In Focus
Apr 22, 2016

The Secret and Normal Lives of Student Drug Dealers in Dublin

Julianne Flynn interviews two student drug dealers about morals, the perils of the industry and our current drug policy.

Julianne FlynnJunior Editor
Ruth Hunter for The University Times

Drug policy has always been a contentious issue. Over the past 20 years, billions have been spent attempting to eradicate illegal drugs. Drug use is increasing regardless. Drugs are a part of a world in which we grow up. No matter which side of the fence you stand, it is an issue which fuels fascination and curiosity. In many respects, it is the very essence of human nature to be fascinated by the forbidden.

The University Times interviewed a third-year law student – who will be referred to as Sam, which is not his real name, as he spoke on the condition of anonymity. He attends one of Ireland’s top universities. He is also a drug dealer. It’s hard to say which one comes first. He doesn’t quite know either. He asserts that neither are his identity: “I guess I just fell into both … I don’t particularly like my course and I don’t plan on pursuing law.” Similar to many ordinary students, he too gives the impression that he took the course in a bid to appease his parents.

He laughs when asked if he plans on making drug dealing his full-time career after college: “God no, of course not. This is just something to get me through college. I don’t want to move up on the ‘chain of command’ or anything like that … at the same time, I don’t know how I’ll suddenly just stop.”


Many may wonder: why can’t someone with such obvious intelligence and charm not find an alternative line of work? The answer: he doesn’t want to. He appears to be lured in by the temptation of quick cash. “Why work minimum wage in a job you hate when you could be feeding your own needs and supplying your friends?”, he says. However, Sam admits that he often finds himself trapped by the constant need to buy “on tick” and then pay back the person above him.

It is clear from what Sam has to say that even the drug dealer feels trapped and suffocated by our current drug policy. Suddenly, all the boasting about “giving your mates the best deal” and “earning €500 a week” seems trivial. Surely, no benefit can be worth the countless sleepless nights spent battling fear and paranoia.

Sam’s genuine concern for his future, coupled with his middle-class demeanour and hipster style makes him far-removed from the stereotypical image of a tough drug dealer. He is the antithesis of the burly man who lurks in alleyways at night and preys on the most desperate members of society, a stereotype which Sam quickly dismisses as media tripe. This dismissal of mainstream attitudes, whether it be the platitudes of politicians or popular opinion, is something which Sam seems anxious to dispel.

At first glance, Sam appears to be above the system and speaks with ease about his life: “I have everything sorted. I never let it get out of control.” But upon delving deeper, there is a clear sense that he can’t escape. That the system owns him and he can’t leave. This is clear in an anecdote he recounts about an experience at Electric Picnic: “I was fucked and lost all the drugs, so I ended up with a lot of debt, meaning I had to keep borrowing more and selling more. It was all moving so fast.” This juxtaposition between control and desperation seems to be an unavoidable and inherent element of Sam’s life.

Sam is articulate and approachable, which, according to him, is the reality of student drug dealers: “We’re just ordinary students using the demand for drugs as a job on the side … it’s not like we’re dealing heroin … just grass, K and yokes.” These are colloquial names for marijuana, ketamine and ecstasy pills. The names alone are enough to make many people feel uncomfortable, prompting associations with images of skeletal drug addicts and failed ambitions.

By contrast, Sam believes these are in fact harmless substances when pure and untampered with. However, “by making them illegal and forcing them underground, people cut them with cheaper, shitty substances like PMMA in order to make bigger profits. Nobody takes PMMA intentionally”, Sam says in a matter-of-fact tone, clearly passionate about the topic. Researchers, activists and academics alike echo this view. “Of course, nothing is devoid of risk and nobody can sit here and say that drugs are good but what about the people who go to Dicey’s every Monday and don’t remember the entire night? It’s all the same … one is just more of a social norm … it’s so hypocritical.”

People will take drugs. It’s just the fact of the matter. Until the government decriminalises drug use, people will continue to die. I try to ensure that the stuff I get is safe

Sam’s point is an interesting one, and echoes Prof David Nutt, respected psychiatrist and former advisor to the UK government on health. Nutt has publicly stated that MDMA is less harmful than alcohol, tobacco and even horse-riding. Deaths from pure MDMA are incredibly rare. Moreover, Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin recently backed a plan to decriminalise the possession of small quantities of drugs. This model would closely mirror the approach adopted by Portugal. The Iberian nation now views the consumption of drugs as a health problem rather than a criminal one. If you’re caught with a small quantity of drugs in Portugal, you’re more likely to end up in a rehab clinic than a courthouse. In the United States, you’d be more likely to end up in drug rehab in Georgia or some other state, you could also end up in jail if you are caught dealing drugs. While these are progressive proposals, they can achieve little unless they are realised. The current Irish drug policy does little to protect people who need it most.

The recent traumatic death of 18-year-old student, Ana Hick, highlighted the inescapably mercilessness of the drug industry. Her death rattled Dublin, and its clubbing scene, to the core. People vowed never to touch a pill again. This was broken a few weeks later, when festival season rolled around and people craved the “buzz” one more time. And so the spiral continued.

The question as to who is to blame is a hard one to answer. Sam believes it is an amalgamation of factors: “People will take drugs. It’s just the fact of the matter. Until the government decriminalises drug use, people will continue to die. I try to ensure that the stuff I get is safe. I mainly sell to people I know. People I know can handle it and take it slow. When I sell on nights out, I always stay sober and don’t give it to some random person who’s already in bits.” Sam says this with a sense of pride. He firmly believes that people are going to take drugs regardless but attempts to go about it in what he perceives to be a safer way.

However, he doesn’t question his personal choices. He understands he is part of a much wider drug industry: “it’s not like my individual contribution makes any difference in the grand scheme of things … even if someone doesn’t take drugs, they’re supporting loads of industries that are only interested in profit.” He lists the meat industry, the clothing industry and the tobacco industry as prime examples. He does so whilst rolling a cigarette. “I’m going to stop, get focused on starting my own career and it’ll all be OK. If I do get into trouble with the police then I can get a criminal lawyer and they might be able to help me fight my case.”

Sam spoke about student drug taking in an incredibly casual way. For Sam, and many others, using drugs has become the norm – a hallmark of the weekend and good times. Many people within the grounds of Trinity would agree. One only has to look at the number of people grinding their teeth, a sign of drug taking, at Ents nights and the Trinity Ball to back up this statement. In fact, one student remarked that her boyfriend’s brother, a Garda, attended the Trinity Ball and within moments of arrival was asked the line that many hear countless times on a night out: “Any yokes?”

But does Trinity have a drug problem? Conor Clancy, the Welfare Officer of Trinity College Students’ Union (TCDSU), believes it is important to look at the context. “We must recognise that Trinity is not a world unto itself when it comes to drugs. When we talk about a drug problem we need to state what that means. If this refers to the presence and taking of drugs, we can also see that they are prevalent in Dublin and across Irish society. I would note that the drug survey undertaken by Trinity last year showed similar results to the National Student Drug Survey and the Global Drug Survey.”

The drug survey Clancy is referring to is the National Student Drug Survey, which had 300 responses from Trinity students. It found that 75 per cent of Trinity respondents said they had used illegal drugs. This, in fact, is much higher than the nationwide National Student Drug Survey and the Global Drug Survey which Clancy referenced.

Findings from the National Drugs Survey show that drug consumption is on the rise among Irish students. More than 2,700 third-level students across Ireland responded to the national survey conducted between October and December 2014. Of this cohort, 44 per cent had consumed MDMA in the past year. This figure was higher than that of a global drug survey, carried out by independent researchers, where the figure was 38 per cent. Tim Bingham, the independent drugs researcher who co-authored the study, noted that while consumption of this drug is increasing, the numbers admitted to emergency departments for its ill-effects had not increased.

While the authority of the Trinity-based survey came into question, most notably for its small sample range, its results sparked much debate and interest among students. However, the most remarkable part of the survey’s findings were that 80 per cent of respondents said they were not concerned about the impact that drugs were having on their lives. This would suggest that the issue may be exaggerated, that it is, in fact, possible for a “normal” student’s life and occasional drug use to coexist. In many respects, this would make sense. Trinity is Ireland’s top university and has a reputation for academic excellence – if drugs had the immediate consequences that we’re fed by schools, parents and the media, then logically we should see a massive shift in people’s grades, attendance and behaviour. However, there has been no such shift.

Current drug policy places heavy value on abstention as the key driver in preventing drug taking. It has failed because it doesn’t ask why someone is taking drugs and doesn’t reason with users on a personal level

Nevertheless, researchers and those in the policy arena are still very aware of the dangers posed by ecstasy. Ana Liffey Drug Project Director, Tony Duffin warned that “it’s not possible to tell what’s in a pill by sight, smell or taste”. Ecstasy tablets reveal nothing of themselves until they are actually consumed. One of the dangers of ecstasy, as Sam said, is that it’s often cut with cheaper, highly toxic compounds such as PMA and PMMA – potentially lethal substances that have been linked to a number of deaths throughout Ireland and Great Britain. There is also a worry that other substances – psychoactive compounds about which little is known – will be counterfeited as ecstasy. With so many dangers and potential pitfalls facing the student drug user, the consequences of ignorance for the unsuspecting, ill-informed clubber could be fatal.

Perhaps Sam was right. Maybe Ireland ought to mirror Portugal’s approach and stop treating drug users as criminals. Clancy agrees: “Current drug policy places heavy value on abstention as the key driver in preventing drug taking … this fails to see drugs in the context of a person’s life. It has failed because it doesn’t ask why someone is taking drugs and doesn’t reason with users on a personal level. The surveys show that students are still taking drugs despite the level of resources already poured into these campaigns. They also show that most students who want to get drugs are able to do so quickly. In that sense it has failed.”

Critics of drug policy also look at it from a human rights approach. They believe it is their human right to take drugs if they wish, as long as it does not harm others. This is a type of legal theory called “Harm principle”, first fully articulated by John Stewart Mills. According to Clancy: “Many people will continue to take drugs regardless of what is said to them.”

He believes the solution lies in a new approach: “Unfortunately we don’t have an example in this country of a drug campaign which was about more than abstention, so to query whether drug campaigns work to reduce drug taking can only be answered based on a tried-and-failed method. Any drug campaign should be about the individual and their choice. It is about informing that choice. If a person chooses not to take drugs it will be because they have weighed up the information and come to a decision based on the facts. Students are no different in this regard.”

Clancy’s answers show a deep regard for the human aspects of drug-taking. They show he wishes to move forward in a less-sanitised manner. His plans for TCDSU echo this: “We have worked to put out harm reduction information which respects the fact that it is the person who takes the drugs who makes that choice.”

“The campaign has now spread to 12 colleges across the country. TCDSU will be working within this network of students’ unions and drug services, in particular with the original working group that designed the ‘What’s in the Pill?’ campaign. One aspect of this will be engaging with venues where people may take drugs and getting the information into those places. We will also look at other substances which were shown to be prevalent by the relevant surveys.”

The “What’s in the Pill?” campaign launched in October 2015. It was the first of its kind specifically to target students – urging students to think more carefully about the consumption of illegal drugs, particularly if they intend to take pills such as ecstasy. The initiative was spearheaded by the Ana Liffey Drug Project, who worked in tandem with TCDSU and their counterpart students’ unions in UCD and DIT to produce posters and fact sheets that were distributed throughout college campuses.

The campaign warned students not to make assumptions about pills and not to think they have dud pills if they haven’t “come up” as soon as expected. Students are advised to wait at least two hours for drugs to take effect, to avoid “double dropping” (taking two pills at the same time) and not to mix drugs and alcohol. Clancy admits that people will take drugs regardless – the curiosity will always be there. But by informing people of possible dangers, they are being educated without having personal beliefs forced upon them.

Clancy sees decriminalisation and regulation as a possible way forward: “When we look at drugs in Ireland logically and in a big picture sense we see many people being pulled into the criminal justice system, often at a young age, for drug taking or possession of illegal substances. In many cases this is in the social context of a deprived background or one where drugs are more prevalent.”

“The current system essentially gives these people a life sentence by which they will be consistently marginalised by being pushed out of the workforce and having their capability to travel reduced. Let’s put ourselves in those shoes. That means more difficulty applying for jobs and internships. It means no J1”, he reasons. “It may mean further struggle getting accommodation. It means no graduate visa. It could mean expulsion from college depending on the circumstance. When we think about this is in a student context it’s easy to see what this system does to evaporate people’s prospects.”

Decriminalisation and regulation offer a system which acknowledges the factors behind drug taking. This would give offenders with drugs for personal use a chance to live a normal life

He adds: “Decriminalisation and regulation offer a system which acknowledges the factors behind drug taking. This would give offenders with drugs for personal use a chance to live a normal life despite, as has been repeatedly quipped in the Irish press, having smoked a joint once at a concert. This would mean less wasted resources and a more conscientious system.”

However, there are those who praise our judicial system. One example of someone who found a way out of drug dealing is Jack. However, this was not out of choice. Jack, again, is not his real name – he spoke to The University Times over Facebook on the condition of anonymity. Similar to Sam, he credits getting marijuana at a cheaper rate as the reason for becoming involved with drug dealing: “I was smoking too much weed and the price is twice as expensive here as other countries, so I couldn’t afford my habit. However, when I started dealing, the new price I was getting it at allowed me to smoke as I wished. I was also selling it so fast that I was making a fair bit of money … around €550 a week. All my savings were going towards a summer trip to Canada.”

This trip was supposed to be a break from the scene. However, at only 19, he got caught. This incident had a transformative effect on Jack: “Basically after a year and a half of hating myself and feeling really depressed, I managed to do things that, in the eyes of the court, showed I had truly changed”.

Jack started his own club night and became heavily involved in a well-known charity event. “I was put on this second chance system called restorative justice programme. I completed all the tasks and therefore given a Section 1 in my final court case. This essentially means very little, unless I re-offend which won’t happen. Had I not been caught I’m not sure when/if I would have stopped which would have left me in a place with far less opportunity and motivation. The experience definitely matured me and the depression I felt has been converted into happiness since the day it was all over.”

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