Marijuanamerica: Deep Conversations with a Weed Dealer
Much of the marijuana grown by northern California farmers like Buddha Cheese is not consumed by Californians. It’s transported to dealers and distributors in other states, where the demand for high-quality weed far exceeds the local supply. One such place is the city I’ve lived in for a decade, New York City, which has a population of eight million and an unknown stoner population in the hundreds of thousands.
On my personal roster at this point in my NYC pot-smoking career, I have three dealers. After many years of market research they have risen to my upper echelon for possessing consistent greenery of the highest quality, for which they charge exorbitant prices. All of them are hip, artistically inclined guys who have established lives outside of the weed world. But only one of them, Craig, is willing to talk, and to readily admit that his source is in northern California. Which is why I find myself back in Brooklyn, in a smoky, cramped apartment, trying to find out what it’s like on the other end of the California supply line—no pit bulls or mountain shanties, just a regular weed dealer slinging quarter-ounce baggies to a steady stream of angst-riddled New Yorkers.
“So what’s the worst part of your job?” I ask.
“The worst part is, you have to do a lot of small talk,” Craig says. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, so blah blah blah.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, really?’” He shakes his head in disgust, as if the mere thought of these trifling exchanges has caused him genuine trauma. I didn’t see this coming. The hardest part of being a weed dealer in New York City: all the excruciating small talk. “They’re not really like your real friends,” Craig says. “It’s ill, ’cause you got different people with different energy. I know ’em, but I don’t hang out with them. You know what I’m sayin’? Most of my clients are females, who come to the house. Females and teachers.”
Craig explains that he’s not sure how he got so many female and teacher clients, but he thinks it has to do with his gentle giant vibe. Craig is a tall, schlumpy black guy who seems to accidentally take up more space than he means to. He dresses casually—in shorts and hip-hop-inflected T-shirts, not droopy jeans and sports jerseys. Over time, due to his affable mien and quality product, he accumulated female clients through word of mouth. “They’re like, ‘He’s easy, he’s real chill,’” Craig says. “Girls, they get ripped off and shit. Guys’ll be tryin’ to holla at ’em and shit, and then they will rip ’em off or whatever.”
Craig passes me the blunt. I’m back to that mind-state of feeling like I need to get high. Coming back to New York has been a heavy-handed bitch slap of reality after the living daydream that was northern California. Going AWOL on Valentine’s Day hasn’t done much for the reestablishment of trust that Ida and I have been grasping at since the Miami Incident.
Having moved out of my apartment and into hers three months prior, my existence there feels temporary. Most of my possessions remain closed off in a side room, almost like an in-house storage unit. We can’t compromise on how to integrate my stuff with hers. Meanwhile, we sit on the couch together, watching TV but not touching, and never kissing. There is a feeling that we’re on the fence, waiting for some force beyond ourselves to push us over to one side or the other.
I’m perpetually on edge—uncomfortable in my own apartment, doubting my decision to lay it all on the line with Ida, and working insanity-inducing nocturnal hours at NPR. Adding to this tension is my growing discontentment with New York—the unforgiving weather, the expensive everything, the needlessly aggressive people. I will always love this city, but even the most loyal New Yorkers have their moments (predominantly in the winter) when they wonder why the fuck they subject themselves to this punishing lifestyle. I take a deep pull on the joint, hoping to erase thoughts like this and shift my psyche toward the positive.
For his part Craig is taking self-medication to a much more literal extreme. Though he’s chill by nature, the concoction in his Styrofoam cup is certainly accentuating that inclination. For those unfamiliar with the pastime of “sippin’ sizzurp,” let me provide some background. The delights of “drank” or “lean,” DJ Screw became regionally famous in the Southern indie hip-hop scene for making mixtapes of tracks that he “chopped and screwed,” his signature style of slowing down beats until they sound warbled and psychedelic. Many fans thought the sluggish sound was meant to simulate the lethargic effects of lean, but DJ Screw, aka Robert Davis Jr., told Rap Pages magazine in 1995 that his sound was actually inspired by marijuana: “When you smoking weed listening to music, you can’t bob your head to nothing fast.” Though some outsiders were bewildered by the screwed sound, scores of Southern hip-hop heads would line up outside his record shop, Screwed Up Records and Tapes, to buy ten-dollar copies of his “Screw-tapes.” When DJ Screw died in 2000, fans and friends claimed his tireless work ethic, fueled by fast food and drank, is what did him in. But when the autopsy confirmed the cause was an overdose of codeine (though Valium and PCP were also found in his blood), he became the namesake martyr of a music genre and lifestyle that was just starting to attain mainstream success. Three 6 Mafia had just released a single, “Sippin’ on Some Syrup,” which introduced the term purple drank to a nationwide audience. Since then, rappers like Eminem, Kanye West, Ludacris, A$AP Rocky, and Drake have all recorded sizzurp-inspired tracks. Lil’ Wayne has repeatedly acknowledged his love of lean, and in the video for the song “Duffle Bag Boy” he carries a Styrofoam cup with “R.I.P. DJ Screw” written on it.
It’s appropriate to mention DJ Screw in this setting, not just because Craig’s trashcan is filled with empty prescription cough syrup bottles, but because he also represents Houston. He grew up there, and the H-town hip-hop scene is where he started dabbling in dealing herb. Craig says he smoked for the first time when he was fifteen years old, in 1994, while visiting his cousin in Los Angeles. They hung out with his cousin’s friend, who already had a hip-hop recording contract as a fifteen-year-old. Despite being too young to have a license, he drove a new Lexus.
“He had a top-notch studio,” Craig says. “And he wanted to be like a gangsta. So he had all these fuckin’ rappers, like Long Beach rappers, comin’ to his crib. That’s when I started smokin’.”
When Craig got back to Houston, he smoked a few times with friends aka prescription cough syrup, usually containing codeine and promethazine and often mixed with a soft drink and/or Jolly Rancher candies, were allegedly popularized by DJ Screw, a hip-hop producer from Houston, Texas and was appalled by the poor quality. “This shit was totally different weed,” he says. One of his boys said he wanted the good shit, the Chronic, so Craig had his people out West ship him some. Craig says he only sold small amounts, mainly to friends. But he was in art school, so weed was “lightly tolerated.” This might be an understatement, considering he remembers selling weed to a teacher at “the fuckin’ union shit.” I don’t know if this means a student union, a teachers union, or a class reunion, but as with Craig’s other fragments of slurred gibberish, I nod and go with it. I mention that I started smoking around this time too, in the early- to mid-nineties, and that hip-hop played a big part in me getting into ganja. In fact, I have a theory—highly speculative and, frankly, unprovable—that hip-hop’s migration toward the mainstream in the early nineties played a significant role in the surge of youthful marijuana use during that period. In 1992, after the decade-long arrest and propaganda assault of Reagan’s War on Drugs, overall marijuana use dropped to its lowest point in decades, to 4 percent. Past use among high school seniors declined from a peak of around 50 percent in 1978 to a low of 20 percent in 1997. But by 1997, that trend had made a startling reversal, skyrocketing back up to almost 40 percent.
This begs the question: Did Dr. Dre start an American pot epidemic? I mean: Is it pure coincidence that the steepest rise in youthful marijuana use in recent American history coincided with the swelling popularity of weed-centric hip-hop? In December of 1992, eight months after the L.A. riots, Dr. Dre dropped The Chronic, introducing the world’s coolest pothead, Snoop Dogg, and showing the world that the good people of Compton and Long Beach knew how to have a good time.
The title was a reference to high-grade ganja, and the cover design was a mock-up of Zig Zag rolling papers. The album sold more than three million copies and is considered by many rap fans to be among the best-produced hip-hop albums of all time. But it wasn’t just The Chronic. The early nineties was a coming-out party for weeded hip-hop. A year before Dre dropped his masterpiece, Cypress Hill, a blunted Cuban American hip-hop band from L.A., put out their self-titled debut album. With songs like “Stoned Is the Way We Walk,” it went double platinum. Just a month before The Chronic came out, another L.A. band, the Pharcyde, put out a trippy album, Bizarre Ride II, with tracks about decidedly un-gangsta themes, like being dissed by a girl (“Passin’ Me By”), smoking weed (“Pack the Pipe”), and telling yo mama jokes (“Ya Mama”). On every track pot was the fuel for a gang of self-deprecating class clowns to let loose on a microphone.
Moving toward the mid-nineties, dozens of now-classic hip-hop albums appeared in rapid succession. It seemed like all the heavy hitters were smoking blunts, and the result was more imaginative, introspective material. The Wu-Tang Clan started hip-hop’s East Coast renaissance in ’93, smoking trees and spitting about martial arts, numerology, and life on the mythologized streets of Shaolin (Staten Island). In ’94 Nasty Nas, a street philosopher from Queensbridge projects, dropped his blunted ghetto manifesto, Illmatic. And the Notorious B.I.G. went triple platinum with Ready to Die that same year, telling dark semiautobiographical tales about rising up from the Brooklyn street corners, with lyrics like “I let my tape rock ’til my tape popped/Smokin’ weed and Bambu,3 sippin’ on Private Stock.” I couldn’t relate to Biggie’s upbringing, but I dug the weed, the beats, and the wordplay. And it remains my (admittedly self-serving) thesis that thousands of young Americans of all ethnicities shared my sensibilities, and that hip-hop culture helped normalize perceptions of marijuana during this era.
Around that same time, Craig, a “hard-smokin’” junior in high school, had started his own rap group. The band had some success, opening for well-known acts like Aceyalone and Hieroglyphics. The underground rap scene introduced Craig to a treasure trove of black-market contacts; plenty of hip-hop cats were funding their artistic dreams by flipping ganja. He started bringing in bigger loads, from a grower in Oakland. At twenty-one, when he gave up on his rap career, dealing became his default occupation. “I was like, if I’m not getting paid at twenty-one, fuck that. It’s all cliché and trendy to say, ‘Oh, I’m a rapper.’ I didn’t wanna do that. That’s when I got out of the rap shit.”
Craig claims he wasn’t moving pounds and making real revenue, just selling to close friends on some “support-your-habit type shit.” After a few years, he moved to New York City to work gigs in television production, mainly for hip-hop videos and music-oriented TV shows. He quickly became familiar with New York’s unique weed delivery services.
Over the course of a decade I spent a few thousand dollars on these delivery services. Here’s how the system works. A friend gives you a number. (They’re not hard to come by; there are thousands of them.) You call the number, leave a message or a page, and someone calls back. Some of the services are mom-and-pop operations, but many are sophisticated, with full-time dispatchers, client databases, and an infantry of bike-riding delivery guys. The first conversation is awkward, citing the person who referred you and then fumbling for non-incriminating words to set up a delivery. They usually respond with some thinly veiled code, like, “How many CDs do you want?” CDs, or some similar term, means how much the delivery guy should bring, in terms of dollars. Once you specify the amount, the operator says the guy will be there in like forty-five minutes, which means he will arrive at some unknown point within the next four hours.
In that time your apartment becomes a jail cell. After calling friends you haven’t talked to in months and re-alphabetizing your bookshelves, you realize how much you need to do outside your apartment, and how supremely lame it is that you would gladly wait six hours if that’s how long it takes “G” to show up. And his name will be “G,” or something similarly cryptic and inane, and he will almost definitely be male. I have only had two delivery girls in my decade-long NYC pot-smoking tenure, and I was attracted to both in the way that young men are drawn to even remotely cute female bartenders. But male or female, a dealer will tell you his real name about as quickly as a stripper will admit that her name’s not actually Fantasia but Esther Koslowski.
Craig realized the weed delivery services were making a killing at his TV production gigs. “And I was like, Oh man. I can get that type of chronic. And way cheaper, you know what I’m sayin’?” He weighed the amount of pot in a few NYC fifty-dollar delivery containers, which usually come in plastic, transparent cubes. They ranged from 1.3 to 2 ounces, averaging around 1.8 ounces. (Let the record show that fifty bucks is an extortionate price to pay for such a small portion, even with the convenience of delivery.) Craig realized he could sell over two ounces for the same price and still make solid profit. He explains that this was when kind buds were really expensive, “before the medical shit in California” decreased the price per pound by over a thousand dollars.
He picks up the pound of weed sitting on the table. “I’d say like two years ago, some Sour Diesel like this . . . you could sell this for probably six G’s. Now you fuckin’ sell it for like forty-eight.”
Craig hands me the blunt, which we’re consuming at a pace languid enough to defy physics. I do my slowest version of puff-puff-give. Craig says that, with his middle-class clientele, you’d think he’d be making more money than his ’hood counterparts, but the opposite is true. “Because they servin’ to way more people, and they all sellin’ twenties anyway. So you’re breakin’ it down, and makin’ mad loot.”
“But it takes a lot of time to deal all that,” I say.
“Yeah, but they got fools that just be on the block like all day. They got people, they doin’ it just like crack.”
Craig continues on about this, something about “the main dude frontin’ them,” but Dr. Dre’s “Forgot About Dre” is playing loud in the background, and I’m beyond high, and he’s mumbling something fierce, so I can’t make it out.
I nod anyway. “So could you like roll me through a standard . . .” I hesitate here, nervous that I’m getting into dicey territory. “. . . like in the beginning, does your shipment come in the mail? Or do you have to go get it?”
Back before 9/11, Craig says, he would just have it sent—signature waived—to his apartment in Houston. He’d come back from class, and half a pound would be sitting on his porch. Or the apartment complex would hold it for him. “But this is way before like fuckin’ electronic. Now if they see a package from San Francisco, they know what’s up. I mean, they got their own game, where they make money off it, you know what I’m sayin?”
“How so?” I ask. “You mean like they confiscate it and make money off of it?”
“Yep,” he says. “Yowp. They confiscate it, like, the fuckin’ feds or the postal police.”
Craig says he has only gotten his shipment snatched once. It was over the holidays, at his mom’s house in Mississippi. The feds came to the door and said there was a package for Craig. He claimed he didn’t know the sender and wasn’t expecting a package.
“And they’re like, ‘Yeah, it’s comin’ from California.’ And they just took it. They left me with all like the boxes and shit. They just took the weed. And they were like, ‘Oh if this happens again, you might get in trouble.’ Like, ‘We’re the feds and you might get arrested.’”
Craig says, to his knowledge, most of the weed coming into New York these days is coming through the mail. And most of that is coming from California, because it’s the best quality for the cheapest price. The outdoor grows have such incredible yields, and the only American region where you can grow high-volume, high-quality outdoor pot is in northern California. According to U.S. government officials, Craig is onto something.
Weed shipments are indeed on the rise. Between 2007 and 2010, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service claims seizures of marijuana parcels increased more than 400 percent. Inspectors uncovered more than 8,500 pounds of marijuana in 2007. That jumped to 43,500 pounds in 2009, while the number of inspectors remained relatively constant. They found weed concealed inside a variety of items—including packaged food, stereo amplifiers, and They track which inspectors find the most drugs, then send inspectors from other centers to help out in those locales. Of the 3,621 parcels intercepted nationwide in 2009, 75 percent originated from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
“A lotta people be tied in,” Craig explains. “To a mailbox. Tied in with the DHL person. Payin’ off the FedEx person. You know what I’m sayin’?” “Right,” I say.
“Just make sure your shit’s airtight and shit,” he says. “All the game is, is gettin’ your shit intercepted.” “It happens,” I say.
“Yeah, it happens . . . And that’s charged to the game.”
This gets me thinking: Thank God my package arrived intact, because I don’t have a game to charge it to. Before we left Buddha Cheese’s place on The Hill, he hooked me and Bilal up with a few generous bags of ganja and a couple pucks of hash. Between that and the goods we got from Puck we were properly loaded up, so we had to decide what to do when we flew home. Or I should say I had to—Bilal just packed it in his checked luggage.5 I took The Mikey’s advice and packed mine in a box like a care package—with some fruit, candy, and a T-shirt—and sent it to myself in Brooklyn via USPS, next-day air, signature waived. The woman at the post office seemed puzzled that my sending address was right next door, but she didn’t question me. After a nervy few days of waiting, the payoff was well worth it. In fact it made me feel foolish for having spent all that money over the years on delivery service weed. I could have saved thousands just by befriending one grower in Cali.
“I’m wondering,” I say. “When people are getting big bulk, are they having it shipped to them? Or like, do you think it happens differently with different people? Some people drive it . . . ?”
Craig shrugs. “I mean, there are people . . . I mean, the California drive is a long drive. A lotta people just do the mail.”
Craig says he realizes that one of his biggest assets in the game is his ability to deal with a wide variety of people. Over the years he’s become buddies with hippie growers in Humboldt, black growers in Oakland, “white, country-ass” dealers in Houston, wealthy black distributors in L.A., rappers all over the country, and pan-ethnic female teachers buying eighths in Brooklyn. He went to art school and speaks eloquently (if slowly) on many subjects, but he can also talk the talk of ’hood hustlers. His disposition is ultra-mellow, but he’s a big dude, and street-smart enough to not get played.
He says even in the weed game, the recession has cut out the middle class. Either people are buying serious weight, or they’re just buying eighths. He used to sell quarter pounds or “QPs” frequently, and that’d be a nice chunk of change. “Cats used to buy ounces all the time. Now, fools are all about fifty bags or eighths. That hurts a little. It would be cool—a QP here, a QP there. Now it’s either a little or a lot.”
In the current climate, Craig says he earns his easiest buck brokering deals. Those transactions make the best use of his broad network of friends while exposing him to the least risk. By introducing West Coast growers to East Coast distributors, he can avoid contact with cash and herb and just have his commission wired into his bank account. “And both of those worlds, like the fuckin’ world up in Humboldt, would be all like fuckin’ Nazi’d out, but there’s a drug dealer in Atlanta. And the drug dealer in Atlanta wants the connect up in Humboldt. So I’m like an intermediary type. You know what I’m sayin’?”
On the East Coast distributor side of the game, Craig says he knows two types of hustlers: the ’hood rich, and the entrepreneurs. The ’hood rich guys have ambition. They’ve seen who commands respect and gets women in their neighborhoods, and just about every hip-hop song they’ve ever listened to has confirmed what they already knew: It’s about the dollar bills. So they hustle, stack paper, and get respect. But their game stops there.
“A lot of these cats don’t know shit,” Craig explains. “They don’t get taught shit in fuckin’ school. They don’t teach you about real estate, or buying property, or fuckin’ loans. So they have no idea. And it’s not like they have family members that tell ’em. So they spend their money on cars.” But there are other dealers, Craig says, who use their weed proceeds as seed money for bigger things. One of his buddies—who just got out of jail and is on house arrest—is a sort of role model to Craig. He made millions off delivery services. He invested in two hip, successful Manhattan nightclubs. He has the type of attorneys who can magically turn major drug charges into a few months of jail and a year of house arrest.
“You got smart cats, they got lawyers and they have financial advisors.” Craig exhales a plume of blue weed smoke for emphasis. “You know? And they’ll talk to their lawyers about what they can talk to their financial advisors about. They’ll set up shit.”
Craig is somewhere in the middle. He limits his involvement in illegal activity, because he’s a chill guy and doesn’t want to deal with the heat. But he is shrewd enough to understand that the next-level game is about how you launder that money. Craig knows guys who have used their proceeds to start clothing lines and record labels. He wants to penetrate the entrepreneurial side of things, but he hasn’t conjured up the initiative to fully set up shit.
“It’s like I don’t wanna just be looked at as the bud dude,” he says. “You know what I’m sayin’? Because a lot of people find that out. It’s like, I do other shit too, you know.”
One of his projects has been a documentary on indie underground hip-hop. He’s been doing interviews and editing footage for over seven years. I know from various friends how labor-intensive filmmaking is, and I’m not convinced it’s the best enterprise for someone with Craig’s demeanor and cough syrup habit.
“So you went to art school,” I say. “You were in a hip-hop band. Now you’re working on a hip-hop documentary. Do you think weed makes you more creative?”
“I know it does for some people. But I don’t buy that shit. I don’t think it does for me. When I used to write raps, I thought I was better when I wasn’t stoned.”
“And do you think it’s addictive?” I ask. “Have you ever been addicted to weed?”
“Mmm,” he mumbles, the blunt dangling from his fingers. “Nah, ’cause I can chill on it. I think it’s more of a mind thing. I smoke Swishers and I think the nicotine in that, that’s what be causin’ it. And the oral fixation type thing.” Craig murmurs something incoherent about “muhfuckin’ stop,” then gathers himself to finish the thought. “And it’s like I need to smoke, but I’m not gonna die. You know what I’m sayin’? I’m not gonna be fiendin’ and break into my mom’s house and pawn shit to buy weed.”
“You ain’t gonna be suckin’ dicks for blunts,” I say.
“Well, personally, I do think I’ve had periods when I was kinda addicted,” I say. “But that was more periods when I was kinda depressed. What about, do you think weed is a gateway drug?”
“Oh, hell no.”
“No,” I say. “Do you do other drugs?”
“Well, I graduated high school in 1997. And everybody was doin’ acid, weed, ’shrooms. I never did acid, coke, none of that. I don’t think it’s a gateway. I did pop pills and shit. I pop Xanax and shit, not Oxys—I’m not like that. But I like chill pills, the anxiety pills . . .”
“Klonopin,” I say.
“Yeah, Klonopins are good. They get you right. They creepers, yo. My homeboy, he’s got these disintegrators, like candy.” He raises his voice. “Hey Gary, you got one of those disintegrators for my boy?”
Craig’s roommate, Gary, an Indian American kid who rarely leaves the computer monitor in his room, walks out with what looks like a piece of candy. Gary looks at Craig and laughs. “You’re the one who wants one of these.” He hands it to me.
“Wow,” I say. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, they disintegrate in your mouth,” Craig says. “Like candy flavor and shit.”
“Yeah, I never smoked cigarettes. I don’t really drink. Weed keeps me from drinking . . . alcohol.
I nod, while wrestling internally with Craig’s apparent contradictions. He says he’s not a marijuana addict but he chain-smokes blunts. He doesn’t think pot is a gateway, yet he knows Klonopins will get you right. He says he doesn’t drink booze, but he never mentions the contents of his everpresent Styrofoam cup. One minute he’ll be making a cogent point; the next he’ll drift off and seem to dissociate from reality. A few months before this interview, I saw him on the street. He shot me a pregnant look, made small talk, then admitted that he thought I was some actor he recognized from a TV show. I wonder if the dealing lifestyle takes a bigger toll on Craig’s psyche than he lets on, and if blunts and lean are a means of numbing himself to that.
“So then . . .” I pause, trying to think of something to keep the conversational ball in the air. “What do you think about the whole legalization thing?” I ask.
“I’m pro, bro. I’m pro-advocate, for legalization. And for decriminalization. It would be easier for me, ’cause I feel like I’m just a criminal. Fuckin’, an innocent criminal, like that Ben Harper song.” He laughs. “I’m definitely pro-legalization. People are just so fuckin’ retarded. People are just so programmed, like robot machines.”
Craig continues with this theme, but the mumbling is so heavy I miss several sentences.
“Right,” I say.
“But everyone’s just fucking drones. Wake up, go to work, turn on the TV, go to sleep, drink at the bar. Every fuckin’ single day. You know what I’m sayin? It’s like that machine. That rat race. I think if more people smoked, people would be like, ‘What? Why do we have to work five days a week? Is it really needed, for us to work five days a week?’” Craig thinks for a second then continues. “I think there would just be a lot more questioning of authority. But I’m really into that. Like bull-riding marauder . . .”
I’m not sure he actually says “bull-riding marauder,” but this is what I hear. Smoking a full blunt of Sour Diesel hasn’t helped my focus. Craig says weed affects everyone differently—some get creative, some get sleepy. But he found it interesting, he adds, that many of the indie hip-hop artists he talked to for his documentary don’t smoke weed. “They can’t get their shit done. Or it’s like, Why am I smoking? Or like, the money. You know what I’m sayin’?”
Craig looks at me, and then stubs the blunt out in an ashtray. “That’s what’s really a trip.”