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Interview With a Drug Dealer

What happens when the illicit product you've made your living off of finally becomes legal?
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(Photo: dankdepot/Flickr)

(Photo: dankdepot/Flickr)

Raymond began dealing drugs when he was 15. (“Raymond” is not his real name.) He enjoyed smoking weed, but soon realized he could sell it to a few people he knew, pocket the profits, then smoke whatever he had left essentially for free. "It was just basic economics," he says.

Things grew from there. He began making contacts and working hard—up to 70 hours per week at one point. He took the subway from Brooklyn to the Bronx to get Xanax from a guy who knew where to get it. A veterinarian supplied him with Ketamine. He sold mushrooms. He sold OxyContin. He sold cocaine. But mostly he sold weed.

The guiding philosophy behind his business was simple: "Be consistent and don't be an asshole."

Today, Raymond is in his early 30s. He works about 20 hours per week and makes around $150,000 per year. Thanks to his ability to resist spending money on flashy cars and fancy clothing, he's saved enough to invest in a cell phone store and a bar.

"I just kind of discovered this," he tells me while the two of us sit on overturned buckets in the kitchen of his bar. "I was good at it, and I hadn't really been good at too many things in my life. So it's just like, 'Oh, I'm doing a thing that tons of people I know fail at—why would I stop?'"

LAST YEAR, GALLUPFOUND that, for the first time in the poll's history, more Americans favor legalizing pot than those who don't. (In 1969, by contrast, only 12 percent of the nation favored legalization.) Recent numbers from the Pew Research Center suggest likewise: 54 percent of the public say the drug should be legal. At present, almost one out of every two states allow medicinal marijuana, and several have decriminalized the act of possessing a small amount for personal consumption. Indeed, Raymond's own state of New York is one of the most recent to open its doors to medicinal marijuana, though only in a non-smokable form. Then there's Colorado and Washington, where evidence indicates that legal weed has resulted in higher tax revenue and lower crime rates.

"Eventually, it's just going to be legal federally," Raymond says. "There's no way around that."

Although his business model has undergone several evolutions, Raymond's current set-up is this: Someone drives a truck full of weed from either California or Colorado to New York City. (His supply used to come from Canada.) "Almost everything that everybody smokes in New York comes from California and Colorado," he says. From this load, he receives about 10-20 pounds per month, which he buys for anywhere between $2,500 and $5,000 per pound. He then divides it into smaller portions: two grams per bag priced at $50 each; four bags for $160. From his home in Brooklyn, he receives orders and then dispatches one of his five employees to deliver the product on bicycle. (At least one uses a car.) Raymond's employees tend to work 10-hour shifts, two to three days per week. They get paid based on a percentage of that day's sales, but if they end up with less than $200 for the shift, Raymond usually bumps them up to $200.

His ideal customers are guys in their mid-30s who are "over it" and just want to smoke before going to bed. No college kids. Raymond admits his prices are higher than average, but maintains they're justified by the risk-free convenience of an at-home delivery service.

RIGHT NOW, IT'S HARD to tell what the end of marijuana prohibition would mean for Raymond. The experiments in Colorado and Washington are still young. The Washington Postreports that Colorado's black market is nowhere near dead because the illegal stuff remains cheaper since it isn’t taxed or subject to other regulatory costs. The New YorkTimesreports similar price issues in Washington caused by a small amount of regulated supply in the face of huge demand.

Some, however, think that once more growers and dispensaries enter the legal market, prices will adjust accordingly. It also may simply take a while for loyal customers to sever relationships with their established dealers. In the long run, Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California-Los Angeles and renowned expert on the topic of drug legality, believes street-level dealers will disappear almost completely. "I think illegally growing marijuana in those states will become as common as illegally brewing whiskey," he told a reporter last July.

"If this was happening and I was 23 with no college degree or work experience, I'd be losing my mind," Raymond says. "I'd be like, 'What the fuck am I going to do?'"

But Raymond has investments and well over a year's worth of salary saved up. He knows a lawyer who wants to transform his operation into a legitimate business when the time is right, but he also seems like he’d be fine with just walking away.

"If it goes completely legal, and I can't get into it legally somehow, I will probably just stop," he says. "I have business management experience at this point—I can definitely find a gig."

As to whether or not Raymond would miss his current gig?

"No one thinks I'm a dangerous guy,” he says, “but there's an edge to it for free. There's something you miss about people thinking something about you."