A New Jersey Drug Market Falls Silent Amid the Pandemic

    There’s an eerie calm as I step off the bus on the corner of Broadway and Straight in Paterson, New Jersey. Just a couple of weeks ago, the drug market at this intersection, where I copped drugs myself in the past, was in robust health.

    Along this run-down urban strip, dotted with take-out Chinese and fried chicken restaurants, check-cashing joints, bodegas, a shelter for homeless people, a Dollar Tree and a White Castle, people would be in your face, asking you to buy. These sellers were offering a variety of heroin stampsBlue Monkey, DOA, Donald Trump, 911, Orange Crushto a thriving customer base. Even during the gloomiest winters, foot traffic was constant, with buyers moving from corner to corner trying to ascertain which bags were fire, which bags were bunk, and who could be trusted to sell a full load.

    There’s little sign of that now. There are whispers on the streets about dealers shutting up shop, refusing to sell to anyone except to their most loyal customers, unsure of when they’ll be able to reload. The middlemen, largely also drug users, who once spent their days here copping for newbies on commission are nowhere to be found. There’s no longer anyone willing to wait on some street-corner after handing over 50 bucks to someone on the promise that they’ll “be right back.” Welcome to the coronavirus drug scene.

    “Overnight, the cost of an ounce basically tripled.”

    About a week previously, the rumblings had started in my online drug-user circles. Talk of dealers running low on supply, and customers panic-buying to stock up on heroin and meth in anticipation of a disruption of supply chains.  

    “Overnight, the cost of an ounce basically tripled,” said Jay*, who uses various dark-web marketplaces to supply methamphetamine, which he uses himself. His regular vendor told him this was due to a shortage of precursor chemicals, most of which originate in Chinese labs. Unable to place his usual order, Jay tried to make up the shortfall by returning to the street dealers whom he had, in recent years, ditched in favor of online vendors.

    “It was a mess,” he told Filter of his foray back to the streets. “The ones who did have product were already complaining about a lack of supply and unwilling to sell to anyone who wasn’t a regular. The stuff I did manage to get was cut to shit … just whack, compared to what I’ve gotten used to.”  

    On the East Coast, where so much of what’s sold is a mixture of white heroin and laboratory fentanyl, the knock-on effect of China’s COVID-19 shutdown was pretty much immediate. 

    “Last week my plug started talking about prices going up, not being sure when he’s gonna be able to re-up,” Lisa, a 10-year veteran of Paterson’s open-air drug markets, told Filter. “Nobody’s sure if it’s a real shortage, or just people expecting the shit to hit the fan and preparing. Either way, prices are going up, and people are freaking out.”


    Disrupted Supply Chains

    According to Chris Dalby at InsightCrime, the chilling effect is undoubtedly rooted in hard facts. In a March 18 piece, he explored how Mexican cartels were feeling the impact of the crisis in China.  Specifically, he described how the disruption of supply lines between Mexico and China has not only left the cartels without the precursor chemicals needed to make fentanyl, but also cut off the flow of counterfeit goods that they relied on to partly fund cross-border smuggling operations. “The global lockdown due to the coronavirus appears to be hitting legal and illegal economies equally hard,” he wrote, “but it is likely the supply chain troubles of [the Mexican cartels] is only the beginning.” 

    The potential for COVID-19 to wreak havoc on drug marketswith consequences including deaths due to adulterated supply and risks taken by desperate people in withdrawalis something that harm reductionists have been loudly flagging. Dr. Owen Bowden-Jones considered this for the Society for the Study of Addiction. There have been similarif less extremeheroin droughts in the past, and they may offer clues for what to expect in coming months.  

    “In the past, when we’ve seen significant reductions in the availability and purity of heroin, the result has been changing patterns of use, with more people seeking treatment,” Bowden-Jones wrote. But any potential upside is offsetin the US at leastby the  fact that drug treatment services are woefully underfunded and oversubscribed. “During these periods we’ve also seen other, more worrying trendssuch as heroin being cut with other drugs and bulking agents.” 


    A Fixer’s Business Dries Up

    Back on the streets of Paterson, the first familiar face I see is an elderly man with one leg, who goes by the name PD. He earns his living and funds his heroin habit by selling Suboxone strips and acting as a “spotter” for local youths who sell crack.

    He’s with a slight woman who looks to be in her 60s, who has the running eyes and nose that I know only too well to associate with withdrawal. She shuffles from foot to foot as she warily takes in my approach.

    After PD tells her that he knows me, she calms down a little, and laughingly explains that I shouldn’t worry about her runny nose because “I don’t have the virus.” She’s just waiting for someone to meet her with the heroin she needs to get well. 

    “Motherfucker’s late, too…” she grumbles. Some things never change, it seems.

    PD tells me that things have been uncharacteristically slow for the past week or so, when people on the scene started taking talk of the coronavirus more seriously. For someone like PD, who relies on passing trade, this has almost destroyed his income.

    “Shit’s been real slow. Lotta folks been going back to the clinics, now.”

    “Look at this shit,” he tells me, unzipping the saddle bag he has rigged up to his wheelchair. Inside are a half-dozen neat rolls of Suboxone strips, an inch or two in diameter, neatly tied up with elastic bands. “Shit’s been real slow. Lotta folks been going back to the clinics, now.”

    People like PD act as a kind of unofficial treatment service for people looking to either wean themselves off of heroin or maintain for longer periods, while being leery of engaging with formal services. Their reasons are varied: Some simply can’t afford the cost of treatment without health insurance; others are worried about the impact on their livelihoods and families if word got out that they had a drug problem. For this invisible population, PD was a valuable resource.  

    Now, “They scared of what’s gonna happen a week, a month from now…” PD says. “So, they say ‘fuck it’ and go to the clinic instead. Nobody wants to be left without nuthin’.”

    PD’s companion suddenly pipes up.  “Who the fuck’d want to be at those fuckin’ clinics with all those sick folks, anyway?”

    She has a point. Clinics in New Jersey have reacted differently to the coronavirus, with some closing altogether and offering virtual counseling sessions. Others–such as Pinnacle Treatment Centers, which operates clinics in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California—are opting to stay open, and force patients to attend in person to maintain their prescriptions, despite Governor Murphy’s pleading for social distancing.  

    Pinnacle CEO Joe Prichard said in a statement, “It is extremely important that we continue in our mission and remain steadfast for our fellow teammates and patients.”  In other words, in a state where schools, restaurants and bars have closedand despite the feds now authorizing up to 28 days of take-home methadone dosesthe fear of patients getting take-homes before they have “earned” them (via good behavior and negative urine tests) is seemingly a scarier prospect than the spread of COVID-19 among a vulnerable client base.   

    As one New Jersey patient justifiably said, “I just think it’s ridiculous I have to go there.”

    Lisa has gone back to her old buprenorphine prescriber, at least until things blow over. “I’ve got a good doctor,” she said. “I was just getting killed on the co-pays and shit. It was, like, a hundred bucks every time I walked in the door. Plus, the cost of the bupe, and all the rest.”

    But now, she considers the relative stability of treatment a blessing. “Maybe I’ll just try [treatment] again. Until things settle down, at least.” Her doctor is currently providing consultations via Skype and Zoom, and she likes the fact that under current clinic guidelines she won’t be expected to attend mandatory 12-step meetings. (“Fuck that noise,” she laughs.)

    “A month ago I hadn’t heard of coronavirus. Now it’s all anyone fuckin’ talks about.”

    I ask PD if stories like Lisa’s suggest a kind of silver lining in all of this. PD considers this for a moment, laughs and asks, “Do I look like a motherfucking social worker?”

    I guess not, I tell him.

    “I mean, shit…”  He sucks air through his teeth.  “A fucking month ago I hadn’t heard of fucking coronavirus. Now it’s all anyone fuckin’ talks about. Meanwhile…”  he gestures at the rolls of unsold Suboxone strips in his saddle bag. “What the fuck am I s’posed to do with all this shit now?”


    *The names and some identifying details of the quoted sources in this article have been changed, for their protection.

    Photo of Main St, Paterson by Ken Lund via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    • Tony is the author of several books of fiction and non-fiction, including Sick City, Down and Out on Murder Mile and Black Neon. His journalism has appeared in Vice, Black Book, the Guardian, the Fix, The Influence and Playboy.

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