On paper, Harry* is like any other uni student. He has a student loan and plans for the future. But he also has thousands of pounds in cash under his mattress and, on an average evening, carries out about 20 drug deals.
“Most unis have a big drug scene,” Harry explains. “Someone’s going to supply it, so it might as well be me.” According to last year’s Home Office Crime Survey for England and Wales, about 1.2 million 16-24 year-olds took illegal drugs. “When you’re a student, everyone is on drugs around you,” he says. “It’s easy to capitalise off that market."
Earlier this year, a study conducted by the National Union of Students found two in five students use illegal drugs. The most common were cannabis, nitrous oxide and cocaine.
“There's a myth surrounding students and skintness,” Harry says. “I think people have a lot of money but they just spend it on nights out." He adds that he knows people who, “say they can’t afford to eat or that they have to steal food but they’re still out buying drugs every week".
The obvious problem with Harry’s side hustle is that it is completely illegal. If you are caught supplying Class A drugs, such as cocaine, MDMA or magic mushrooms, you can be fined an unlimited amount of money and be sentenced to life in prison. For Class B drugs like ketamine, the penalty is up to 14 years' jail time.
Harry knows the risks and is clear he wants to stop once he’s finished his degree. “I know some people do it when they’re older but that’s not on the same level as being a student,” he says.
He worries about getting caught and wasting his chance of getting a proper job. “I think you need to kick drugs in the head as you get older and focus on life,” he says.
The stakes are high. Last year, five students from the University of Manchester were jailed after selling drugs first to their fellow students and later around the world on the dark web. If caught, Harry faces serious and potentially life-changing criminal charges. And, if he gets caught in a dispute with another dealer, supplier or gang, he could find himself in a life-threatening situation.
Being surrounded by students means Harry has something of a captive market. He says he would never “sell outside of university” where he knows the market, because “it’s not worth the risk” to him.
In fact, Harry thinks being a student himself is part of what has made him so successful as a drug dealer. “The other drug dealers [in the area] are quite intimidating,” he reflects. “They might have come from rough estates in London and they’ll let you know about it.” This, he says, affects how their customers feel because “when you’re buying off them, you feel like they’re about to rob you or possibly hit you.”
Fellow students feel comfortable with him, Harry says. “I know girls like picking up off me because I don’t hit on them. A lot of dealers lose their female customers because they’re messaging them afterwards, sending sexual messages or asking them out. A lot of girls don’t want that, they just want to pick up their gear and have a good time.”
Harry never intended to become a drug dealer. "When I was younger I used to have a bit of a cocaine problem,” he explains. “It worked for me to buy in bulk and sell the excess to my friends. They were going to go to dealers anyway so it made sense that I made a bit of money out of it.”
Everything spiralled from there, because there was a demand and he was in a position to supply it. “I didn’t really ever think I’d be selling big time. It was just to supplement my own usage but, obviously, it escalated and I got a good reputation so my number went round.”
The relationship between student life and experimental drug use is well established. Even politicians – from Bill Clinton to Boris Johnson – have openly admitted to trying drugs at university. But what is less discussed is how drug dealers have exploited student loans and student halls in recent years.
Back in 2009, it was reported that drug dealers were even enrolling at university in order to secure student loans and places in halls of residence. And, since then, anecdotally at least, there have been reports of increasing numbers of students, like Harry, who are dealing to avoid financial hardship.
University campuses might feel like safer places to deal, away from the prying eyes of the police and rival gangs, but Harry had a recent encounter which showed just how dangerous his business could be.
“I have very much seen the dark side of the drug world this year,” he says. “I was walking along, a van pulled up next to me by the traffic lights, panel door opens and someone tried to grab me."
The person in the van wanted Harry to come and deal for him, “because he didn’t have the links for students in the area".
After “pegging it to a nearby park,” Harry escaped any serious harm but no longer meets his clients on foot. “They are serious people,” he says. “I’m in a car now. I take more precautions. If I had ended up in that van I could be dead.”
Today, Harry carries a knife everywhere with him to “protect himself” but is clear he has “never been aggressive with it” – it is a precaution only. He has also invested in knuckle-dusters and an assortment of other knives for protection. “I don’t particularly want to have to use them but I will if I’m pushed to protect myself and my friends."
He says it is necessary because rival dealers, suppliers or gangs could make him “disappear, just over territory”. He adds: "They could drill my kneecaps or do a sort of Chelsea smile.
“I have had contact with larger gangs and that’s mainly been when they’ve tried to mug me or make a grab for student areas," he says. "I try to avoid them because if you mix with them it just brings trouble, and then you’re not able to leave the game. If you work for them and one day say 'I’ve had enough', they’ll say, 'Tough shit you’ve still got to deal for us.'”
Harry says pressure from his suppliers is making it dangerous for him to stop dealing. But he claims he is serious about wanting to quit because of the destructive impact drugs can have on mental health.
“As a student dealer, I’ve seen a few suicide attempts and depressive behaviour as a result of drugs,” he explains. This includes one person who tried “to overdose on pills” and another he says he had "pull in from a window".
Ultimately, this is another reason why he wants to “leave the game” once and for all.
“If people are picking up too much, especially with ketamine, I try to cut them off for a bit,” he says. “I don’t wanna be involved in anyone’s addiction, because of one of my friends is having mental health problems. I don't wanna be responsible for other people's."
Harry says he isn't from a well-off background and is able to save some of what he earns as a dealer to help pay off his student loan in the future.
Aside from his savings, the majority of his earnings go back into paying his costs and he uses whatever is left over to fund his own drug habit and nights out.
But, when all’s said and done, Harry says dealing drugs is something he wants to stop soon. The risks, for him, far outweigh the benefits. It is a means to an end.
"I obviously wanna get a career with my degree, otherwise what I am doing with my time? I'm just wasting my life."
* Names have been changed to protect identities
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