BRUSSELS – The self-employed salesman in the capital of Belgium needed to rethink the way he did business during the coronavirus pandemic.
Uncertain supply chains, stricter oversight and customers with financial worries of their own are some of the problems solo entrepreneurs like him encountered as Europe hunkered down. There's not much a small—time drug dealer can do except seek a new line of work - or adjust.
Jerry - an alias he uses to protect his identity - has sold cocaine, marijuana and MDMA - known as ecstasy or Molly on the street - since moving to Brussels from Albania in 2016. His clientele is regular enough that when he changed his business hours due to a national lockdown, he updated his WhatsApp profile in three languages.
Even more than the closure of bars, clubs and other venues where people like to score and use what Jerry sells, his decision to close up shop at 9 p.m. reflected another big change in his work environment: police officers out patrolling largely deserted city streets to make sure the general public complied with stay-home orders, he said.
“The lockdown is the most annoying thing,” Jerry said. “It’s stressful. Because of the police patrols, you can’t deal drugs at night anymore. It’s too dangerous. You can get spotted too easily."
Pretending to be food delivery couriers and hiding packets of cocaine inside their helmets is a strategy some dealers employed in recent years to avoid busts. Fearing arrest before Belgium's lockdown, Jerry recently hired an associate to do deliveries on a bicycle.
But the trick of the trade is unsafe during the pandemic because police officers on lockdown patrols are checking whether bike couriers have official delivery apps on their cellphones, he said.
Interpol blew the bike cover more broadly last week. The international police organization issued an alert warning of a multiplication in drug dealers using food delivery services to transport cocaine, marijuana, ketamine and ecstasy during the COVID-19 crisis.
Across the border in France, law enforcement agencies noticed the illegal drug trade visibly changing in the weeks after the government imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 17. Vehicles that speed through the country delivering caches of imported drugs - what the French call “go-fasts” - no longer moved on usual routes by the end of the month, Le Monde newspaper quoted a report by narcotics police as saying.
The anti-narcotics office of France's judicial police also observed that the “mules" who transport cocaine from French Guiana had “completely faded” from sight, and wholesale supplies of cannabis were stuck in Morocco and Spain instead of getting smuggled to France, Le Monde reported.
That's hardly news to street dealers on the outskirts of Lyon, France's second-largest city and part of a region that is a major hub for trafficked cannabis and cocaine.
At a public housing project in the Vénissieux area, the chair a revolving cast of young marijuana runners used to greet customers and take orders is empty. Instead, prices for different amounts are handwritten on the walls of an apartment building like a chalkboard listing a restaurant's daily specials.
The young sellers complete transactions in building lobbies or staircases now instead of out in the open. One runner, wearing rubber gloves to avoid getting infected from handling money and packaged drugs, complained that a lot of people stocked up early so he's seeing less demand along with less product to peddle.
More than a month into Belgium's lockdown, Jerry observed the same sales slowdown. In a University of Louvain research survey of more than 10,000 people in Belgium, 52% of cannabis users and 75% of cocaine users reported a decrease in their consumption as a result of public health restrictions.
In his case, Jerry suspects the coronavirus' impact on the sex work industry accounts for much of the falloff in sales. Prostitution is not illegal in Belgium but is currently banned because of social-distancing requirements, and the sex workers he knows are buying less cocaine, he said.
But unlike tens of millions of people who have lost income and jobs doing legal work, Jerry said he's maintained a good income during the pandemic. He said he generally makes around 4,000 euros per month ($4342) by selling 200 grams of cocaine and one kilogram of marijuana.
“I’m doing all right so far,” he said. “Even if there is a lack of product in the coming weeks, I know where to get my supplies.”
Amid worldwide air travel restrictions, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said last week cocaine continues to be shipped to European sea ports that the pandemic is disrupting trafficking by air but .
Before the pandemic, a gram of cocaine sold for 50-80 euros ($54-$87 ) in Brussels and Paris.
Jerry said his prices have remained unchanged, but the dealer in the Belgian capital may need to adapt more.
“There is the beginning of a problem in terms of drugs availability, and a slight increase in prices can be observed, from 10-20%,'' Belgium’s federal police said.
Vaux-Montagny reported from Vénissieux, France. Elaine Ganley, in Paris, Sylvia Hui in London and Mike Corder in La Hague, contributed.
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