As I walk along the canal bank, bathed in the neon glow of the Red Light District’s window brothels, I am overcome with a profound realization that I might quite soon get a knife in the kidney. I’m walking as I negotiate with a fairly affable cocaine dealer, but he warns me that his associate might not take kindly to my refusal to purchase his product after already taking a free sample. The realization kicks in when the associate in question, a hook-nosed and powerfully built shady fucker of the highest order emerges from behind, looms over my shoulder and tells me “This is bullshit. There are no free samples. You buy the fucking gram.”
A free sample didn’t seem like too much to ask really, considering that in the month beforehand, tourists had been getting sick and dying in record numbers from consuming white heroin, sold as cocaine by a street dealer in Amsterdam.
While we were investigating the killer coke story for a radio documentary, my colleague Celine and I had an idea. We would purchase some over-the-counter opiates tests; try to score as many samples from as many coke dealers as we could find, test them, and try to find the deadly white heroin.
It may sound like a naïve idea, and in truth both me and Celine were repeatedly told so, but if we didn’t try, then we’d never know.
After strolling through the Red Light District for a while, and awkwardly attempting to solicit drugs from several sketchy looking dudes, we found nothing.
Until a couple of minutes later, when we sat drinking in a bar on one of the RLD’s main drags. Celine nudged me and whispered “Graham, that guy from outside…I think he followed us.” I shrugged it off, until I turned around and noticed the aforementioned sketchy dude leering in the window and beckoning us outside. It was on.
Celine unpacked our test kits and equipment, manning a clandestine lab at our bar table base, while I headed out into the cold to score some free drugs. Our system worked: I had an excuse to go back into the bar because my girlfriend wanted to sample the cocaine too before we spent our hard earned cash on bad stuff. The dealers wouldn’t come into the bar, and so wouldn’t notice us discreetly testing their product under the table.
I rubbed the sample on my gums, feeling its powerful numbing effect instantly. I took care to leave a little on my finger to test with our kit. Backing out of the deal proved a little more difficult than scoring the sample however. The dealer’s shady associate maintained that I was obligated to buy the whole bag, but realizing he was getting nowhere, buggered off –cursing me in broken English- when I gave him five euros for his trouble. A small price to pay for testable cocaine and no stab wounds.
The dealer told me why nobody in his trade likes standing around giving out samples. The Red Light District is the epicenter of the white heroin case, and is under near constant surveillance. Cameras and foot patrols have pushers hurriedly shifting their product and moving on.
Back in the bar, we snapped open one of the tests – a small glass vial with a little clear acidic liquid inside – and dropped in the cocaine I had left on my finger. Smoking outside as we waited for the test’s results to show, we realized something.
The city-wide police hunt for the source of the white heroin; the impossible-to-ignore public information campaign; and the realistic risk of death haven’t done much to stop the supply and demand of cocaine on the street.
Over the next few minutes, dealers who must have noticed me negotiating with the first two offered us their product, always marketed as “the best in town, not the bad shit, only the purest shit.” Another pair of dealers, both in knit caps and trench coats, gave us a generous sample.
Testing this sample went much the same as the first time. I rubbed a little on my gums and got ready to make my excuses and leave.
The Amsterdam Police spared me the hassle however. The appearance of two police officers at a bridge a little further up the street sent our dope dealing duo hurrying off in the opposite direction.
This stuff was definitely not “the purest shit.” I felt nauseous after tasting it, my stomach trying its hardest to reject whatever chemicals I just ate. We dropped it in the vial anyway, grabbed a beer and waited some more.
While we were waiting, the first dealer came by the front of the bar again. I grabbed him and asked him how business was. He told me that nobody seems to care about the risk of snorting killer heroin, despite the fact that three people have died and 14 more been hospitalized.
Then in some strange way, we bonded. He told me that he respected me for not being stupid and blindly trusting his merchandise. We shook hands and he walked off, presumably looking for a less cautious buyer. Back at the lab, we didn’t hit white heroin paydirt, but the results were pretty eye-opening regardless.
Our first vial tested positive for Oxycodone, an addictive opoid pain medicine that can slow down or stop breathing. Oxycodone is also known as “Hillbilly Heroin.” Readily available and relatively cheap, its abuse is devastating working-class communities across the United States.
The second nausea-inducing sample tested positive for a substance from the 2-C-T family, a range of psychoactive phenethylamines first synthesized in the 1970s by chemist Alexander Shulgin.
The next day we showed the vials to Veronica, who works in a seed shop in the city and has experience testing drugs at festivals with kits like ours. She was surprised that dealers would cut cocaine – the quintessential “upper” – with opiates, which are “downers.”
“Yes of course if it’s cocaine you would expect something different…Mannitol I know is one of the most popular, also Noxytol. Some people also put aspirin inside,” she told us.
Other than a sleepless night back at the hotel, I suffered no lasting ill effects from the samples I ingested. However, even if it’s not cut with white heroin, street cocaine is clearly often a cocktail of nasty and dangerous additives.
Given this risk, and the inherent danger in doing business with sketchy characters in dark alleys, sometimes it is better to, in the immortal words of Nancy Reagan: just say no.
By Graham Dockery and Celine Cornelis