Alin Rotaru, dubbed by the Romanian media, ”The Kings of Legal Highs”, was the owner of what was probably the first physical “ethnobotanical shop” in Romania, which opened in early 2008 in the eastern city of Galați. Read Drugreporter’s guest author Ștefan Iancu’s interview with him.
(The questions and answers below do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Drugreporter.net editorial board. Warning – the interview contains explicit language!)
By 2010, there were more than 400 such stores nationwide, selling smokable plant material sprinkled with synthetic cannabinoids, “party pills” and little bags of amphetamine-like stimulants in powder form. The scale and speed of this operation led many to question how it all happened. At the time, Alin Rotaru was all over the news, brazenly warning the authorities that their efforts to restrict the new drugs were futile, since the owners already had new drug formulae ready to be produced and sold. In the end, the authorities prevailed and closed down all the shops in the country, outlawing all commercial “operations” involving any substances with psychoactive effects. I recently spent an hour asking Alin Rotaru about his career selling legal highs, as part of my research project for a PhD thesis on drug policy; here are some extracts from that quite instructive interview.
Can you tell me a bit about how it all started? Were you one of the first in Romania, or actually the first, to open a shop?
I was the first one, it happened in Galați. How did it all start? Well, it started with me staring at the walls and not knowing what to do. I was broke, that’s how it happened. In 2008, I opened the first physical stores, you could go to the street corner and you could buy pre-rolled cigarettes and on the bill it would say “1 x joint”, you know, that was hilarious, lots of people wanted to see if such a thing was for real.
I like to try new things, new business ideas, because they always work, you can be sure that you’ll make money. First, I found out about salvia [Salvia Divinorum, editor’s note], things were not as developed as they are now; you couldn’t find videos on Youtube with all the idiots drooling spit. That’s how the scheme started. I ordered some salvia from Holland, I think, from this distributor who was really a con-artist. I waited to see what it was; I gave it to the kids, I bought some more plants from that guy, mixed with synthetic cannabinol JWH-018. He was an online distributor, but he didn’t sell then what they would sell later, in 2009, let’s say; it was more of a sex shop with pills for getting your schlong hard, joke-shop stuff. I only found out later that practically the plants had no effect, they were laced with some fucking cannabinol. And in April or May 2008, I did some research to see exactly what was going on. In Romania there were no labs that you could go to and say, “Look, I got this, tell me what’s in it”. Even now, if you order something, they send it to you and you don’t know what it is. Only now there is another law, it’s a scam; they put you away because it’s psychoactive, supposedly. So is coffee, some get high even on acetone, so what are we talking about, right? [Before opening the first shop] I read the law from 2000, and it didn’t say anything about those substances. So it was green light, let’s get busy, right? I ordered from a website in England, but I didn’t have much money because I was broke, I had some other business which had to work and so on. The first store I opened with about 1500 euro. And I sold everything in the first evening, pretty much my entire stock. 1500 euro is not too much, not too little either. I was lucky to find… at that time I had another company, but I had never had a street corner shop, so I knew nothing about rent and stuff like that, I was really just an out-of-work guy, spending too much and not making any money. I found a place to rent for 100 euro, and I kicked it off just like that. Before we opened the doors, the kids were looking through the bars to see what was there, we started to sell on a Saturday, people found out through Yahoo Messenger, they were sending mass messages as it was back then, you know. All the kids came from the streets, from Brăila [a neighboring city, editor’s note] and from that area. I had salvia, which people didn’t rush to buy and some cigarettes with synthetic JWH-018, the best cannabinol at the time, with the same properties as weed. I didn’t notice it causing any trouble. I mean what was on the market later, and what I saw in other shops, was a disaster. But this cannabinol was the best I think. This guy JWH, ’cause this is an abbreviation, had a book and we looked in it to see what else we could order or what we could ask the Chinese to make. And this is how we kicked it off, and at some point we had everyone coming to see what all the fuss was about, all the hobos, all the pimps from Galați, all the rednecks, all the jerks, I don’t even have the words to tell you.
I’ve heard that in Brăila people smoke a lot of hashish and weed.
Hashish, weed, I’m telling you honestly. I didn’t smoke before 2007, in 2007 I smoked my first pipe with a friend of mine. Someone had a weed plantation outside the city so I sent a driver and I told him, “Go fetch me some of that stuff”. We went somewhere where I knew we shouldn’t have to worry and I didn’t even know how to roll it, I think I still have this on film. It wasn’t a sport or anything for us, fuck. But I was shocked to see what was happening with these kids, 16 or 17 year olds who came to me; look, my first employee was 17, fuck it, how could I have told her not to smoke when I was shocked by what she was telling me. They all went to the Danube at Tulcea, for example, there are those woods there, they gathered wild hemp and then boiled it with milk and with whatever jizz, they made a cream, poured the spunk, drank the cream and dropped out. We smoked too with an old rocker dude, when I was a child, over the Danube, he knew which weed can be smoked, took it from the fields, placed it on top of the car’s engine to dry it fast. But you see, I smoke, and I don’t smoke thin ones. But I talk to you, there’s no spit running from my mouth, I’m even doing business. But this guy for example, he kinda laughs from it, another one drops down.
So, 2008. Did you need any permits to kick it off?
Why should I, what permits? You go to the town hall and you say “Hey, I've opened a shop.” “Well, what’s it called?” “Jizz.” “And what did you write down?” “Jizz corp.” Chop chop. You tell the guy, he writes it down nicely, they give you a permit which is valid for 5 or 10 years. You go on and declare what your activity is, according to the CAEN code [Classification List of the Activities within the National Economy, editor’s note], now you’re selling this and it kinda matches, ‘cause who can classify it? I tried to classify it somehow, but after a certain point it was out of my hands. There were all these stupid rednecks, and when I opened the first store I didn’t have the money to bust everything and fuck them all, you know. To make everyone register trademarks and so on. It didn’t occur to me when I was loaded, I did it when I was broke. So it was out of my hands, nobody wanted to come to me, because I was sort of nasty, obnoxious or whatever the fuck they considered me to be. Others didn’t want to come to me out of spite – “Me, go to that guy? What the fuck, I'm not going to that guy to ask him nothing, fuck him.” They all did whatever crossed their minds, didn’t you see what they wrote on their shops, that this is not for human consumption, it’s to stick it up your ass with my dick. Are you friggin kidding me? I was writing on the bag, I had my own printing machine at Galați, where everyone had their labels printed, and then we sent it all over the country, and then I became a distributor, ‘cause I only had two shops and I closed them down, it was too much of a headache, I don’t like to work with the end user.
So after the first shop there was a second one, how long after?
A month or two. I opened a bigger one, I made it like a club or a pub, something where you could do it and you had a couch to rest on. Spice Shop, the dream shop, with that nice eye symbol.
This kind of shop was all over Bucharest.
That’s the problem, that it wasn’t a registered trademark. And if you’re a stupid redneck and you have a pretzel shop which made you money once, oh how much money it made you when you were young, but now you see how much some other guy makes selling drugs, ‘cause all the fucking idiots thought we were instantly rich, you know. So you tell yourself, let’s close down the pretzel shop and open one of these, fuck it. What should we call it? Spice Shop, the dream shop, fuck me ‘cause I’m a retarded redneck and nothing can happen to me. And if you’re a tramp 18 year old with a crap shop, how much does it cost me to fuck you up because you use my trademark? Let me tell you, a lot, and I don’t see a dime from you. I wreck my brains, my pockets and so on. So I dropped this idea. When I had some spare time, we travelled around like people do, and when we were I don’t know where, by accident, and we came across some shop, we walked inside nicely to talk to the guy. And if the guy had a big mouth, we knew someone in that city, didn’t we, someone who certainly was not some sucker and we crushed him and ripped down his posters, there was no other way we could do anything about it. All the legal stuff, it’s just bollocks, rubbish.
So the Spice Shops in Bucharest were not yours.
Some of them were. In January 2009, I kicked off the distribution. I left the big shop to an associate, and I took charge of the distribution, it was easier. I take the merchandise, I do whatever I do with it, I wrap it up. But I created a franchise, like McDonalds, so to speak, and I said, “Look, if you come to me, I don’t expect much, you don’t have to come with a bag of cash, you can start with a couple of bucks, so to speak. But you know what your obligation is? I do all the printing on the outside, on your windows and so on, you give me the photos and we make it exactly like our shop looks. I can give you some ideas for the interior as well, we'll use this colour scheme.” They were coming to us with… I don’t remember the sum exactly, I think the minimum amount was 1,000 euro, which included advertising on our network of websites, even now I think we have spiceshop.ro, shipceshopgalati.ro and so on. People came to me, they signed a contract, we helped them get a land-line number, we printed out everything for them, we gave them the merchandise, the prices we knew it would sell at, to smoke, to snort and so on. People opened the stores, in two or three weeks everything was ready and going if they did the paperwork properly. We even had people their 50s coming in, adults with families, men, women, we had a woman coming all the way from Mediaș, Reșița, fuck’em, I don’t remember. I keep a weird sleeping schedule, I woke up at two or three in the afternoon, nobody dared to wake me up even if they came at the crack of dawn. And you couldn’t even come without an appointment, we had to talk, yadda yadda yadda, and if you don’t want to meet, we don’t do business together.
So this was the expansion period.
The expansion period was in 2009-2010. At some point everybody was stealing [the brand, editor’s note], but you could still distinguish my shops from the others, because they had Spice Shop written with their feet. But you could see our graphics on the shops, on the website and the products too. That’s when things were going great. And in 2011 we closed it down, the lot.
When did the problems start?
When they came down on us and they arrested me abusively. The media were eating shit from the beginning, they didn’t even come to me to ask me, “Dude, is it true or not, what do you think,” you know? I was open to that sort of discussion, I never said no to anyone. I only turned down some pieces of trash, I even beat up one of them. Some came to me, others didn’t, they wrote what they wanted, like Adevărul newspaper, Jurnalul Național, only bullshit. One evening I was watching Mircea Badea [infamous talk show host, editor’s note] and all of a sudden I heard, “The citizen Alin Rotaru says that…”. What? I wasn’t even doing anything anymore at that time, I was out.
But I remember seeing you on TV and you were saying that if the authorities were going to prohibit some substances, you already had new ones ready.
That was before they banned the first ones. That list, when they made it, it was a joke, some substances were on it under different names. You idiots, who made that list, are you so stupid? You could pay some junkie a couple of cigarettes and he would come up with a perfect one, let me tell you. Nitwits, what else is there to say?
When did the first powders appear, Special Gold with mephedrone, that sort of thing?
Mephedrone was already there when I opened the shop, but it had the brand name, what was it, Super Charge, in a little box and so on. It was mephedrone. And when mephedrone wasn’t to be found on the market, people used metilone. Metilone was the same shit with an extra chain… whatever, I don’t know much about chemistry, but I’ve read up a little, just to have an idea. (…)
After that, there was MDPV, naphirone… That’s when there was a lot of competition I guess, there were hundreds of stores selling these substances.
I didn’t feel the competition. I had four or five shops with my franchise, not hundreds. I opened the first franchise in Bucharest in 2009, in March or February. After that, we opened another one in the first district, then the second and the fourth. They were opening and closing down. They had excellent merchandise, but the rednecks wanted “Special Gold, bro”. I don’t have Special Gold, it’s not my product, we had our own products. We made them from scratch.
Were you ordering only from the UK or also China?
There’s nothing in the UK, it’s like Romania. You know at some point in this whole area, Eastern Europe, even the Balkans, there was a lot of demand and very little supply. And because of me, the supply side also developed. It even developed in Russia, but here is where it all started, all the bullshit.
Tell me more about your arrest.
Well, I came to the office and I'd left at about 5, when I get a call from the Police, saying, “We are at your place, bla bla”. I say, “Come on, man, are you nuts, I just left.” “If you don’t come in five minutes we’re breaking your door down”. I say, “Man, are you stupid, in five minutes I can’t even pull my clothes on. Break the fucking door, you’ll pay for it, what do you think you’ll find in there”? They had a problem with me. The market already had boomed. They came to me… they made a mess of my office, I had some servers, they wanted to take those too. I tell them, “Go fuck yourselves, what does this have to do with the other thing?”. They were so stupid, they had no idea what a hard disk is. I had many things on those hard disks which would have got me in trouble if they'd found them. But I tell them, “Leave these here, you don’t need these”. You know what I’m saying? I even asked an employee to watch them ‘cause I was thinking, what if the faggots plant something? They had something against me before this, for other reasons. So they searched the place and didn’t find scratch. They even went to another shop which used to be mine but now it wasn’t anymore… they found a couple of joints there, with traces of cannabis. Are you nuts? So what? The idea was this, we had a product, it was called Spice Weed or Blackout Label, and this was some kind of weed or two and a little hemp, which is used in Holland to make blankets and this sort of thing. This hemp has under 0.02 THC. But we've been part of the European Union since 2007, and from that moment on, we have to comply with the same laws. And that law clearly says that there are two strains which can be used because they have THC content under 0.02, so they are legal here too. Well, we used that shit, not much of it, just some dried leaves because it doesn’t even have the texture of regular weed, but just to give it that smell, that taste. But it was laced with JWH-018 too. They wanted to take me in because those motherfuckers wanted to rip me off. They wanted to frame us, ‘cause they also took some bills and other documents and they still haven’t given those back to us, to this day. That company must have closed down all by itself, because I couldn’t have gone to close it, they had all our documents. And they detained me until the morning, they wanted to terrorise one of my drivers, saying, “Mister, you’d better declare that things are not ok, or you go to jail”. This guy was shaking, they terrorised him so that he ran away for a week after he saw I was arrested. “Oh my God, they'll kill me”. Eventually, in the morning, they got their tests results all the way from Constanța [a city by the Black Sea shore, editor’s note] and guess what tests they had man, some analyses even the customs burro from the post office could do. They sent a couple of cigarettes just to keep us there and to terrorise that guy, so he would rat on me, just so they could show they'd done something. And the results from Constanța come, showing in that the cigarettes contained traces of cannabis. The sort of tests they do in a tube. Yeah, so what? It says on the package yadda yadda yadda and traces of cannabis sativa, THC equal to or less than 0.02%.
There were rumours and speculation that you had some backing from politicians.
That is proposterous, they were inventions by a guy from Galați so some wankers could have something to say on television, but they had no idea what legal highs even were.
But why didn’t consumer protection close you down when the labels said things like plant fertiliser, when that obviously wasn't plant fertiliser or bath salts?
That's what other people wrote on the packs, not me, I was an honest merchant. My labels said that this product can be smoked and so on, or it can be burned in an ashtray, it relaxes you, it makes you dizzy and maybe you get to fuck that girl. It’s not for children, pregnant women and so on. So anyone could come and check it. I had Consumer Protection coming to me a hundred times. They were getting instructions from Bucharest to fine us, to close us down. Look, miss, look at me. And I would tell my secretary to go fetch some labels, cause I had heaps of them. Look, miss, check it, is everything all right? Does it say clearly that it is not for children under 18 and everything? Ok, good. I did them the proper way, I didn’t write shit on them.
But eventually this is how the shops were closed down.
They were closed down by abuse, let me tell you, the cops were making a lot of money from one or another, the prosecutors were making money. “If you don't want to go to jail, give me 50,000 and go fuck yourself.” I know such cases, in Constanța. Fifty thousand, thirty thousand, twenty thousand. They made demands. I got phone calls from someone, I can’t tell you where from, somewhere very high, not politicians, higher. I had a file in Buzău, saying that I was still doing business there, but I wasn’t – hadn't been, for more than a year. I had another file in Târgu Jiu, I hadn’t done business there for three or four months, I knew nothing about it. They were trying to get people to declare things about me so they could do a number on me and arrest me. Are you nuts? I got the call. In two days I threw out everything, even simple plants, because what they wanted to do was to show Rotaru on TV, to show that the king is gone, so you kids should go too.
What did you know about the effects of these substances and how much did you care?
Well, if I smoked ‘em, what do you think, what did I care? What I smoked myself, I knew for sure it was safe. If I stopped making it, I stopped smoking it, ‘cause I didn’t smoke anybody else's product. One time I was in Bucharest, I had just broken up with a girl, I was out of my tree and I wanted to smoke something. But I had no other source to buy some hash or something, so I went to the street corner, there was a shop there. “Dude, give me ten bags, motherfucker”. I made myself two or three cigarettes. Man, they were kinda rough. And if for me that was too hard, and I am a real smoker, I had people coming, the biggest smokers in the city, and telling me, “Dude if you smoke this cigarette, you’ll drop down”. And I didn’t and that’s not to brag, it’s just how insensitive I am, fuck me, I never had any problems with paranoia and such, I don’t know what that is, I never felt anything like that. A bit of laughing and that sort of thing, yeah sure.
Did you ever try the powders?
No, not those. I had… not lab rats, ‘cause I knew the guys, they were acquaintances, pals and so on, I mean, I didn’t abuse them. Some of them were fathers, this guy here has a child now, his child is four years old.
But after some of those things, you weren’t yourself for a week. Wouldn't be till the third or fourth day, you could eat something. But even so, you see, I can’t say that was addiction because here I am, I quit, didn’t I? I don’t even consider cocaine to be addictive physically, only psychologically. If you’re a stupid redneck, even with alcohol, you drink once till you drop and you say, “Man, that was so good, I thought I was such a badass”. You don’t drink non-stop, it’s a mentality thing, it depends on how you were raised by your mother, how you lived, I don’t know. This is the problem with legalisation, I don’t think it would be such a good idea here.
That’s what I wanted to ask you, do you support decriminalisation of drug use?
But use is not punished now. Possession is. If they catch you drugged up, what do they do to you? Nothing. That’s how it is. Possession should be [established] by quantity. But yeah… I wouldn’t want it to be quite legal. Although I saw in Holland that when it’s legal, people don’t do it that much, there’s others who go there. Maybe it’s a good idea. Even in the US, didn’t you see that most states almost legalised it, and not only for glaucoma, but even for smoking. I don’t remember the last state where they legalised it recently. Even in Romania, they legalised something, but only as pharmaceuticals, I don’t remember exactly what it was. But they should make it like in Holland, where you can’t afford to have a shop, or they prevent just about anybody having a shop. In Holland for example, the permit from the city hall is about 500,000 euro. And aside from that, you pay a shitload of taxes and you’re not allowed to keep more than a certain quantity in the shop, you can only buy it from special vendors or you can only grow it under certain conditions… anyway, there’s some laws.
Were you at all afraid when people starting using the hard powders, when they started to show up in emergency rooms, full of people with psychosis?
No, because what you saw on TV, without exaggeration, 80% were just gags. That Ciuhodaru [Romanian MP who spoke in the Parliament about the legal highs phenomenon, editor’s note] is a faggot.
I don’t get that from the TV, I was there in the emergency rooms.
I know what you’re saying. But please, watch what’s happening now, they go to the emergency rooms because of alcohol, are you nuts? That can happen with weed to, let me give you a heap of it, if you smoke it like a chimney…
So no regrets?
No, why should I have?
What do you do now, what became of the fortune you made back then?
I didn’t make a fortune. When I closed down, I had about 50,000 euro left. And that’s very easy to spend for me, not because I’m a big star, but because once you get used to spending money, when it stops coming you keep spending until it’s all gone. So I have nothing after all that. But I have other businesses, in telecommunication, now I want to launch… [Indecipherable, editor’s note], there is this trend, a virtual network so to say, like Indigen, you know? I want to do mobile communication in Romania and not just there.
I’m surprised you’re against legalisation, back then you were all over the news saying things like, “Look, we’re doing this, it’s legal, if you ban it we’ll find new ones”.
I’m not against legalisation, let them legalise it, but I think the same thing would happen. Let me tell you something. I had a different mentality five years ago, another one at 26, another one at 28. As time goes by, you become wiser and fuck, you see the stupidity in the world and other things.
Do you think this new law and the fact that the shops were banned were effective?
No. This was a scam to make some people some money, you know what I mean? When the cops come and take your merchandise and you know for sure, ‘cause you have your sources, that they're going to give it to someone else to sell, are you nuts? They made a lot of money, I told you how it was in Constanța, they were coming to you directly and asking for the sum, if you want to stay out of prison. And you were telling them, “Man, that’s a bit much, I don’t make that much”. “So let’s negotiate”. I know someone who from 80,000 got it down to 20,000, but he was already being ripped off by another prosecutor, you know what I mean? Someone from Constanța, but he was making lots of money, he had a shop just like mine, like a coffee shop.
So this was the adventure of your life.
No, it wasn’t, I had others, even more exciting. But this is how people got to hear about me.