Here’s a fun fact: one hour of the lowest-paid work at the Muskrat Falls construction site will pay for a half-gram bag of cocaine from any of the dozens of dealers who sell it that way in central Labrador.
A coincidence? Certainly — but a convenient one for the illegal tertiary industry that has expanded to efficiently relieve as many hydro employees as possible of their hard-earned money. The result? The black market is doing quite well, with individual drug-distributors raking in thousands of dollars a day peddling their wares to cash-flush workers on their off-hours. Cocaine is both consumer-popular and the supply-side drug of choice. Its profit margins are among the highest in the business, as long as the illicit wholesalers and retailers don’t snort too much of their own product up their own noses.
A full ounce of cocaine can apparently cost as little as $1,400. If the 28 grams are accurately weighed and divided, a dealer can sell them and double his or her capital in a matter of an hour or two.
However, most dealers (if not all) must do much better than that, since measurements are rarely accurate and the product is hardly ever pure. The $50 spent on the drug can get a user a count as low as 0.2 grams and that has most probably been diluted with something that looks like cocaine, but isn’t.
These facts are well known, but they make little difference. The lively demand for coke in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Sheshatshiu and North West River has always grown livelier, until now it seems to have even pushed other drugs out of the market.
Residents describe their communities as being “awash” in cocaine. Lots of people buy it and lots of people use it — almost daily, in many cases.
Cocaine is not as addictive as heroine or nicotine, but it can take hold even faster than alcohol. If someone tries it and likes it (cocaine’s effect is compared to the feeling of falling in love) and have the money to pay for it, there’s a good chance someone will keep trying it until a physical dependency develops. Naturally, that secures a burgeoning market for anyone in the business of selling the stuff.
Product is promptly procured
The police probably suspect the identities of many involved in the illicit trade and they sometimes make a few arrests that lead to convictions, but their knowledge and efforts don’t seem to make much of a dent overall. Individual dealers are sometimes deprived of their freedom (their wares, weapons and cash confiscated), but the marketplace adapts. New product is promptly procured and new dealers soon distribute it.
Police efforts, in fact, may have contributed to cocaine having become, by far, the most popular illegal drug in central Labrador. The region’s remoteness and its limited road system (one highway in, one dirt road out) give it the characteristics of a prison, in that authorities can more easily control access to intercept smuggled contraband. Nevertheless, in Labrador, as in prison, the authorities can effect the drug trade, but they’ve never been able to stop it.
One of the actual results of police intervention is that traffickers quickly learn that marijuana is bulky, smelly, easy to find and isn’t worth much money, while cocaine is compact, relatively odourless, harder to find and vastly more lucrative. Consequently, marijuana has become an almost marginal commodity and anyone attempting to buy some can spend days at the task. Cocaine, on the other hand, can usually be gotten within the hour — and then again a few hours later, most likely.
The Lower Churchill hydroelectric development did not create this problem, of course — cocaine use has been widespread for many years. The hydro project is more like an enabler, but not only because of the extraordinarily high wages enjoyed by the workers. The contractors involved follow a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs and enforce it by testing blood. Those tests, however, seem to have the same unintended consequence as police action since, as many who apply for and hold down jobs already know, proof of marijuana use can linger for two months or more, but all trace of cocaine is gone within four days.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in North West River, Labrador