefer that potential buyers contact them on encrypted apps like Telegram or Signal, which are less susceptible to surveillance or hacking than SMS. “I only talk about my mushroom thing in person or through Signal,” said the shroom dealer outside Austin.

Dealers found through a mutual friend might ask that that mutual contact remain the go-between, the shroom dealer added. “More degrees of separation theoretically means less potential legal exposure,” he said.

The former dealer in central Florida says he preferred that people not use the names of drugs in their messages to him. “Code words are very important in case a cop gets your phone. If you messaged something like, ‘I heard you have kush, how much is it for two grams?’ I would ignore you,” he said. He recommended that prospective buyers instead take dealers’ cues about what sort of terminology they like to use and adopting it as well; this varies by dealer, but the example he gave was, “How many onions/Oreos you got on deck?” (“O” words can be used as a code for “ounce.”)

That dealer also had advice for what to do when a buyer is actually meeting a seller for the first time. “First sale would usually be somewhere somewhat public that I could scout out to make sure you’re good and not bringing people I don’t know,” he said. “Honestly, I preferred new customers coming with someone I knew.”

Glowiak advised buyers to meet dealers in a public place if they choose to go through with buying drugs from them. “By removing the element of entering an unknown [environment], buyers minimize the risk of being assaulted,” he said.

OK, what else should people know about harm reduction if they successfully buy drugs from a new-to-them seller?

One way people can potentially protect themselves when they’re buying drugs is to test any substances they buy. There are at-home drug testing kits, called reagent kits, available for purchase from sites like TestKitPlus or DanceSafe, but the most accurate tests involve sending samples of the substance to a lab through an organization like Energy Control or EcstasyData.org, according to D’Alessio. “Some places have mass spectrometers that can do a full analysis of the chemical composition of a substance,” they said. “It’s the most comprehensive testing and also can provide great public health data about the purity and composition of local drug markets.”

If a person is using LSD, they can also look for cues of adulterants like unusually large tabs, said D’Alessio. Anything over 0.5 centimeters may be a red flag. A strange taste could also be a warning sign: “When it comes to acid, what you want to avoid is NBOMes, a group of novel psychoactive substances (NPS) that are often sold as LSD,” they said. “They both produce hallucinations; however, NBOMes have other undesirable side effects. NBOMes taste metallic or may numb the mouth.” Obviously, a person will have taken the drug by the time they taste it, but they should avoid taking more and call for help if they notice any of those signs.

Harrison especially recommended that people test any drugs they intend to take that have the greatest potential to be laced with fentanyl—particularly cocaine, anxiety pills, and pain pills—with fentanyl test strips (which are up to 98 percent accurate at detecting fentanyl) and keeping a Naloxone kit (a kit used to treat opioid overdoses) with them if there’s any chance that what they’re taking is an opioid or could be laced with one, whether they use test strips or not.

That said: There is no test that will tell a user everything they need to know. Drug tests usually look for a select set of common adulterants, but they won’t test for all possible ones. “One challenge is that many tests only test for the presence of something, not its potency,” said Caulkins.

If a person ends up buying drugs from a new seller (or at all) and is concerned about safety, they should trip alongside a sober friend who can get help if anything goes wrong, said Caulkins. “The number-one important precaution, particularly for opioids, is never to use alone.”

“If you are using alone, let someone know where you are and keep the door unlocked in case they need to send emergency services,” D’Alessio suggested. “Ideally, you’d want to have someone checking in on you via text or phone, under the assumption that if you stop replying to them that you’ve overdosed and they should send help.”

“It mostly comes down to planning ahead for a good time, checking in with yourself, your space, your company,” they added. That’s always a smart approach when it comes to drug use—and even more so when a person is relying on a new supplier for the first time.

Follow Suzannah Weiss on Twitter.

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