Finding a Fix in a Pandemic: How COVID-19 is Reshaping the Seattle-Area Drug Trade

The financial hardship caused by COVID-19 is making some reconsider stepping back into risky lifestyles in order to make ends meet.

by Ardo Hersi and Paul Kiefer

Allan’s first unemployment check was worth only $94. Though he’s raising three children, his tax refund and stimulus check were taken to cover unpaid child support fees, leaving him struggling to keep his family afloat. In a bind, Allan, who asked that his name be changed in this story, decided to return to a profession he hoped he’d left behind: drug dealing.

When a customer calls to arrange a purchase, Allan does his best to follow the guidance of public health officials. He keeps customer interactions as brief as possible, and he washes his hands thoroughly after touching money. On days when he can’t find childcare, Allan sometimes has to bring his children with him to deals, but he doesn’t let them leave the car. 

His children’s mother, an employee at a local warehouse, keeps him supplied with gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer. Allan says he’s not the only dealer taking these precautions. “Most of the dealers I hang out with have been on top of it with the hand sanitizer and gloves,” he says. “When we meet together, I pass out hand sanitizer and gloves to everybody. One of my associates keeps a big thing of hand sanitizer with him and refills it. We’ve been pretty on it since this began.”

When news of the first deaths from COVID-19 at the Life Care Center in Kirkland made headlines in late February, Allan was working behind the front desk of a hotel in Seattle. For several weeks, he watched with growing anxiety as travelers continued to check-in. When one guest loudly mentioned that she had been exposed to the virus, Allan and his coworkers spent hours painstakingly sanitizing her room.

When Amazon closed its campus and requested that employees work from home, Allan saw the writing on the wall. He was one of the last employees to be laid off. “When I got the call, there were six people left in the hotel,” he says. “They had to turn the power off on a few floors to save money.”

Now in his late 30s, Allan first entered the drug trade in his early teens to help him through difficult financial straits. Over the years, he developed a reliable base of customers and suppliers in the Seattle area, but after weighing the risks against his responsibilities as a father, he had chosen to step away from the trade. 

However, when the hotel closed and he was left jobless, Allan’s years of experience in the drug trade provided a convenient fallback. Unlike many others considering drug dealing as a means to weather a period of unemployment, Allan was able to reconnect with his former customers and wholesalers. “It’s hard to start now if you don’t have a clientele,” says Allan. “Besides, a lot of these new guys are slow — they’ll take an hour to get to you. I’m not that type of person. I set myself apart in one way or another.”

Skyrocketing unemployment rates hampered Allan’s efforts to re-establish himself in the local drug market: many of his former clients had likewise lost their jobs, so few had disposable income to spend on drug habits. Initially, Allan had to rely primarily on elderly clients. “At first, the only people you could really count on to buy were people who get Social Security or retirement checks,” he says. 

Elderly customers were soon joined by essential workers, many of whom had been cautious to avoid overspending at the outset of the lockdown. Meanwhile, economic uncertainty rendered it difficult for Allan to preserve his relationships with newly unemployed customers. “Most of my clients wanted fronts [a payment system similar to a tab]. I had to tell them, ‘I can’t front you because you don’t have an income. I don’t know when you’re going to get one.’”

In years past, Allan has sold drugs to cash-strapped customers in “goods-for-goods” exchanges: he recalls accepting antique guns, DVD players, and video game consoles as payment. Those transactions have all but disappeared during the lockdown. “I’m not going to give you my TV if I’m stuck in the house, right?” says Allan. “If anyone is getting that stuff, it’s the pawnshops.” 

According to Allan, the combined effects of the federal stimulus package and an increase in unemployment payouts helped revive his customer base. “When unemployment checks rose to $600 a week, business came back,” he says. “It gave people a lot more leeway to pay bills and still do what they wanted to do.” 

Like many dealers, Allan has his hands in every corner of the drug market, selling everything from cocaine and meth to prescription opioids like Percocet. During the pandemic, with many customers — both longtime users and curious newcomers — isolating in their homes, he says that demand has risen for practically all of his products. Allan’s observations echo those of many public health officials across the country who have reported sharp increases in illicit drug use since the outset of the pandemic, with some pointing to heightened anxiety and isolation as causes for the surge.

Meanwhile, the announcement of travel restrictions at the borders with Canada and Mexico in March prompted many local dealers, including Allan, to brace themselves for supplies to dwindle just as demand spiked. “Usually in a situation like this the price will go up,” he says. “For example, when 9/11 happened, a brick of cocaine went up from $18 to 20,000 to $30,000 overnight.” 

To prepare for the impending shortage, Allan says he and his associates began stockpiling. “People were stashing a little bit here and there for the beginning [of the lockdown] because we were expecting the border closures to hit us hard,” he says. But according to Allan, no such shortage occurred. “I guess the Border Patrol isn’t out in force like we thought they would be,” he added, “Because the prices stayed the same.”

Allan’s observation that the drug pipeline remains largely unharmed by the border closures were echoed by Special Agent Keith Weis, who heads the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Seattle Division. “We’ve seen reports of brief price spikes, we’ve heard that supply can be hit or miss,” says Weis, “But while it’s a little too early to tell, it seems like availability remains fairly steady in Washington.”

While Allan admits that he and other dealers held onto their supplies during the outset of the lockdown, Allan claims he hasn’t been cutting his products — namely cocaine — to stretch his reserves. To him, it’s a matter of principle. “If there’s a lot of baking soda in [cocaine], the dealer’s just being greedy, because Washington is at the end of the pipeline,” he says. “So anything that makes it here has been [cut] six or eight times anyway.” 

But other sources, including local drug users, suggest that many drug dealers have begun diluting their supply or selling counterfeit products because of high demand and disruptions to the supply chain. Chris, a Seattle-area recovering addict who also asked that his name be changed, explained that his recent experiences with cocaine and opioids have made him wary of the purity of the drug supply in the Seattle area. 

He says that cocaine he purchased during the lockdown was heavily diluted with laxatives, baby formula, and other inexpensive white powders — more so than prior to the pandemic. Chris also claims that prescription opioids have been replaced by counterfeit pills containing a far more dangerous substance. “I occasionally take Percocet, so I just asked a friend if I could have some,” Chris recounts. “And he said he wouldn’t do it. I asked why, and he said, ‘You know why.’ It was fentanyl. He showed it to me. It looks like the real deal.”

Chris believes that the flood of counterfeit pills could be partially attributed to the reduced access to doctors during the pandemic. “You get pills from people with prescriptions,” he explained, “And if you can’t go to the doctor, you can’t get a prescription.” The chemicals needed to manufacture counterfeit pills, however, are much more readily available.

According to Special Agent Weis, however, Chris’ claims may not be accurate. “Most of our testing of cocaine and methamphetamine shows that at the source, purity remains mostly the same,” says Weis. As for the availability of prescription opioids relative to counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, Weis says that counterfeit pills were a hazard in the Northwest well before the pandemic began, and his office has seen no evidence to suggest that they have become even more common during the coronavirus lockdown. 

Regarding Chris’ claims that the pandemic has limited access to new opioid prescriptions, Weis pointed out that federal regulations requiring in-person evaluation by a doctor for opioid prescriptions have been loosened during the pandemic. As of March, the DEA has allowed doctors to conduct evaluations through telehealth check-ups or at temporary emergency hospitals. A month later, the agency also increased production quotas available to pharmaceutical manufacturers for an array of controlled substances used to treat COVID-19, including fentanyl. The DEA says those changes were necessary to ensure that patients in need of prescriptions would not lose access during the pandemic. Whether the number of new opioid prescriptions has remained stable over the past three months is unclear; the Washington State Prescription Monitoring Program could not be reached for comment, at least in part because of staff furloughs.

Though the exact causes are unclear, King County has seen a rise in overdose deaths linked to fentanyl during the lockdown. According to the King County Department of Public Health, the county saw 46 fatal overdoses involving fentanyl between March and April of this year. “Last year, there were five in March and five in April,” says Brad Finegood, Strategic Advisor for opioids and other drugs, Public Health – Seattle & King County. “And if we compare months from this year, we had nine in January and nine in February, versus 24 in March.” Finegood added that the recent discovery of fentanyl in black tar heroin purchased in the Seattle area (a first in the region) suggests that the increase in fentanyl overdoses may not be solely linked to counterfeit pills.

The rise in overdose deaths in King County is far from unique: similar increases have been seen across the United States, and Vancouver, British Columbia has likewise witnessed a record-breaking rise in overdose deaths in the past three months. 

In response, public health departments across the country have stepped up efforts to offer educational materials, fentanyl testing strips, and other harm-reduction resources to drug users. According to Finegood, King County Public Health alone has distributed more than 3,000 naloxone kits through community organizations since the start of the lockdown (naloxone is an emergency treatment for narcotic overdoses). 

In the same vein, in April, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA) and DEA eased restrictions on methadone treatment to allow patients considered “clinically stable” to receive up to 28 doses for at-home use, a move intended to reduce the risk of the virus spreading in addiction recovery facilities. The same agencies have also loosened rules limiting the use of telehealth to prescribe buprenorphine, another drug used to ease symptoms of withdrawal and reduce the risk of overdose. Not unlike the possibility that many former office workers will continue to work from home after the pandemic, some leadership in SAMHSA hope these reforms may be permanent: the pre-pandemic regulations for methadone treatment and buprenorphine prescriptions presented tremendous hurdles to those with inflexible work schedules or limited access to clinics.

For Chris, the virus itself has proven as much of a health risk as the possibility of an overdose. In April, while taking a break from drug use to focus on his spirituality, Chris contracted COVID-19 while simultaneously battling withdrawal. “The pair of them beat the sh*t out of me,” he says. The symptoms, he added, were hard to distinguish from one another. This is especially true for those battling opioid withdrawal, the symptoms of which include fever, exhaustion, and severe bodily aches: all symptoms of the COVID-19 virus as well. 

Moreover, as Chris attests, drug dealers like Allan who have taken steps to reduce infection risk are exceptions. Many other dealers have taken no such precautions, working without masks or sanitizer and socializing with customers.

Though his efforts to protect himself and his clients from the virus may be exceptional, Allan does not intend to remain in the drug trade once the pandemic comes to an end. Instead, he plans to return to hotel work. “This isn’t a sustainable lifestyle. The money isn’t reliable, and I have kids,” he says. “I’m not doing this for the rest of my life.”

Paul Kiefer is a freelance journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive Magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Ardo Hersi is an organizer, writer, educator, and advocate for youth. She is from South King County and in her spare time enjoys music and creating art. 

Featured image by Vlad Verano.