Project offers drug dealers a way out.

By KomodoMK · Sep 6, 2008 · ·
  1. KomodoMK
    He has lots of cash, the lifestyle that goes with it and a sense of power. But Jeff, a drug dealer from Bristol, does not have what he craves: security, happiness and the option of just going to the pub without worrying about getting waylaid by the police, or an armed rival.

    "I've got a great car, I've got all the girls I want but is it enough?" he says. "Not really. I'm always looking over my shoulder, wondering when my number may be up."

    And he feels guilt, not an emotion always associated with his profession. "I see the looks I get from people in the area. Most of them hate me and hate what dealers do to their neighbourhood. I'm in my 30s and this is a young man's game. If there was a way out, I'd take it."

    A pioneering, government-funded project, called Switch, has just been launched in inner-city Bristol and aims to give people like Jeff that way out.

    Most drugs projects target users, but Switch works with dealers, to help them move towards education, counselling, rehabilitation, housing and financial advice. It has nothing to do with the police but is the brainchild of three local drugs and alcohol agencies: Community Action Around Alcohol and Drugs, IDEAL, and Nilaari.

    Lee Vaughan, one of Switch's two outreach workers, says: "Many of the dealers we speak to are desperate to get out. We want to help them do that."

    The concept of the project, the first of its kind in the UK, is straightforward. Vaughan and his colleague, Vernon Blanc, spend their evenings walking around Barton Hill, a deprived area a couple of miles to the east of Bristol city centre, and nearby neighbourhoods. They talk to dealers, they drop off calling cards in pubs and pin their flyers up in cafes. If a dealer shows interest, they arrange follow-up meetings and suggest ways of giving him or her the support and skills they need to break away from the streets.

    It is hard and dangerous work. The pair are trying to win over people who have a well-founded mistrust of strangers. "If it's perceived as being anything to do with the police, it won't work. They've got to believe that what they say to us will be confidential, which it is," says Vaughan.

    The police know about the project and there are mugshots of Vaughan and Blanc at the local station so officers can give the outreach workers a bit of space if they run into them on the streets.

    But that also means Vaughan and Blanc are pretty much on their own if they find they have run into trouble, though the pair say they feel safe.

    "We have lots of contacts and I think we have a feel for when a situation could be too dangerous," says Vaughan. "Many in the community know what we're doing and are behind us."

    Vaughan accepts that the major dealers at the top of the supply chain are beyond their reach, but adds that Switch targets a wide range of dealers. It focuses on user-dealers - those who dabble in dealing to fund their own drug habits, and Vaughan and Blanc try to persuade street dealers who may have two or three runners working for them to stop selling drugs, as well as those at the next level, such as Jeff, who make decent money.

    Switch was partly inspired by a project in Baltimore, Maryland, a city with an estimated 40,000 addicts. In 2005, the then police commissioner, Leonard Hamm, noticed how many dealers, especially more mature ones, were telling him and his officers that they were tired of their dangerous trade and wanted a way out. Groups of officers began patrolling the streets in T-shirts emblazoned with "Get out of the game. Stop killing people" and handing out leaflets that posed questions such as: "Are you afraid to leave home without your weapon?" and "Does your family ask you to stay away from them?" If the answers are yes, the leaflet suggests they look for a new career.

    The Baltimore project is still going strong: officer Keith Harrison says that between 200 and 250 people - drug dealers, gang members and addicts - join every year. "We are still finding that a lot of people want to be helped out of a life of crime. The biggest problem we have is finding employers willing to take them on."

    Vaughan and Blanc are under no illusions about the difficulty of their work. In the short term their objective is to build up trust with dealers; by the end of 18 months they aim to have referred at least 20 dealers to a programme providing the support and advice that will help them quit - a tiny percentage of Bristol's street dealers. Vaughan suspects not all local people will be easily convinced of the need to spend public money rescuing dealers. But the alternative, he points out, is simply waiting for dealers to be convicted and imprisoned - a potentially much more costly use of public money.

    But what do the dealers make of the project? Guy (not his real name), who used to be a dealer before deciding to mend his ways while in jail and is now a drugs project mentor, says he believes there are many dealers who want out and would be interested. "It's not a good life," he says. "When I was dealing, I constantly had people after me. You didn't have a quiet life, ever. You couldn't just go to the movies - you were always on your guard. Many do want something different."

    Guy, who came to the UK from Jamaica and says he fell into dealing because he struggled to get legitimate work, said the driving force behind his reform was the shame he felt at destroying the lives of other people and his community. "The community is important in our culture," he says. "I could see the harm I was doing."

    Sense of guilt

    Switch is hoping to tap into this sense of community - and the perhaps surprising sense of guilt that dealers can feel.

    Nick Bentley, director of Ideal, says he hopes that Switch can come to be seen as a group that residents can call on to help with problems caused by drug-users. "If there's antisocial behaviour and they don't want to call the police, then Switch [might be able] to help."

    But the drugs scene in Bristol is becoming ever more complex. The Switch team says Somalian gangs are becoming stronger and the more established West Indian gangs are fighting for ever smaller and more fractured turfs.

    Bentley accepts Switch faces an "uphill struggle" and while the police have been encouraging in their support of the project, privately police officers are sceptical that the outreach workers can make a difference. One Avon and Somerset officer says: "It's worth a go and I wish them well. But will they really be able to convince a drug dealer making a lot of money to give it all up and get a proper job? I'm not convinced. I know a lot of dealers who'd just laugh in their faces - but good luck to them. Anything that takes a dealer off the street is good as far as we're concerned."

    The scheme is certainly tiny compared with its Baltimore big brother. It receives a grant of only £100,000 - enough for just 18 months - from the New Deal for Communities fund, which goes to the most deprived neighbourhoods in England.

    Still, agencies from around the country are watching Switch with interest. Gary Wallace, the chief executive of Broadreach House, a treatment and support centre in Plymouth, says outreach workers have long worked with dealers, but not in Switch's formal or high-profile way.

    Wallace believes more radical projects like Switch may become more important because of the increase in drug users in treatment programmes. It may now take different, more original approaches to keep the numbers of users outside the system falling. "As we reach the point where the 'easier' people are in treatment, we're going to have to find more radical ways of helping the others," he says. "Schemes like this could be one way."

    Switch only launched in the spring so it is still early days, but there are encouraging signs that the community is behind the project, despite public money being used to help some of the most feared and despised members of society, and there has not yet been the backlash that some feared. Only time will tell if it will take dealers like Jeff off the street.


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  1. Sippin40oz
    Why does everyone link drugs to violence? SWIM used to be involved in some business and quite honestly came across very little violence. Most dealers stay away from trouble in SWIMs experience as not to attract the police to their doorstep. I hate the way people associate poverty induced violence with dealing as they operate in the same inner city areas you know?
  2. fiveleggedrat
    Swim was a drug dealer, and violence was as much a part of the business as drugs itself.

    The truth is, drug dealing is a gritty, violent, dangerous profession. It's not all like Showtime's Weeds.

    Swim had guns around him all day, even though he chose to never use/carry one. Lots of ones pointed in his face too.

    Robberies are VERY common in drug dealing. As in "GET THE FUCK ON THE GROUND OR ILL FUCKING KILL YOU ALL" type things. Had it happen to Swim too many times.

    Swim lived in a suburban area, but ALWAYS, the action centered around low income areas.

    Swim stayed away from trouble, but that did not mean trouble did not seek him out.

    Swim got into it from losing a job, and risk of losing his apartment and his fellow roommates getting evicted. There was no other option to Swim. It was live on the streets or pay the bills however necessary.

    It's very hard to get out. It's not just cutting off connects and moving, changing phone, etc. A lot of people will track you down. Swim still fears people from his past showing up at his current home...

    Swim decided to get out after his friend was almost killed because of him.
  3. Sippin40oz
    Is SWIY based in the USA? And were you quite high up the chain i suppose you could say? As i said i had little experiance of violence in the UK over a period of 5 years in the game!
  4. fiveleggedrat
    Swim was US based, in the state of Florida.

    Swim was in mostly cocaine, later on pills, crack, and marijuana.

    Swim was in the middle low to upper low end of the chain. Went from dealing personal levels to selling to people who deal on the personal level. Ounce seller, guess you'd call it. Moved maybe 1/2 kilogram a month.

    If this violates anything mods, please delete this post. This is for purely information purposes, and no way at ALL glorification or anything similar.
  5. Sippin40oz
    SWIM was similar level pills & weed but was involved with coke dealers and people quite far up the chain. As i said didnt really seen alot of trouble at all really. One acquaintance got robbed twice for over £4000 ($8000) of supplies but he was an idiot and probably deserved it! lol!

    The article was commenting on was a UK one so was just sharing my experiences. I guess its different in the USA? Or maybe the crack attracts more violent types?!
  6. fiveleggedrat
    Although a stereotype, crack does tend to attract the more violent types. Crack is quick easy money. Coke is too. Other drugs like LSD and pot, are not.

    Swim only wanted to post his experiences in the US because he bemoans the lack of any programs or help in the US for getting out. Showing the need for such in the US is Swim's purpose, you could say.
  7. Sippin40oz
    Yeah i dont envy you for living that life in the US. The police tend to be a little more lenient in UK and theres always the advantage of not having lots of guns about! Must be shit scary having crack heads with guns roaming around!
  8. fiveleggedrat
    Everyone walks around with a .45 or 9mm on their hip.

    A .22 can be procured for as low as $30. A brand new 9mm goes for $300-400, on the black market. An AK47 goes around $1200. Swim knew a dealer who carried a P90. Google it. Just look at it. You'll see what Swim means. He also had it stolen from him not too long ago. With his prints on it.

    Uzi's and similar submachine guns are semicommon. Sawed-off shotguns are VERY common, and deadly.

    Guns are a problem in the US.

    On the note of scary, you tend to reach a point where you get used to it. Fear stops occurring, and it becomes anxiety/worry.
  9. Sippin40oz
    Lol yeah i agree with you guns are definitely a problem!

    Ive actually got a BB gun version of the P90 not quite as lethal as the real thing obviously! :laugh: Going off topic what was the real P90 like? You ever get to play with it? I must admit i love that gun! Must be well scary knowing people are carrying that sort of artillery around with them....
  10. fiveleggedrat
    Yeah, it is nuts. Never touched it personally, make a point to avoid handling guns owned by criminals. Prints, and all that jazz :) Guns are "cool" to some degree, but present too many problems (No felonies, please :p)

    Now, things like rocket launchers and grenades, only the REALLY big people tend to have those. Those in the 6 and 7 figure business, but they tend to lay low anyways.
  11. Ontherooftops
    Yeh, arguing that dealing and violence don't go together is a little moot. I don't know many people who've dealth who HAVEN'T been robbed or mugged or had someone attempt to do so in some manner or another. Shit, people get mugged for a lot less than a 200 dollars in a lot of nieghboorhoods and any dealer with a rep, even a fairly small one, is bound to have a stash that's worth something.

    Swim himself doesn't feel that sorry for most dealers, and he just sees this as another step in a futile war on drugs.

    Its an unbeatable market force, there will always be a demand and there will always be incredible profit.

    Really... this isn't a bad program in terms of helping individuals and as harm reduction... but less dealers just means more room for more dealers. More dealers who will lack a relationship of trust with their customers. It means more profit for both the bigtimers and the shoelace corners. Less drugs means more desperate addicts, more competition, and more crime.

    Its like trying to put out a fire with Jack Daniels.
  12. fiveleggedrat
    Yes, the career criminals will stay active, but not all drug dealers are bad people, much less career criminals. Swim has met many who do it to pay the bills, feed a family, pay for school, etc, when all else has failed. If they were able to get government help, a job, etc, there would be no problem.

    Swim was laid off due to cutbacks at his restaurant. They cut him because he was a younger, new employee. Economic conditions in the US are mostly shit right now. There are NO jobs in this area. It's bone dry. The only ones with money, it appears, are the drug dealers.

    We all know that if you remove someone from something, there will always be someone else to take their place. No place is this more true than drugs and politics. But, with the nice dealers gone, only thugs will take their place. A bad side effect, perhaps.

    There is legitimate need for exit programs.
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