Thomas McFadden, the subject of the upcoming movie Marching Powder, traveled all over the world smuggling cocaine and heroin before finding himself in a notoriously dangerous Bolivian prison, where he became a Lonely Planet–endorsed tour guide.
Tonight on VICE on HBO: Heroin Warfare, by Suroosh Alvi
Iran is an extremely challenging place for journalists to operate. Formal invitations, convoluted bureaucracy, and government-approved “minders” tracking your every movement make it one of the most difficult places to report from in the world. Even with legal permits we got detained and/or arrested almost daily.
VICE had been trying to get into this isolated country for seven years, and every time we got shut down with zero explanation. Last year, after hearing that Iran had a heroin epidemic on its hands—which every single Iranian we interviewed for the piece insisted was a direct consequence of America’s decade-plus occupation of Afghanistan—we gave it another shot.
This time our pitch to the Ministry of Culture was that we wanted to do a story about the widespread damage the opium and heroin trade has had on Iranian society. Finally, they agreed and invited us to come over. Our entire international crew was allowed inside, with the exception of our American cameramen, whom we had to replace with Iranian and Mexican nationals.
It’s estimated that 80 percent of the dope flowing out of Afghanistan passes through Iran before ending up in Europe, where it is sold at a street level. Along the way, a lot of it ends up in the arms of what the Iranian government estimates to be 2 million drug users. (The actual number is widely believed to be much higher.)
In the years leading up to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban had enforced a ban on opium-poppy cultivation, resulting in historically low levels of production. After the Taliban were toppled, the Afghan warlords who regained control of the country (many of whom were appointed by the Americans) resumed the stupidly lucrative farming of opium and poppy once again.
The 2014 European Drug Report came out last week and told us exactly what we already knew: that Europeans are very fond of drugs. Here are some handy heat maps for those of you who don’t know how to read.
Heroin Is the Most Dangerous Way to Increase Your Creativity
The thing about heroin is that you can’t say anything good about it—at least not in public. That’s what gangly Brit pop singer Damon Albarn discovered when, in a recent interview, he admitted that his experience on the H-train was “incredibly creative” and “very agreeable.” This caused a mild media furor, with various publications crying foul, and commenters completely flabbergasted by how he could think using heroin is anything but the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being ever in the history of horrible things. It’s the same sort of public discomfort that arises when discussing supervised injection sites or doctors being able to prescribe heroin to help addicts lead a somewhat normal life. Heroin = bad, right? For the most part, I see where this comes from—a heroin addiction is a terrible thing. Heroin is an all-consuming drug that can destroy your life, and the lives of people around you.
But my reaction to Albarn’s surprisingly candid admission was more curiosity than shock and outrage. Can heroin really make people creative?
In the echelon of narcotics, heroin has always seemed to me the least creative of drugs. I understand cocaine: You’ve got a ton of ideas—all of which you think are awesome (even though they are not)—and weed makes everything funny. LSD is basically creativity incarnate. But heroin? Based on my admittedly limited knowledge of the drug (i.e., watching Trainspotting and visiting Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside), the only thing I really knew for sure was that heroin addicts often walk around looking super sleepy and itchy. Where’s the artistic genius in that?
I wanted to know more, so I called up Dr. Alain Dagher, neurologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital (a.k.a. the Neuro) to find how, if at all, drugs like heroin can help with creativity.
VICE: What can you tell me about the link between drugs and creativity?
Dr. Alain Dagher: There’s a long history of people using drugs for creativity, and different drugs act in different ways. The most obvious example of the way a drug can help creativity is that most of us are, for the most part, inhibited in many ways. Many drugs, especially in small doses, can relieve that inhibition. The best example being alcohol. Low doses of certain drugs like alcohol can cause just enough disinhibition that you can become, in a way, more creative.
What about heroin specifically?
There’s another way drugs can make you more creative, which is going beyond disinhibition. That is, making conceptual links in your brain between things that you may not normally link. So, to a certain extent, this relates to madness—there are many artists whose creativity is almost like madness, but not quite. In conditions like schizophrenia, you have thoughts that are jumbled together that don’t necessarily belong together—you have tangential thinking, and thoughts go in bizarre directions, which might be helpful with coming up with bizarre ideas. Part of creativity is being original. So drugs like cocaine, and perhaps heroin, have that ability to make you have original thoughts.
We need a new way to make sweeping assumptions about entire populations, and what better place to start than drugs? After all, there’s so much you can tell about a person from their drug of choice. Wouldn’t it be great if we could apply the same logic to entire countries?
My Top Secret Meeting with One of Silk Road’s Biggest Drug Lords
Dread Pirate Roberts captained a ship that many thought was unsinkable. But when the FBI seized the original Silk Road on October 1, 2013 ,and arrested the alleged kingpin—29-year-old Ross Ulbricht—the online drugs empire began to capsize. Its hundreds of thousands of customers scattered across the Deep Web, and up to seven known Silk Road vendors were identified and arrested.
As the chaos unravelled into the mainstream and stories of Dread Pirate Roberts’ (DPR) alleged murder-for-hire antics made headlines, one prominent Silk Road drugs syndicate sat in their European safe-house with a ton of opium and a decision to make—would they cut their losses and disappear into the ether while they were still ahead, or keep their lucrative online drugs network running in the midst of all this extra attention?
The displaced drugs syndicate, known on the Deep Web as the Scurvy Crew (TSC), decided to go back to work. For them, back to work meant laundering Bitcoins, vacuum packing drug parcels, and jumping the Moroccan border with bags stuffed full of uncut drugs. Silk Road may have died a sudden death at the hands of the authorities, but as one of the highest rated vendors before the FBI shut-down, the Scurvy Crew saw its demise as an opportunity to diversify.
After six months of negotiation, via encrypted email and several phone calls from throwaway SIM cards, the boss of the Scurvy Crew agreed to meet me. He told me he would explain to me the inner workings of his Deep Web drugs venture, from its humble beginnings to the near million-dollar profits it now apparently generates. Known to me only by the pseudonym “Ace,” the boss claimed to represent a new breed of drug dealer.
“I don’t do this just for the money,” he wrote to me via email. “I like to provide a premium service.”
The New Face of Heroin