The sale and use of illegal drugs are among the most serious problems facing the UK, indeed, the entire world, right now. This issue is particularly prevalent within Britain’s night-time economy, where even the most stringently law-abiding and responsibly run premises are not guaranteed to be completely free from the presence of drugs and/or drug dealers.

As a security operative, especially a door supervisor, you are in a unique position to spot potential drug deals and put a stop to them. This is of benefit to both the venue as well as its patrons. Overall, it also helps to keep the public safe.

In this feature, we’ll show you to spot a probable drug deal, identify a likely drug dealer and offer advice on what to do once you’ve confirmed your suspicions. We will also examine the laws around drugs, including what is and isn’t allowed and who is liable if those laws are broken on the premises you’re guarding.

Drug Dealers in Popular Culture

The sale of drugs has, of course, existed for thousands of years. However, in prehistory and antiquity drug use probably had at least some religious or spiritual connotations.

Nevertheless, recreational drug use dates back at least as far as Ancient Mesopotamia (and probably a lot further than that). Ancient Sumerians freely traded opium along with other commodities, while the ancient Egyptians prized blue water lotus flowers for their hallucinogenic properties (King Tutankhamun was even buried with some). These drugs were not illicit or illegal in their respective eras and traders would have bought and sold them openly.

Notable books concerning drug use and purchase include Thomas De Quincey’s autobiographical accountConfessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) and William Burroughs’ 1953 debutJunkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict’.

In 1966, The Beatles released their ‘Revolver’ album, which featured a song calledDr. Robert’. The song, inspired by real-life figure Dr. Robert Freymann, tells the story of a supposedly legitimate medical doctor who abuses his prescription pad in order to get his ‘patients’ any kind of drug they want. The song is notable for being one of the first times a drug dealer was depicted overtly, as well as in a generally positive light.

One year later, New York alternative bandThe Velvet Undergroundreleased their debut album, which featured the songsWaiting for the Man(which described a drug deal) andHeroin’, the meaning of which ought to be self-explanatory. These songs were even more explicit and frank about illegal drugs and the people that use them.

The popular culture of the early 21st century is replete with examples of drug dealers. The 1983 gangster film ‘Scarface’ starring Al Pacino tells the story of Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee and petty criminal who becomes a wealthy drug baron in America. Today, ‘Scarface’ looms large in popular culture, with its themes and iconography being referenced in everything from other movies and TV shows to poster art, video games and even song lyrics.

Drug use and the sale of drugs are staples of gangster movies, with the sale of illicit materials often being contrasted with the basic assumptions of American capitalism as a way to comment upon society in general.

Another good example of these themes can be seen in the 2007 film ‘American Gangster’ starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. This film also depicts drug dealing as a pathway to riches among the downtrodden and dispossessed.

‘American Gangster’s story, essentially, mirrors that of both ‘Scarface’ and any number of other movies of the genre, as well as, not incidentally, the typical experience of any addict. Drugs are initially seen as empowering and fun before becoming uncontrollable and eventually leading to the central character’s downfall.

The media treats street-level drug dealers, however, in a variety of different ways.

The 1993 movie ‘Trainspotting’ (an adaptation of the novel of same name by Irvine Welsh), starring Ewan McGregor, was praised for its frank and hard-hitting discussion of heroin addiction. The movie depicts a blurred line between using and dealing.

Perhaps popular culture’s best-loved drug dealers are Jay & Silent Bob. Beginning with the debut of comedy writer/director Kevin Smith, 1994’s ‘Clerks’, Jay (Jason Mewes) and his ‘hetero life-mate’ Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) appear in almost all of Smith’s movies, occasionally as central characters.

The pair, who mainly deal marijuana, are depicted as loveable, if crass, figures, who often attempt to resolve the issues of other characters via either heartfelt advice (‘Clerks’, ‘Chasing Amy’) or direct action (‘Mallrats’, ‘Dogma’). The pair appear to be stereotypical 1990’s-era drug dealers, usually peddling their wares outside the local convenience store, but their behaviour frequently upends audience expectations for comic effect.

The AMC TV series ‘Breaking Bad’, which began in 2008, depicts a grittier take on drug dealing. In the series, chemist Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and resorts to manufacturing and selling methamphetamines as a way of securing his family’s finances after his death. This decision leads him down a bad road, which sees the character becoming progressively darker as the show continues.

Similarly, the Starz black comedy series ‘Weeds’ (beginning in 2005) details the misadventures of widowed mother-of-two Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), who takes to dealing marijuana as a way of supporting her family.

The legal drama series ‘Suits’, which began in 2011, features a drug dealer by the name of Trevor (Tom Lipinski), who is, at the series’ outset, best friend of main character Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams). Unlike a stereotypical dealer, Trevor wears expensive suits and poses as a software developer to peddle his wares to a rich clientele. A failed drug deal involving Mike is the series’ inciting incident.

So, the portrayal of drug dealers in popular culture tends to vary, usually according to what drugs they are selling. Those selling marijuana are often depicted in a positive or comedic light (such as the episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ wherein Larry David buys marijuana for his father), while those selling cocaine, heroin and other, harder drugs are usually seen as villainous, or at least more complicated, characters.

On television, drug dealers (that are not main characters) are usually seen as scruffy, but still attired in the urban fashions of the period (punk style in the 80’s and early 90’s, Hip Hop fashions from the mid-90’s – 2000’s, etc). They are traditionally young males.

Sadly, a disproportionate number of television drug dealers are cast as ethnic minorities, which does not reflect reality and only serves to fuel any number of negative stereotypes.

Such stylistic choices are part of a visual shorthand that encourages the audience to make a quick ‘snap judgement’ about a character in order not to waste any time setting up the joke or scene. So, if a young man, dressed in urban wear approaches a character, the audience will understand that he is likely a drug dealer. By contrast, if an older woman, dressed perhaps in an evening gown, approached the character, they would have to remark on the perceived incongruity of this alleged dealer in order for the scene to work.

These sorts of visual codes may be very useful for the TV and film industries, but they don’t do any favours to the security operative that is hoping to spot -and stop – a real-life drug deal taking place.

So, what are drug dealers like in real life?

Drug Dealers in Real Life

After surveying 243 self-identified drug dealers, researchers from the American Addiction Centers created the following profile of the ‘average’ drug dealer.

According to this fascinating and insightful study, a drug dealer is slightly more likely to be male than female (their numbers were 63% male and 37% female) and is likely to start dealing at around the age of 19 and stop by 23. Drug dealing is much rarer over the age of 30, but it definitely does happen.

The principal motivations for drug dealing are apparently needing money (40%), wanting extra money (29%) and the dealers desiring popularity with their peers (19%). Other motivations include the idea that drug dealers live glamorous lives (5%), peer pressure (5%) and supporting their own addictions (2%).

Most dealers got started through a friend (57%), or else through their own dealer (27%), while 10% stated that they were introduced to drug dealing through a family member.

The average drug dealer’s clientele is primarily students (34%) and working professionals (28%), although high school students (remember that this study is American, so these students could be as old as 18) also featured prominently. 2% even claimed to have dealt drugs to law enforcement offers.

The study revealed that 43% of the average drug dealer’s clients were considered by them to be addicts, but that only 11% of females and 9% of males denied their wares to those they considered at risk of death.

In hindsight, 61% said that they felt regret for their actions, while 39% were at peace with them. Only 45% admitted to feeling guilty, however, with a 55% majority stating that they did not. A small percentage stated that their actions had resulted in the deaths of some friends or clients.

The data is clear. Whilst a drug dealer is statistically slightly more likely to be young and male, they can (and do) look like anyone. Where TV’s drug dealers often wear loud clothes and openly publicise their products like foul-mouthed market vendors, real-life drug dealers are usually very adept at simply ‘blending in’ to their surroundings and not drawing undue attention to themselves.

Pop culture often assumes that drug dealers must resemble stereotypical drug users, however this is also rarely the case. A lot of dealers don’t use any drugs themselves and sell their products after working all day at a regular, 9-5 job.

Drug dealers can range from relatively innocuous-seeming people who sell ‘soft’ drugs to a small group of friends and/or family, to individuals of considerable wealth and influence, who sell, indirectly, to large numbers of people.

Some dealers sell prescription pain medication for those who are addicted to it, or experience chronic pain, some sell drugs that they consider harmless (but are, in fact, quite dangerous) and others do not consider themselves to be drug dealers at all.

Drug dealers can be any sex, gender, age, race, or class. So how can they be spotted?

How to Spot a Drug Deal

Knowing what we now know, we must consider that drug dealers are likely to be hard to spot. A drug deal, on the other hand, usually displays certain distinguishing characteristics that can be readily identified.

One trait common to most drug dealers is that they tend to set up in the same place each time they visit a venue. They do this so that customers know where to find them. A drug dealer’s preferred location is usually somewhere dark, slightly away from prying eyes, as well as a place that is likely to always be available. In most cases, dealers will not set themselves up in direct view of bar staff or door supervisors.

Be aware of any regular who sets themselves up in one specific place all or most of the time and is visited by multiple, seemingly unrelated, patrons or makes regular trips to the toilet. This person is very possibly a drug dealer.

Watch also for conspiratorial behaviour, such as two or more people huddling together as if sharing a secret. More experienced dealers will avoid this type of behaviour, but some dealers can still be identified this way.

Some dealers use accomplices known as ‘runners’ or ‘minders’ who actually carry the drugs and/or money. In this way, if the dealer is searched, security operatives or police will find nothing on them. A runner may not liaise with the dealer directly, but if a suspected dealer is visited several times by the same person, you may be inclined to search that person as well.

Dealers will often have a larger-than-average amount of cash about their person (although online payment methods are making this trait less common than it was). If a person has an abundance of cash on them (and you don’t work security in a strip club), this could be a sign that they are a dealer.

In person, dealers are often friendly and amiable, many are even charming. They are, after all, salespeople. With many customers that are probably nervous, it stands to reason that a dealer would want to be somewhat approachable.

Drug dealers are often very uncomfortable around the subject of drugs, however. When spoken to on the subject, many dealers will assume that they’ve been found out and will avoid the subject before leaving in a hurry. If you approach a suspected dealer and ask them about drugs while dressed in your uniform, their reaction can be a good indicator of either innocence or guilt.

What the Law Says

The main laws surrounding illegal drugs, at least for the purposes of this feature, are the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Licensing Act 2003. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 states that heavy penalties can be imposed upon any premises found to be permitting the sale or use of illegal drugs

The act, which was created to ensure the UK’s adherence to various international treaty conditions, made it illegal to possess, sell, offer to sell, or supply without charge any controlled drug or substance.

Oddly enough, despite the act’s title, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 does not cover the actual use of illegal drugs, nor does it immediately define which drugs it is referring to. Instead, the act defines 4 classes of controlled substances.

Class A’ drugs (heroin, cocaine, MDMA, LSD, methadone, methamphetamines, and magic mushrooms) are the most dangerous and therefore carry the harshest sentences under the act.

Class B’ drugs (amphetamines, codeine, barbiturates, ketamine, cannabis, and related cannabinoids) and ‘Class C’ drugs (anabolic steroids, diazepam, piperazines) are seen as less dangerous and carry lesser sentences. The ‘4th’ class is a temporary class, intended for more specific requirements than the broad classifications found elsewhere in the legislation.

Alcohol and tobacco are subject to separate legislation and are not affected by the terms of the act.

Under the terms of the Licensing Act 2003, if any licensed premises is found to be permitting the sale or use of illegal drugs, either interim steps toward the suspension of the license will be taken, or else the outright suspension of the license will occur.

A premises can also be closed under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 was preceded by both the Dangerous Drugs Act 1964 (which dealt primarily with the use of cannabis and was itself preceded by the Dangerous Drug Act 1951) and the Medicines Act 1968, this second law primarily discussed the prescriptions, quality control and advertising of legal medicine. Prior to this, the laws around drugs and drug use were somewhat lax and insufficient.

Also of note is the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, which was created to stop the spread of so-called ‘legal highs’. ‘Legal highs’ were drugs created to exploit loopholes in the terms of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

These legal drugs gained popularity in the 2000’s and 2010’s and were readily available from a variety of sources. Despite their easy availability, they were also very dangerous, killing almost 100 people in 2012 alone. The Psychoactive Substances Act was created to make their manufacture, sale and use illegal.

At present, Home Office guidelines (specific to, but not limited to raves and other ‘dance events’) allow for free cold water to be given to patrons as requested, the availability of a space to cool down and rest, monitoring of temperatures and air quality, provision of information and advice regarding drugs, and door staff to be trained to handle drug-related issues that may arise. 

Is the Law Effective?

According to the government’s latest figures, drug offences are on the rise in the UK. From 2020-21, drug-related offences jumped up by a massive 19% from 2019 – 20.

However, while this data may indicate a worsening trend, we must also consider the effect of the current coronavirus pandemic on the data. During lockdown, while the sale of illegal substances no doubt occurred, it would have been at least partially diminished, gaining more momentum once lockdowns were lifted.

Historically, British authorities have taken multiple approaches to preventing the sale and use of illegal drugs.

In 1954, the Metropolitan Police set up the Dangerous Drugs Office. It comprised of just 4 officers. In fact, a 1961 report on drug addiction in the UK concluded that

“the incidence of addiction to dangerous drugs is still very small… no cause to fear that any real increase is at present occurring”.

By 1963, however, the Metropolitan Police had learned that some doctors were overordering medicinal drugs and selling the surplus for personal profit, as well as overprescribing to addicts. After the number of arrests for drug-related offences began to climb, Parliament passed the Dangerous Drugs Act 1964 and the Medicines Act 1968.  

Further legislation was passed in the 1970’s and 1980’s, as new drugs began to be featured in the national discourse. Solvent abuse began in earnest in the 1980’s, which prompted the passage of the Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act 1985, while barbiturates, which had been a serious problem since the mid-late 1970’s, were added to the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1984.

By 1985, MDMA was beginning to appear, claiming its first life in 1986. Police were given extra powers of search and interrogation, with particular emphasis on drug-related crimes by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

1985’s Controlled Drug (Penalties) Act increased sentences for drug-related offences and the arrival of AIDS (which had existed since the 70’s, but was formally labelled an epidemic  in the 80’s) issued a public crackdown on needle sharing. Accordingly, the Drug Trafficking Offences Act 1986 came into effect in 1987. This act was partially intended to help recover the profits from drug trafficking. 

As we have seen, the issue of drugs exploded between the 1960’s and the 1990’s. By 1994, drug use was being seen as a global epidemic. The government published its ‘green paper’, titled ‘Tackling Drugs Together: A consultation document on a strategy for England 1995–1998’. This document outlined a ‘new approach to strategic thinking on drugs issues’, with an emphasis on reducing the availability of illegal drugs and keeping communities safer from drug-related offences.

The government also passed the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which attempted to control drug use in prisons, as well as at raves.

Some of these measures have been reasonably effective, others appear not to have worked at all. However, the problem continues to persist, at times worsening.

The law is certainly effective when it comes to arresting and detaining some dealers, but the fact that drug use continues to be so persistent and prevalent shows that no measure has ever been 100% successful.

Critics of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, for example, have suggested that the classification system is inadequate because it does not consider the relative dangers of the drugs it classifies. This argument was key to the decision to reclassify cannabis as a ‘Class C’ drug in 2004. Nevertheless, the drug was moved back to ‘Class B’ in 2009.

In this case, the law would appear to be somewhat out-of-step with public opinion. The Liberal Democrat Party has supported the legalisation and taxation of Cannabis since 2015, making them the first mainstream British political party to do so.

Public support has also drifted more towards sympathy with hard-drug users in recent years, as mental health issues and the nature of addiction become better understood by the public.

Britain’s anti-drug policies and legislation may appear harsh to some, but there are many other countries that are far less tolerant. In Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Iran, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Indonesia and The Philippines, drug dealers can be (and often are) executed by the state.  

Despite these brutal punishments, drug trafficking, dealing and use still occurs in all these countries. According to the U.N. domestic drug abuse in Vietnam has risen sharply since the 1990’s, while a 2020 review found that mental health conditions, arising from chronic drug use, are a problem in Saudi Arabia.

In addition to heroin and opium use, Thailand is currently facing the rise of a popular street drug known as ‘Yaba’, which is a mixture of caffeine and methamphetamine.

The notion that harsher punishments for crimes will somehow eliminate those crimes from occurring is a faulty one. It has been tried – and has failed, many times throughout history. The death penalty for murder, for example, does not prevent murder.

Is the law effective? Yes and no. As with drugs themselves and basically everything else, it depends on the individual.

Preventing Drug Dealing/Use on the Premises

There are a number of preventative methods that a bar, pub, club or venue can take if it wants to actively discourage drug dealers. Door supervisors are the first line of defence against these activities, so it is of vital importance that they remain vigilant at all times.

Firstly, we advise that proprietors keep their venues clean and tidy, with security cameras in clear view. A drug dealer is probably looking for a place with lax security. If it looks like the management can’t be bothered to clean up at the end of the night, a drug dealer may well feel more confident about ‘setting up shop’ there.

Ensuring that all CCTV, alarms, and other security equipment is up-to-date and functioning well is also a great way to deter drug dealers. 

We also recommend putting up notices that drug dealing on the premises will not be tolerated under any circumstances.  The venue should create a drugs policy and make every employee (including door staff) aware of it. All signage should reflect this policy.

Joining a localPubwatchscheme is a great way for venues to share intel on specific troublemakers and get a sense of how widespread the problem is in the local area.

It is advisable also to always refuse entry to any known or suspected drug dealers. This can be part of the venue’s drugs policy. For example, it can be venue policy that any patron caught dealing drugs on the premises may be the recipient of a ‘lifetime ban’ and reported to other venues as well.

We also suggest that all security operatives keep an eye out for signs of drug use. Signs of drug use can include payment with tightly wound banknotes (occasionally showing a small amount of powder or blood at the edges), traces of powder left on surfaces (particularly in restrooms), as well as other ‘tell-tale trash’ left behind by drug users, such as small ‘sealie’ bags, torn beermats, empty pill bottles and sweet or chewing gum wrappers.

If the toilets turn up incongruous items such as burned spoons or tinfoil, drinking straws, lighters, razor blades, make-up mirrors, small squares of cling film, syringes or discarded tubes of glue, the venue has probably been visited by a drug user. Surfaces that have been wiped entirely clean before closing time can also be a giveaway.

You may also be alert to the signs of a person using drugs at the venue. These can include the more obvious behaviours (vacant expression, a sense of the person not truly being ‘present’, bloodshot eyes, dilated pupils, excessive chattering, giggling or noise for example), to ordering excessive amounts of water, sporting white marks around the nostrils, and appearing to be either hyperactive or extremely lethargic.

If your venue or premises appears to have a serious problem with drug dealing and/or use, we recommend contacting local police or drug squads. If these problems persist, the venue could lose its license, or be closed entirely. More importantly, lives could even be at stake.

A police licensing officer who has been informed of a potential situation at the venue will be far more likely to show compassion and sympathy to a venue that reaches out for help than they will if they must investigate it of their own volition. Where possible, we advise security staff and venue proprietors to liaise with police at regular intervals.

Door searches, though not always popular, may also be necessary in the more severe cases.

Of course, all drug-related instances, even small ones, must be recorded in the venue’s incident books and, where appropriate, referred to police.

Stopping a drug deal may seem like a small victory. Indeed, many security operatives simply deem it ‘part of the job’ and don’t give it much attention beyond that. However, there is no such thing as an inconsequential action. As the zen proverb has it, “the man who would move a mountain begins by carrying away small stones”.

Each drug deal thwarted contributes toward making Britain’s streets, establishments, and businesses safer, which in turn helps to ensure the safety of people everywhere – and that, more than anything else, is the reason security operatives do what they do in the first place.