Participant Observation









Upon moving into his new flat, Harry (as we shall call him) had secured himself a job as the main runner for a pair of local dealers. The two dealers (a couple in there mid 40s) would buy their supplies in a neighboring city (mainly Nottingham) and distribute it to their runners. They would then go out onto the street and sell it. Harry would get a certain amount, (say a street value of £800) cut it and weigh it into wraps and then sell it on a demand basis. In theory, as long as he delivered a certain amount of money to his dealers every day, and collected more heroin, the job would be very profitable. There were many opportunities to cut corners, and make huge profits, whilst keeping the dealers happy at the same time. Unfortunately for Harry, as he dealt in so much heroin he became exposed to the desire for taking more himself-the addictiveness of the drug saw his habit dramatically increase.


The flat, upon his arrival, consisted of a single bed and a wardrobe. . .and nothing else. Within 2 weeks the flat was fully furnished and redecorated. He had two televisions, a video, a hi-fi and many other mod cons. Indeed there were signs of extravagance; he had net curtains draped around the side of his bed, giving off the effect of a four poster bed. In essence the flat had undergone a massive transformation. . .and from a personal perspective I was in awe. This was someone, afterall, who was signing on every two weeks for £80 and whom had his rent paid by housing benefit.


Three weeks after he had moved in I was invited to spend a few days in his company. Upon entering the flat Harry was sat in his armchair watching television. He had just got up (it was 8.30 In the morning) and his foot was resting on a footstool. Upon coming closer to him I notice that he had a hypodermic needle stuck in the top of his foot. As I looked at it I noticed that I did not cringe at the sight. . .I was becoming desensitized to aspects of heroin intake methods. Having spent a number of previous occasions with him I felt that I was becoming used to the way he did things, not because I liked or was attracted by the events, but because I was fascinated and wanted to understand why he did such things. He must have noticed my look because he smiled as if to say 'I thought this would shock you.' He told me that his veins were f**ked up in his arms, and so he had to find a decent one somewhere else. The shock for me was the way he sat in his chair with a needle stuck in his foot, and acted as though it wasn't there at all.


About half an hour had passed before he told me that he had something to show me. He walked over to his chest of draws and removed a Pringles tin-he brought it over to me, took the lid off and removed a bundle of notes (money). He then began to count the money in front of me, but telling me the total after he had counted each note. He ended at £830, and told me that his dealers only wanted £680. I worked out that if he had sold £830 worth of 'gear' that would equal 83 wraps. Of course some customers would take more than one bag-but he may also have done some 2for£15 bags for his mates. In a day he told me that he would serve between 30-40 people on a good day and around 15-20 on a bad day.


Whilst having breakfast together we chatted about many things, and as I spent more and more time with him I began to realize that he was not an 'outsider.' The label given to him by society, that of a junkie who was immoral, who could be looked down on and who could be persecuted for his habit, was a label that did not fit. He talked about his children, what he was going to buy them and where he was going to take them.


He said that he had never had much money before he landed this job, but now he did have money and he could take them wherever they wanted to go. He also talked of his family, his friends and trivial things such as sport, the weather etc.. .  My view, that given to me by the media, was of a heroin addict who was pale, withdrawn, inactive, selfish, immoral, evil . . .. this view was beginning to change, here I was with somebody who had a bad addiction, but he looked healthy, active and was full of conversation. Of course it was not just the exposure to him that changed my opinion, he introduced me to many other heroin addicts whom likewise, showed little likeness to the picture painted of them by the media.


After his breakfast Harry turned his cellular phone on, this was a vital necessity for many runners. It is the vital communication link, if someone needs a fix they can get hold of you wherever they are. Not only was it good business sense, but the addicts needs were met as quickly as possible. The phone was the link between the supply and demand ethos. . . .without it running would be nowhere near as effective.


No sooner had Harry turned his phone on than it rang, of which I heard the following conversation. . .


"Yeah, but you can have 2 for £15 if you want mate"


"Be in the park in 5 minutes. The bridge. Later"


The conversation was kept short and to the point. He then told me that we better get going, replaced the money in the draw and grabbed about 8 bags of heroin. He took the rest of his stash, opened the skylight window, and shoved it in the gutter below the window. He told me that it was the safest place in the building, and no police raids would discover it. He then took the heroin he had picked up to sell, and placed them in his mouth. I had learned previously that this was the safest place to heroin on the person, the police would not find it if they searched you and if they took you back to the station you could swallow it.


On the way to the park he told me how he managed to make so much money. He would slightly underweight the single bags, but on 2 for £15 he was able to undercut more without it being noticed.


We arrived at the meeting point and waited. The park was a good place to meet I was told, because there are lots of open spaces (he could see if the police were after him or watching him) and because there were not many people about. It was also close to his home, which was ideal. On the subject of being careful, he mentioned last week that he had invested in a pair of binoculars so that he could look out of his windows to see if the police had set up any surveillance points on his establishment. This was necessary, he said, because he had heard that the police had raided someone's flat by absailing through the windows. Everyone in the flat was arrested, and he thought that over surveillance was better than being caught.


After about 5 minutes a smartly dressed, tall man approached Harry. He wore a leather jacket and trousers, was clean- and looked quite active and aware. We shall call him Mick. Mick approached and said hello to Harry, shook his hand and then took out his wallet. The drug exchange had already occurred, and now Mick was getting ready to pay. Mick asked how Harry was, how business was and then told Harry that there was some s**t gear going around at the moment. Harry agreed, but quickly added that the stuff he's got was 's**t hot.' Mick told us that he had got some skag of another dealer the other day, pinned it and it had no effect on him. Harry told him that his stuff came from Notts, that he had had some and it blew his 'f**king head off.' These two had a history, they had been friends for around five years, and so the conversation between them was fairly relaxed. Harry introduced me as a 'mate' and I seemed to be accepted straight away. I did not feel intimidated before hand, but I did feel somewhat more relaxed when Mick knew who, to a certain degree, I was. It seemed that Harry's word was good enough for Mick.


The rest of the morning was spent in town. Harry had to buy a few things for the flat (food, a few pictures) including a roll of tin foil! In between our trecks around town Harry's phone would ring and he would have to go and meet people to sell the heroin. I was allowed to accompany him to all of his drop off points, and the most frequently used was a churchyard 3 minutes walk from the high street. This was an ideal location, close to town, yet visited by few people, particularly the police.


He talked a lot about how heroin was ruining and had ruined his life. He told me that he had lost his family, his home and his job through the drug, but was also quick to mention that it was him that had chosen to do it in the first place.  He also explained the stages through which he went with his addiction, from becoming an occasional user to becoming an addict, and how he had tried to give it up but he didn't really want to yet, and that I felt was the key. If he wasn't ready to give it up, then no matter how hard anyone tried to make him give up, he wouldn't do it.


The morning proved to be a great success in helping me not only to understand how a heroin addict thinks and acts, but how the labels that society attaches to him are inaccurate and outdated. Gone are the images of a pale heroin addict sat in a pub, a social recluse with no energy or purpose in life. The addicts/users I met today all had a purpose, families jobs etc. . . . Indeed two men that I met (around 30 years old) owned their own decorating company, and had just taken the day off. They fancied doing a bit of heroin and contacted Harry. Essentially these people are doing a drug that they enjoy, and in this respect it can be likened to alcohol. The two men I just mentioned spoke of this, saying that heroin kills far less people than alcohol or tobacco. They also said that although they felt like outsiders in a way, they kept their habit quiet-for the simple reason that people are prejudiced and misinformed by the drug.


The afternoon was spent pretty much in the same way as the morning. Nipping back to the flat to pick up more gear, and then waiting for the phone to ring. We spent a lot of the time in cafes, drinking coffee and eating. As the day wore on I felt that I began to understand this person a lot more, here was someone who was essentially a businessman operating on a supply/demand basis. He was only a criminal because of the label given to him by society, his actions were 'morally wrong' because the drug was illegal, it killed people and ruins peoples lives. But then again so does alcohol and tobacco.


During the day I met a lot of heroin users and the majority of them were 'normal people,' that is people one would not be able to identify as heroin users on a busy street. Of course I met a few who were pale, withdrawn and 'shifty' but it is these few, this minority that society associates with representing the majority of heroin users.


The day was concluded at around 7.00pm, this is the cut off point for Harry, the time when he stops dealing and has time for himself. I took him for a few drinks in a pub as a way of thanking him for his assistance, and then left. Did he ask me if I wanted a hit? Yes. But he knew what my answer would be, and laughed.


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