New Kids on the Block—The Changing Image of Global Drug Dealing

By Neville Elder 06/27/16

A new generation of drug lords and a very old drug den.

New Kids on the Block
New drug lords: Millennials selling drugs from China.

The drug pushers of old are being replaced by fresh-faced millennials barely out of college—and China, once the world’s main source of opium (the raw material used in the production of heroin), is once again the leader in the world’s production of illegal drugs.

According the State Department’s 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), a massive document that attempts to summarize the state of the world’s drug trade:

“Nearly all of the New Psychoactive Drugs (NPS) seized in North America and Europe have originated from chemical and pharmaceutical business in China.”

Synthetic NPS drugs ketamine and ecstasy; established amphetamines like crystal meth; and the deadly synthetic heroin, fentanyl are being made in small labs—sometimes by faculty from China’s largest universities—as well as in huge illegal and semi-legal operations.

The INCSR also tells us in 2014 the number of registered synthetic drug abusers in China topped 1.46 million, for the first time outnumbering the number of opiate users (1.45 million) in China.

Long before opium morphed into the more popular derivative heroin in the 20th century and cocaine became big business in the 1980s, the lucrative opium trade across South Asia in the 19th century was a huge headache for the Chinese government.

By the 1830s, the illegal importation of opium from India to China by British merchants was crippling Chinese society. Widespread addiction was causing social and economic turmoil.

In what became known as the first Opium War in 1840, the Chinese Qing government destroyed opium stockpiles in British warehouses. The British retaliated by attacking China and forcing the Chinese to open duty-free ports for British merchants.

As the Chinese interior opened up for the first time to unfettered foreign trade, China attempted to renege on their deal. British and French forces united and again attacked in the Second Opium War.

China remained a transport hub and market for drug production in Southeast Asia throughout the 20th century. But it’s no longer just the traditional gangster and crime syndicates producing illegal drugs in China.

In 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) shut down the massively successful online drug bazaar, Silk Road, and arrested founder Ross Ulbricht. The website, that cloaked itself in the anonymity of the "dark web"—the part of the Internet hidden from mainstream search engines like Google—left in its wake an arguably safer and more trouble-free way of buying and selling drugs.

As Ulbricht’s empire collapsed, new "dark" websites appeared and exploited the new market. Communication between Chinese quasi-legal drug labs and a new generation of tech-savvy drug dealers in the U.S. and Europe was firmly established.

As well as manufacturing amphetamine-type stimulants like meth and speed, and the deadly super heroin opiate, fentanyl, the underground chemists in China began tweaking drug formulas to produce a new array of designer drugs. It’s these drugs that the State Department has branded NPS—drugs like ketamine, flakka, N-bombs, and a myriad of varieties of ecstasy, also known as "Molly."

And to match the new suite of drugs, Silk Road’s Ross Ulbricht certainly didn’t fit the usual stereotype of the thuggish, gun-toting, drug dealer. He was an Eagle Scout. He had a Master’s in Material Science and Engineering. He debated political philosophy and economic theory and began Silk Road as a libertarian experiment.

Yet, Ulbricht is an excellent example of the new face of online drug dealing. In an interview with The Miami Herald, "Tony"—an alias for a 26-year-old Florida International University student and convicted drug dealer—describes how he became the biggest supplier of NPS drugs in the South Florida party scene in 2012.

In 2011, Tony arrived in Miami from a middle-class Brooklyn family. He bought Molly and party drugs randomly in Florida nightclubs for his own use, but found the quality unsatisfactory. He went in search of his own supply. Many of the dealers locked out after Silk Road was shuttered moved to—an Amazon–like marketplace based in China—and set up shop. Tony looked here for his new high.

After a few emails and some test buys, he hit on a reliable chemist in China, which within a few weeks was producing for Tony the NPS drug methylone, often sold as ecstasy.

Tony enlisted friends and cousins in New York to pick up and transport his stash, and he started selling the drugs in clubs in South Florida. Soon he was raking it in, and living it up. Tony spent his new wealth on Rolexes, strip clubs and sports cars that included a customized bright orange Lamborghini. According to the Herald, he was bringing in $30,000 a week from the sale of Chinese-made drugs shipped via UPS.

In March 2013, a Miami club promoter with drug charges gave agents from U.S. Homeland Security Investigations a hot tip. The biggest supplier of Molly, he said, drove a distinctive orange Lamborghini. It was Tony. After a brief surveillance and, with the arrest and cooperation of a few of Tony’s underlings, he was soon in jail.

Tony faced 20-plus years in prison for his felonious deeds. His defense rested on his cooperation with law enforcement—he turned in as many of his associates as he could—and his good character, illustrated in letters of support from family members that include ex-cops and a New York City judge. He’s currently serving two years behind bars.

Law enforcement agencies across the world now have a new mugshot on their "most wanted" lists. Clean–cut, tech-savvy, college grads are the new faces of drug dealing across the U.S. and Europe. And after 150 years, China, with its spiderweb of unregulated chemists, is once again becoming the center of the world’s newly hi-tech drug trade.

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British born Neville Elder is a writer,photographer and filmmaker. He's been sober since 2006, lived in New York since 2001 and is in no hurry to move back to a Brexited Britain. He writes the odd murder ballad with his band Thee Shambels and teaches photography at the New York Institute of photography. Find him on Linkedin and Twitter.