Last year the ‘Ndrangheta—a criminal organization from Calabria, a region that forms the toe of Italy’s boot—raked in more than $75.3 billion. That’s equivalent to revenue of McDonald’s and Deutsche Bank combined, or 3.5 per cent of Italy’s GDP in 2013. It did this through, among other things, extortion, usury, gambling, prostitution, and the trafficking of both drugs and humans.
I smoked weed with the President of Uruguay, which in 2013 became the first country in the world to fully legalize marijuana. Sorry mom and dad.
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 Many Mysteries of Al Sharpton
It’s Wednesday morning, the first day of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network convention, and D’Juan Collins is telling me how the state took his son and won’t give him back. A slight man in a linen button-down and a Bluetooth earpiece, Collins is passing out flyers with a baby photo of his son Isaiah and a plug for his site, www.SaveIsaiah.com. Isaiah, now seven, was put into foster care in 2007, when Collins was sent to prison. When I ask what he was sent in for, he demurs. The conviction was overturned last year, he says, but Brooklyn Family Court and the foster care agency have declined to return custody of his son.
He has come here, to Sharpton’s annual civil rights confab, to get help. “I’m all about networking,” Collins explains, “because I can’t do this alone.”
If the Reverend Al Sharpton has a nexus of power, it is here, in the sweaty third-floor ballroom of the Sheraton Times Square, where more than 6,000 activists have assembled to talk shop at panels with titles like “American Holsters: How the Gun Won,” “The Role of Media in Crafting the Social Narrative,” and “Truth to Power Revival.” Outwardly, the annual civil rights hoedown is an essentially political event, a display of the influence Sharpton has aggressively cultivated over three decades in the national spotlight. But the convention is also a yearly pilgrimage for people, like Collins, who have been beaten by the system, screwed by insidious and structural racism that has stacked the deck against them. Because Al Sharpton, in addition to being a syndicated radio host, prime-time MSNBC talking head, and personal friend of the president, is still the guy you call when your kid gets shot.
Everyone I meet on Wednesday has a story. One woman at the conference tells me she’s here for the first time this year because her nephew was killed in Harlem last week, and she wants to “talk to the reverend about gun control.” Another spends the morning passing out yard signs that read: “My Civil Rights Were Violated.”
In some circles, Sharpton is considered ridiculous—a 90s race-riot relic turned smug cable-news hack. It’s easy to forget that he is probably the most powerful civil rights leader in the country, and a political kingmaker whose influence is evidenced by the parade of liberal pols who drop by his conference every year to pay their respects. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was on hand Wednesday, as was Attorney General Eric Holder and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. President Obama is headlining Friday.
The Rise and Rise of the UK’s Student Drug Dealers
If the greatest architects, theorists, and social planners who’ve ever lived were revived to design the perfect marketplace for drug dealers, they’d come up with a dorm. A nest stuffed with trainee adults, bankrolled by mom and dad, waiting like baby birds with their beaks wide open for their next life-changing experience. Dealers might not be allowed to actually vomit the drugs into the mouths of students, but dorms—which are often called “halls” in the UK—nontheless remain a drug merchant’s wet dream. Which is why they’ve been living in them for decades.
Nearly three quarters of Britain’s 2.5 million university students have taken illegal drugs. So it follows that somebody has to be there feeding the country’s future politicians, business leaders, and unemployed actors their weed, MDMA, cocaine, and ketamine (that last substance is up to ten times more likely to be used by students than non-students).
In fact, the student drug market is so sought after that dealers have been known to enroll in colleges specifically to take out student loans and sell drugs on campus. Then, of course, there are all the student dealers—those who begin their higher education with good intentions, but realize that working at a bar isn’t much fun and start selling drugs as a source of quick cash. If you live in halls and don’t know who this guy or girl is yet, take it as a sign that you should get some more friends.
In 1998, the antiretroviral drug efavirenz was approved for treatment of HIV infection. Though the drug was highly effective, patients soon began to report bizarre dreams, hallucinations, and feelings of unreality. When South African tabloids started to run stories of efavirenz-motivated rapes and robberies, scientists began to seriously study how efavirenz might produce these unexpected hallucinogenic effects.
Hamilton Morris travels to South Africa to interview efavirenz users and dealers and study how the life-saving medicine became part of a dangerous cocktail called “nyaope.”
Pablo Escobar’s Old Estate Is Now a Weird, Jurassic Park-Themed Zoo
When Colombian National Police finally put a bullet through Pablo Escobar’s head in December 1993, he was running what was probably the most successful cocaine cartel of all time, worth some $25 billion. You can do pretty much anything you want with that kind of money, and Escobar did, building houses for the poor, getting himself elected to Colombia’s Congress, and running much of the northeastern city of Medellín as his own personal fiefdom.
In 1978 he bought up a vast tract of land outside the city and started building Hacienda Nápoles, the sort of sprawling complex that you’d expect the world’s richest drug dealer to inhabit, complete with its own array of wild animals. When he died, the land was ignored for a decade and fell into disrepair. The house was looted by locals who were convinced he’d stashed money or drugs in the walls, and the hippos turned feral.
Eventually, some bright spark hit upon the idea of reopening the estate as an adventure park. They kept the name, gave it a Jurassic Park-style makeover and reopened it to the public, creating the ultimate family-friendly tourist destination: a still pretty run-down complex with some dinosaur figurines, some hippos, and the enduring, unavoidable legacy of a man whose cartel were responsible for anywhere between 3,000 to 60,000 deaths.
The New Face of Heroin