- 11 Feb 08
‘Shay’ (real name withheld), is that rare thing, a dealer who partakes of his product. As a result, he cares about the quality.
Drug barons have been getting a rough ride in the media of late. The phrase is invariably employed as shorthand for pure evil. But not every drug baron is the same.
While it may be illegal, there’s nothing inherently ‘evil’ or even antisocial about supplying drugs. It just happens that the market has been largely taken over by organised criminal gangs. Drug dealers know they’ve hit the big time when the likes of Paul Williams turns them into an underworld legend.
My interviewee doesn’t have a nickname, because neither the Gardai nor Paul Williams know who he is or what he does. He likes it that way: it means he is doing his job properly. Only a handful of people know about Shay’s occupation as a cannabis importer.
“I am a competitor in the cannabis market, so some people would certainly take an interest in me, in terms of disrupting my business and so on”, he says. In fact Shay controls a modest percentage of the Irish market. A passion for quality control is rare at this level of the trade, but Shay is one of a rare breed: a baron who smokes his own stash. In this, as in so many other traits, Shay is the antithesis of the stereotypical media monster drug trader.
“Most of the people involved in the cannabis trade don’t smoke the stuff. Only about one in every seven commercial cannabis growers in the Netherlands smoke at all, and of them, the vast majority won’t smoke their own stuff. It’s all about quantity – the cheaper the better. I can get weed for e1 a gram, but I wouldn’t advise anybody to smoke it,” he laughs.
Given that the players in the trade are largely amoral and profit motivated, the only potential regulator of quality is the customer. As Shay explains, there is a considerable variety of cannabis available to the commercial importer. Buyers are brought to a warehouse and shown samples of various types of cannabis. However, the Irish importers know that their market is the least educated cannabis consumer base in Europe. As a result, buyers for the Irish market exercise little or no discretion.
“You will have a choice of three or four types of cannabis resin and a handful of different strains of weed. The prices will go from 50 cents a gram for Moroccan slate hash to maybe e3 a gram for Afghani hash or e5 a gram for Nepali import,” he explains.
And why would the prospective buyer fill his boots with the finest Nepalese hash if his customers wouldn’t know the difference between a lump of petrified dog shit and a chunk of the real thing?
“I know a guy who brought in a shipload of top quality Indian hand-rolled hash,” Shay says, “which at this moment lies buried in a field because it couldn’t be sold. People are used to paying e30 for a quarter ounce of soapbar hash, so when you tell them this stuff is e120 a quarter, they think you’re taking the piss.”
Needless to say, the economies of scale weigh heavily on the side of the unscrupulous. It costs very little to produce soapbar cannabis, and there is no conceivable way that an expansion-minded hash merchant could bring a quality product to market at similar rates. High quality hashish contains 100% cannabis, as opposed to the 10% to be found in soapbar.
There are many ambiguities in the weed world (including the prickly question of who is and who is not working for the police), but the one thing you can be totally sure of is that all soapbar cannabis is manufactured and distributed by relatively ruthless criminals.
“The soapbar industry is totally separate to the cannabis industry,” Shay frowns, as he hints at a broader conspiracy.
“Soapbar cannabis is a gangster operation from start to finish. They source their hash in Morocco or Afghanistan for a few pennies a gram, then they add this to their own mixture of lettuce, leaf, dog shit, whatever, and they put it in this giant press. When you lift the press – voila. Rows and rows of ‘nine bars’.”
The cost price of each nine ounce bar is around e10. As the street dealer told hotpress last month, these bars retail at e600 in Dublin, before finally fetching as much as e1,500 on the street.
“You’ve got these giant machines working away pressing soapbar. I’ve seen these things – they’re not small, but they don’t seem to be custom made. They appear to have no use other than to produce these soapbar shaped lumps of hash. I don’t understand how the machines get produced and how they aren’t detected when they’re in operation.
“The other mystifying thing is where they get all of the waste material to go into the stuff. I mean, it’s like the Coca-Cola formula. It’s patented. Different gangs sometimes have different mixtures, and then you have clowns who do their own DIY mixture which usually turns out to be unsmokeable sludge. So you have a consistent product, which requires consistent ingredients, and so you need tons of lettuce, or dog shit, or leaves, or whatever, on a consistent basis.
“I mean, you’ve got to have trucks bringing tons of lettuce into a factory, a giant machine chucking out truckloads of soapbar and nobody notices! It’s strange. I’ve asked these questions, but nobody can give me answers,” he shrugs.
Soapbar is a UK and Irish phenomenon, because nobody else in Europe will accept a product French smokers christened ‘Chernobyl’. Tthe UK market has slowly begun to turn away from soapbar cannabis, though that doesn’t stop them from shipping it over to Ireland.
“Soapbar comes from either the Netherlands or the UK. If it’s coming from the Netherlands, it will come in industrial containers from an inconspicuous third country. If it’s coming from the UK, it will come over on the ferry, in the boot of a family car. Alternatively, you can always fire it across the Irish sea in a boat. The worst stuff is usually from the UK. If a batch is too bad even for the UK market, it gets shipped over here.”
The mass market in hash – the stuff you find on the street in every town in Ireland – is controlled exclusively by organised crime. Shay says he has seen encouraging signs that this may change, at least in some areas.
“The interesting thing to me is the attitude of young people. They don’t accept cannabis prohibition, they know the entire situation is hypocritical and ridiculous and so they are basically fearless,” Shay tells me. “These guys go over to a certain coffee shop in Amsterdam, where they can arrange to get stuff by the kilo. They then simply put it in their suitcases and walk through the airport. And this is happening more and more: people are figuring out how to source quality cannabis because they’re sick of smoking the shite that’s available on the street.
“These are people who’ve been to Amsterdam and they’ve been influenced by the Dutch mindset, which is basically to stand up and do it anyway, because that’s how they ended up getting it decriminalised there,” he says. “It only takes a few people to influence the market in a fairly big way, and that’s happening in different places now. It’s isolated, but it’s only going to grow.”
Though he admires the sheer bloody-minded courage of the new hash entrepreneurs, Shay is not in the habit of walking through airports with bales of weed. He says there’s no need to take such risky measures when Ireland has such a long and unguarded coastline. Most of his weed is imported from Spain because he admires their ‘organic ethic’ and the patriotic pride they take in their national product which is renowned as the best in Europe. “The Spanish never fuck with their weed,” Shay says.
Though he is quietly wealthy, Shay claims not to be motivated by money. “The thing about money is that it’s only a big deal when you don’t have it. Once it’s there, it’s not that important. I give a lot of my money away, I give free medical cannabis to people who need it, and so on. I’ve made my money so that’s not important to me anymore.
“I get satisfaction from the fact that I am making top quality cannabis available to people in Ireland. I don’t feel guilty about smoking weed, and I don’t feel guilty about enabling other people to smoke weed. In the end, it doesn’t matter what gobshites like Gráinne Kenny say, because nothing is going to stop us from smoking the best weed in the world.”