The black BMW glides to a halt on a side street in the swanky London district of Knightsbridge. Behind the wheel is Kareem, a working-class boy from north London who earns a living selling high-purity powder cocaine to London’s privileged set.
Underneath the driver’s seat is a pouch containing sixteen wraps of cocaine – enough to cover the morning shift: two five-star hotels and a luxury penthouse in Chelsea. Scanning the street for police, Kareem slips the wraps into his jacket pocket. He bleeps his car doors shut, but can’t help noticing that his prized motor looks a bit shabby next to the Bentleys and Maseratis surrounding it.
The call for the Knightsbridge drop had come earlier that morning from Louise, an escort girl. Kareem’s job was to provide the cocaine that the girls’ super-rich clients demanded. More often than not, the rendezvous was a hotel room costing more per night than most people earn in a month. This time it was a £2,000-a-night suite in one of London’s most exclusive hotels, located minutes away from Buckingham Palace and Harrods.
Kareem walks round the corner and sees a team of bellboys dressed in top hat and tails, ferrying suitcases between the hotel’s entrance and a waiting fleet of taxis and luxury cars. His half-Japanese, half-British parentage, smart-casual clothes and trendy oversized glasses give Kareem, named after a sheikh his mother once knew, something of the international jet-setter look. He fits in well.
The lobby is lavishly decorated in mahogany and mirrors and buzzing with tourists checking in and out. Up on the fourth floor, the carpeted corridors are relatively tranquil. But then Kareem notices a strange, hollow clanging sound. It gets louder as he gets nearer the room number Louise gave him. He knocks twice and the door opens an inch, revealing a petite and pretty blonde girl with blue eyes wearing lingerie.
‘Kareem?’ she asks.
She is followed by a large man in his fifties, naked apart from a huge cowbell hanging from his neck. The bell clangs with every step the clearly intoxicated man makes as he stumbles.
He nods and steps into the reception area of an elegantly furnished suite. He is immediately struck by the heavy odour of sweat and tobacco. To the left is a bathroom clad in Italian marble and on the right is a closed door, behind which Kareem can hear the clanging sound.
‘Lou, Kareem’s here,’ the girl says.
Louise emerges through the door in see-through lingerie. She is followed by a large man in his fifties, naked apart from a huge cowbell hanging from his neck. The bell clangs with every step the clearly intoxicated man makes as he stumbles, dazed and confused, towards Kareem.
‘Is this the gentleman with the coke?’ he says in a posh London accent, cocking half an eye at Kareem.
‘Yes it is,’ says Louise, ‘and he’ll need £360.’
As he takes the cash, Kareem can’t help thinking the man looks like an overweight version of the TV newsreader John Suchet. But to his friends and family, his customer is better known as a successful criminal barrister. The cocaine has been ordered to celebrate the halfway period in what has turned into an extended champagne, cocaine and sex session, complete with surreal cowbell fetish. The girls, who the barrister has paid £2,500 each for their company, are used to clients with odd tastes: their previous booking had been a tickling and wrestling session with a blind millionaire for six hours.
Shutting the door on the bizarre scene, Kareem catches the sound of a sharp slap of hand on buttocks and pulls up on his phone the next destination on his Saturday morning delivery: a penthouse in Chelsea Harbour.
One of the truths that came apparent to us while writing our investigation, Narcomania: A Journey Through Britain’s Drug World, was that the drug trade is no old school underworld: it’s all around us. It’s embedded from the high street, to the five star hotels which act as resplendent drug dens for the privileged set, to the global banking system. But it is a truth that is kept under wraps.
Its presence can be found not only on rundown urban cityscapes, but on the high streets of seemingly idyllic rural market towns. Street drug sellers are just the tip of the iceberg. Scratch the surface and the largely hidden drug trade starts to appear. We bumped into the taxi firm in Leeds whose drivers make extra cash by using their job as cover to supply students with cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine. Across Britain, there are the high street pubs, the bookies, the take-aways, the nail bars, the bureau de changes and the undercover cannabis cafes, where drugs are sold and the proceeds laundered.
But it doesn’t stop there. We spoke to the owner of trendy hairdressers where clients came out with a bag of mephedrone along with a cut and blow dry. There are the upmarket City bars that serve up lines of cocaine with pints and the school mums who sell one gram bags from their prams at picking up time.
As recession hits, legitimate firms are being increasingly tempted by the lure of the drug pound. Courier and haulage firms, the makers of high-speed dinghies to help transport narcotics to the coast and hydraulic pressing machines used to re-block cut cocaine, all play their part in Britain’s expanding, and increasingly ‘overworld’ drug economy.
It’s embedded from the high street, to the five star hotels which act as resplendent drug dens for the privileged set, to the global banking system. But it is a truth that is kept under wraps...
The complicity goes right to the top. Police have told us there are an increasing number of politicians, councillors, seemingly respectable businessmen, accountants and solicitors who are prepared to buffer the drug trade and provide it with the legitimate face – and the means with which to clean dirty money - it needs to survive.
A direct line leads from the crumpled £10 note handed to the street dealer to our maligned high street banks, who appear happy to turn a blind eye to the drug money that enters the system and fills their coffers every day. It was no surprise to us when the major high street bank HSBC was discovered this summer to have allowed the laundering of billions of dollars by Mexican drug cartels through its US arm.
It is a world open to all, as it was to Kareem. Now a new breed of narco-entrepreneurs are filling the space left by the crime empires of the former ‘Mr Bigs’ of the drugs world, most of whom are in jail, under intense police surveillance or dead.
While many view the drug trade as a landscape filled with cartoon criminals and wide-eyed junkies, in reality it is a world that is merging with our own and therefore harder to extract by laws alone. It is closer than you think. Enter Narcomania…
Narcomania: A Journey Through Britain’s Drug World is published by William Heinemann on October 4 2012.
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