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High Culture:

  Marijuana in the Lives of Americans

    by William Novak

      7. "I Get Paid for Paranoia"
              A Self-Portrait of a Marajuana Dealer

Many smokers acquire their supply through a friend who may have purchased an extra ounce or two. But many others buy directly from a marijuana dealer, a retailer who makes a living from selling pot, and perhaps other illicit drugs. There is a good deal of mythology surrounding the image of dealers, including the lingering idea of the "pusher" out to hook the unsuspecting citizen on drugs. This is not true of marijuana dealers, and never was. While in California, I was introduced to Hannah, a dealer in her late thirties. Her story appears here in her own words, not because she is a "typical" dealer, but because she is interesting and articulate, and sheds light on a variety of subjects touched upon in these pages.
First of all, I deal only in marijuana and magic mushrooms. No heavy drugs. No cocaine, pills, speed, uppers, downers. Not even acid. Just marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms, that's it, and related items: hash, hash oil, and occasionally peyote.
    I'm thirty-five. And a woman, which is pretty unusual for dope dealers. There are a few of us around, but not too many. I started out dealing mostly to women, through choice. First, it was safer. Second, I felt more comfortable with women. But now I sell to men too. I'm not biased, but I just don't want a lot of macho men on my premises, and so I screen male customers more carefully than women. I want to make sure they're nice, mellow men, not macho pigs, and that they're going to accept that I'm the authority in my house, as most men do. Not just on matters of smoking, but on who is the boss in the house.
    The only difference I find between men and women as customers is that men buy more, but I'm not sure that means they smoke more or whether it's because they have more money, because my population is skewed. I came into the business with a large number of women friends. But every woman has a brother, an ex-husband, a former lover, or whatever, who needs a contact, so slowly but surely I've gathered some male customers, although I still sell mostly to women.
    The dope business, unfortunately, is very male dominated. I think that women make better dealers: they are more reliable, they pay their debts faster. But there aren't too many of us, which is true in any business that makes a lot of money. It's a male club, and you have to be a member of that club. Dealers tend to know each other, and if you're the pal of a dealer, he's more likely to turn you on to the trade if you're a man. If you're a woman, he's more likely to try to go to bed with you.
    A lot of people actually forget that this is an illegal business That means the buyer is at the mercy of the seller. Most sellers are basically honest; if they aren't, they don't stay in business very long. In general, pot dealers are more ethical than anyone gives us credit for. True, we don't pay income taxes. But we are ethical in our business with customers. A lot of money goes for bad debts. And we spend our money on our friends.
    Each person's business is a little different. This is only my second year doing this, and I currently make about $18,000 a year after expenses. A person can come in and buy any amount from me; I have no minimum. Some dealers don't want to be bothered for under an ounce, or half an ounce, or whatever quantity they've weighed up before the customer arrives. Most dealers like to do their weighing and measuring in private, so that when the customer comes in, it goes smoother. I'm a little different; you can buy even five dollars worth of pot if you want to.
    What a lot of people don't realize is that even the person who buys an occasional ounce and sells it to friends is a dealer; that's how the law works. As far as I'm concerned, a dealer is somebody who is looking at dope as a business; it doesn't really matter how much business they do. A dealer means to make a livelihood from selling dope, whether it's subsistence living by selling a couple of pounds a month, or the high life of moving several pounds a day. As a friend of mine says, though, "Remember, you're not selling plants, you're selling happiness." Dealers have to be specialists in human emotions.
    There are different levels of dealers: retail, wholesale, and some who do both. I'm primarily retail, but I occasionally do some wholesaling, which might mean selling a couple of pounds to another dealer if somebody's running low.
    In the last couple of years, the buying public has become pretty sophisticated. The only mistake a lot of people make is to buy their dope by the size of the ounce. They'll buy the ounce that looks the biggest, although they all weigh the same. The bigger, the better, they think; that's a good American axiom. But it's not always true. I try to buy fluffy dope whenever I can, because I know customers respond well to a full-looking bag, but it's not necessarily a better buy.
    Of course everybody comes in looking for a bargain, but you have to remember that the people bringing dope into this country by the ton are not stupid, and when they get it here, they carefully grade it and sort it out and determine what is the best price they can get for their work, and their risk. They want top dollar for their product. Oh, sure, sometimes something will come down the line that is a bargain; maybe somebody decided that it wasn't as good as it was reported to be, and they've put a lower price tag on it, and you'll get a real bargain. But not very often.
    But there is such a thing as a good buy, and I always tell my customers what it is. I think some of the best buys are shake. Shake is—well, dope comes into this country in huge bales, great big sacks. And what everybody is looking for are the tops, the big buds, where the flower clusters are. These buds command the highest prices, and they're usually the most potent smoke. Down at the bottom of the sack is the stuff that falls off during transit and storage, which is known as shake. Dealers always specify to each other the percentage of shake in a pound; it usually averages around 25 percent, but it can fluctuate quite a bit.
    Most distributors put an equal amount of shake in each pound, averaging it out from bales. But there are a few who make up pounds of tops only, and they make up other pounds of only shake. One week you might have Colombian Gold tops at sixty dollars an ounce, and the next week you might be selling the shake of the same stuff for forty dollars. How good it is depends on the quality of the buds it has fallen off; sometimes the shake has fallen from excellent buds, and the dope will be very good, at a much better price than usual. But one of the problems with shake is that you get a lot of seeds. A big distributor will have a lot of sacks around, and usually you can get a good look at what you're buying.
    I know one fellow who handles so much dope that he complains of suffering from "gold lung disease." This can occur when you're dividing up a bale into pounds. Each bale weighs anywhere from twenty-five to fifty pounds, and dividing it is quite a job, involving the sifting out of tops from shake, and then making up pounds with a representative amount of shake in each one. This takes hours of handling the dope and after you're done you find yourself covered with dust and pollen. It can take a couple of hours to cough it all out of your lungs.
    Another good buy for some people is my cheapest dope, which sells for ten dollars an ounce. I call it cooking dope, but I have customers who get off on it, just like some people enjoy cheap wine. The older customers, especially, never got accustomed to the better stuff, and they have no need to buy anything but the cheapest. I try to sell to each customer according to what he needs and enjoys.
    The older customers are different in that they tend to be more paranoid. They are often solitary smokers. They come here with my middle-class furnishings and my revolving dope table, and they freak out. "Close the window, draw the shades!" They associate buying dope with all that cloak-and-dagger stuff, and they sneak in and out of my house. They also eat the roaches, and use the entire ounce, and they pick up anything that has dropped on the floor. They waste nothing.
    I see a lot of changes, and one place where the quality has zoomed right up is in what used to be called homegrown. The name is misleading, though, because it's really American grown. We're talking about people who combine good farming techniques with a scientific awareness of what they're doing. Dope is no longer grown so much as farmed. The California farmers are among the best in the world, and they're getting to be experts at sinsemilla, which is very nice dope. It has no seeds, smells heavenly, and has a delightful taste. But because it is difficult to grow—you have to destroy the male plants early enough so that none of the female plants are fertilized—it goes for very high prices. My sinsemilla is selling for $140 an ounce, and sinsemilla tops go for up to $200 an ounce.
    Sinsemilla is a status thing. Mostly I sell it to wealthier clients, but many people say that even at the price it's a good buy because it doesn't have any seeds, and it's also very potent, so it lasts a long time.



You have to be very careful on the phone. My ideal customer calls up and says, "Hi, how are you? Can I make an appointment?" And I say, "Sure, when would you like to come? Two-thirty? Fine! I'll see you then." Just like I was a therapist, and the client is calling for an appointment. That's what I like to do.
    If somebody gives me trouble on the phone, I am very firm when he comes over: "Please do not do that again. It jeopardizes me, and if you want to do business with me, you don't talk on the phone, period, except to ask if you can come over and see me."
    Every time I meet a new customer, I give him this sheet:


It is hoped that these terms will be acceptable to you, and that we will develop an association of mutual trust and respect. I regard our business transactions as high energy
exchanges and look forward to enjoying a long lasting relationship from which we will both benefit. I see myself as a person of integrity and aim to operate honestly and fairly.
Business is by appointment only. Call anytime to set up an appointment. If I'm out you will get my answering machine that will tell you when I expect to return, and will take any message you'd like to leave.
Do not discuss business on the telephone Make an appointment and we will discuss it in person.
Do not give my name or phone number to anyone without an okay from me beforehand. The protocol that must be followed for introductions is as follows: Only after I feel that a stable rapport has been established between you and me will I be open to meeting your friend(s). Then I will want to talk to you about how you met them, etc., before you make the introduction.
If people are waiting for you outside, be sure they are parked or hanging out in a place where they cannot see which house you enter.
Never point out this house or anyone you meet here to anyone, ever, no matter how tempted you may be.
Don't write anyone's name or phone number on this piece of paper.
Come alone unless special arrangements have been made in advance for you to bring someone with you.
Transactions are on a cash only basis. However, food stamps or barter may be used as a medium of exchange if arranged in advance.
You may reserve any item to be held for you for 24 hours.
Returns are generally discouraged. If you have any doubts, try before you buy. If you are buying for someone else and they don't like what you have selected for them, this
is for you and them to resolve. In this kind of transaction you should plan in advance on taking responsibility as your friend's supplier.
The following items are not presently, and will never be sold here: coke, speed, tranquilizers, Quaaludes, opium, barbiturates, smack, or any addicting substance—nor will any introductions be arranged involving these items.

    All this is necessary. Nobody thinks he'll get busted, just like women think they won't get pregnant, that it only happens to other people. Well, it's a fact of life. They do come, and they do put you in handcuffs, and they do take you off to jail.
    That's why you don't come to see me without an appointment, and you don't appear at the door with a stranger, with somebody I haven't met. I'm not open to meeting your friends before you introduce them. You don't pass out my number saying that this is a great dealer; I don't want calls from strangers saying, "Jane told me to call."
    Most dealers and growers I know are fairly paranoid about participating in public organizations that have anything to do with dope. If they participate at all, it's by sympathy or sending money.
    The riskiest part of the business is in meeting new people. I always check them out through the people who have recommended them. I want to know how long you've known this person, and what he does for a living, and when the new person comes over for the first time, I sit and talk with him for a few minutes.
    Dealers with kids have a real problem. Kindergarten is the crucial year. Kids spill all the beans in kindergarten, everything, they tell all. If you're smoking a joint and a kid comes into the room, if you continue smoking, it won't bother the kid But if you act like something's funny, that kid's going to notice, that's for sure. With kids, I've found the less said around them, the better. A friend of mine tells her kids: "this is our means of income, and you have to treat this with respect. Just because you think your friend is cool does not mean that it's okay to tell your friend."
    If somebody in the community gets busted, the level of paranoia goes way up. People get paranoid that they're being watched, or especially that their phone is tapped. There's so much I could worry about, like an old customer turning me in for any reason. But it's the new ones I worry about. At first I thought I would do business only with people I knew, and stop at a certain number. But that's just not practical. People move away, people stop buying from you, people stop smoking dope, people grow their own, and some people just stop showing up, and you never find out why.
    We retail dealers are the most visible part of the dope chain, and we carry the highest risk. If I were a wholesaler, I might have six customers, all retailers. And that's all. And every week I'd make six phone calls and go over with my samples and take orders and deliver the stuff, and then collect the money. A very quiet business. Nobody ever comes to your house when you're a wholesaler. Wholesalers are usually former dealers who have moved up.
    Pot dealers are a little like pirates, running around and bragging about their feats. They are performers, and they deserve everything they get. Some of these people claim they have no friends, that when they get ripped off, they have to question everybody. That's the worst part of the business, and that's the main reason I'm stopping as soon as I get the money to open a legitimate business.
    I guess I'm luckier than some dealers, because I have many nonbusiness friendships. In addition, some of the relationships I have with fellow-dealers are close and trusting and above suspicion—even if I were to get ripped off. I don't think you can remain a dealer very long without forming some close ties with others in this business, which runs, by the way, on good will and trust. We can't take each other to court to uphold agreements, so we have to behave in an honorable fashion. Those few who don't soon find that they can't do business very long—or very successfully.
    After the marijuana laws are lifted, there are hundreds of houses in every major city in which elaborate built-in hiding places will be revealed. It's like the old Prohibition days. Security is my major investment, economically as well as emotionally. And that's a major topic of conversation when dealers get together, after the state of the market. Locks, hiding places, policies, everything. Whom do you allow in your house? What's your policy on telephone calls? What kind of locks do you use? Do you have bars on your windows?
    I'm worried about the police, but I'm much more worried about thieves. I'm defenseless against robbers. If they come in and know that I'm a dealer, I have no recourse. Both of us know that I can't go to the police, so I'm a sitting duck and I'll have to move. Dealers get robbed fairly often, and that's what the hiding places are all about. Of course you want to protect your stuff from the police, but that's secondary. If the police come in, it will probably be as the result of a tip-off from a customer. And all I can do about that is be very careful about meeting new ones. That first sale is the most dangerous point in the operation.



It's interesting to see how the business flows, and there are certain patterns that customers seem to follow. For example, September is a rotten month. It might have something to do with the supply, but I don't think so; it's probably that way because of the end of summer, and the beginning of the school year. Summer is the best time: everybody is partying, and smoking dope, and buying extra dope for vacations. Then comes September and they're back home, they've shot their wad for summer vacation, the kids need new clothes for school, there were all those bills they had forgotten about, and gee, honey, we can't afford dope this month, let's wait for the October paycheck. People see it as an item in their budget.
    My sales go way up on the first and the fifteenth of the month, when people get paid. Friday nights are big. Saturday during the day is big, except in the summer, when it's dead; in the summer they come around on Thursday and Friday, and go away for the weekend. I know this is true for other dealers as well, because when business falls off we call each other trying to find out if we've done anything wrong. Is it my karma that nobody's around this week? And it turns out that all the dealers are sitting and wringing their hands: nobody's calling today, I haven't had a single call! This is the worst time since last September! And when we don't sell, it slows things up for the distributors and the wholesalers too, because nothing moves.
    Christmas is very big, just like summertime; everybody's partying. In the summer they want to take some dope and go out into nature, maybe drop some acid, chew some mushrooms. I do well around any holiday. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter. Even my customers who smoke daily will buy more around holiday times, because they're going to parties, or perhaps they're giving parties. They might buy a lid and roll up a bunch of joints. For a party, they'll want an upper dope, and probably not the most expensive stuff.
    The retail customer doesn't usually start coming until the late afternoon. There's a big surge right after work, when people stop by on their way home. Except for the summer, people tend to buy during the evening. For some reason, Monday is a good day. Maybe they've finished their dope over the weekend, or e]se it's on the list of things to take care of during the week; I'm not sure.
    Of course there are always a few assholes who call me at nine in the morning. Before I got my answering machine, I was chained to the house, chained to the phone. Now, I know that if I put on the machine, I can sleep late, or go out, and they'll leave a message or call back. The thing you want to avoid is for people to call and get no answer.
    Usually the phone will ring around eleven, with people who want to make appointments. On the average day I'll see six or seven customers. I'd say that they average spending about thirty-five dollars each. They don't necessarily buy an ounce; it could be half an ounce of sixty dollar dope.
    You can't always know for sure whether your dope is what it's advertised to be. I tell my customers what I know; you've got to have a trusting relationship with them, and with your source. The designation Thai sticks, for example, is deceptive these days. A Thai stick could come from anywhere, and I don't try to fool anybody into believing that it's really from Thailand if it's not. But if a Thai stick was grown in Peoria, and it blows me away, I'll be buying that stick, you can be sure.
    How big a dealer you are isn't what determines how much you pay for a pound; it's more a matter of who you know and how much you can buy at a time. I turn down plenty of stuff. I tell the distributor, ten of this, twenty of that, none of this because although I know it's good, I can't move it. I don't buy too much of the cheapest dope, or very much of the most expensive stuff; I wish I had a few more wealthy customers. I sell to all kinds of people: lawyers and teachers and secretaries and people on welfare; it's the same price for everybody, and I see every social class and ethnic group, and almost every political persuasion.
    I have a few lower-middle-class housewives in the cheap suburbs who come to me. They smoke for the same reason everybody else does: because it's fun. One gal I know does piecework at home, soldering circuitry for computers. It's a very repetitive, exacting task, and I find that lots of people with jobs like that like to be stoned while they work. Not only because it's boring to do that kind of stuff, but because you have to be accurate, and when you're stoned, you want to get it right. This woman stays away from the Colombians, though, because they're too heavy, too sleepy, not right for working.
    Sometimes mothers will come and bring their toddlers, and I have families where the teenagers want to come, because they want to have some say about what is bought. Some of the mothers say they don't believe that very young children actually get stoned but that they smoke dope for the ritual of it, as part of a family activity. One mother tells me she thinks that kids don't really get stoned until puberty. I don't know. But one customer's four-year-old girl can roll joints with the best of them; it was one of the motor skills she developed very early. Like many of these kids, she'll take a puff, but she won't inhale.
    My youngest customer is fourteen, and I sell to him only because he's the son of my best friend. Normally I don't sell to teenagers. He's not one of those kids who smokes in the schoolyard, because he can go home and smoke there. I think his parents have the same attitude about dope as mine did about cigarettes: "If you're going to smoke, do it at home. We'd rather not have you sneaking around and doing it behind our backs."
    In my house, customers can sample anything they want, and they generally do. People like to get high with the dealer; it's a status thing. The people who sit in my living room and buy dope from me, once they are no longer new customers, are people I trust. I have a table with display boxes, and it's just sitting there. People could pilfer from me when I turn my back, but I decided long ago that I had to trust somebody.



I made my first deal back in 1960. A few of us bought an ounce and cut it up into five nickel bags, so that we could have our own bag for free. I did that kind of minuscule dealing on and off for years. In those days, dope was hard to come by, and when there was none around, I wouldn't smoke. Once I went two years without any.
    But I've been a serious dealer for only a year and a half. Before that, I was involved as a financial investor for a business run by a friend, and gradually I took it over.
    It's hard work, but I love it. It was the one business I could do at home and make enough money without spending forty hours someplace. I used to make $850 a month as a therapist, working up to fifty hours a week. I'm now making twice that much with the dope business, and I spend less time and energy than I did with my patients.
    I plan to leave the business in four or five months. All the dealers I know, in fact, are planning to make a certain amount of money and get out, or else they are supporting their real love—art, writing, filmmaking, social work, or something else they really want to do. Or else they're accumulating capital for an antique store, or some other small business. The happy dealers I know are those who have a project, a dream. Those who don't are desperately casting around for something to do with their money, and they'll continue to cast around until they find it. For the people I know—and this may not be typical—living well is not the goal.
    But leaving the business is easier said than done. There's a temptation to keep going, to make a little more money, enough to buy some clothes, have some savings, perhaps get a new car. These are real temptations. Dope businesses are routinely sold, but nobody has yet figured out how to determine a fair price. The only thing you have to go on is how much income it produces each month.
    Part of the process of building a business is to watch it on paper, and I do this very carefully, and learn a lot from doing it. I have developed a good accounting system, measuring inventory, assets, and so forth. The more I learn about how the business works, the better decisions I can make for it.
    For me, and the people I know, the price of an ounce is usually 10 percent of the price at which we sell a pound; that's the general rule of thumb.
    It's a cash only business; checks are discouraged, and anything else that will leave a trace. But credit is a large part of the business; it's called fronting. I have to make an estimate on the credit worthiness of every customer who wants credit. I keep my accounts in a special book like any other businessperson.
    Lots of people have to wait until their monthly paycheck comes in. And I have welfare recipients who wait for their checks before they can pay me. Also, I supply other dealers, usually on a fronting basis; when you sell it, you pay. The pound might go for $500. Well, can you pay me $100 now? And when do you think you'll have the rest for me? By the end of the week?
    A dealer plays a lot of roles. I supply a lot of information, and I'm also a conduit for news because customers tell me things that I then pass on to other customers. Sometimes it's information about dope, but it could also be about an apartment for rent, or an honest car mechanic. I'm a known figure, which is both good and bad. The dope dealer is a personality in the community, and she can also be, at various times, a servant, a bartender, a teacher, a guide, a therapist, and a friend.
    Most people will find a dealer by accident, somebody who lives in their building, perhaps, or somebody their friend buys from. Referrals are everything. There's also stiff competition; I do my best to have lower prices and better dope, when that's possible, and especially a nicer buying atmosphere.
    A few of us dealers have a loose coalition. We call it a family, because we're all part of the same affinity group, the same community. Sometimes we all get together, a bunch of us women dealers from the area, but people get tired of talking about business all the time.
    Everybody in our family has a sense of honor about the business. We do things in an honest way. We don't gyp people. We're not fly-by-night operations. We do things with a certain style: a dealing room, a display case, fixed prices and a price list. We don't associate with dealers who are strung out on any drug, especially coke, because those people are rude and undependable. They're shaky and flaky, and they say one thing today and another thing tomorrow.
    Most dealers are in favor of legalization. They figure that when it's legalized, they will be the only people running around who have any experience in the business. And they'll get fat jobs with the cigarette companies. The dealer will walk in with a resume a mile long and say, "Here I am, I'm an expert, I've been dealing for ten years." And where else are they going to get the experts?
    I've undergone some changes in my own smoking. When I started in the business, I used to smoke a great deal, because customers would come in and they'd take advantage of the opportunity to sample anything they wanted. And every few minutes somebody would be passing me a joint, usually of the best stuff, stuff they sample even if they have no intention of buying it. But it started to interfere with my business dealings. It was difficult to weigh and measure and add up figures, so I decided not to smoke until after dark. At night, when people are gone, is when I enjoy my pot.
    People are always rolling up joints, taking three or four puffs, and leaving the rest in the ashtray. So I have a huge pile of roaches. In my personal opinion, it's just an old myth that roaches are more potent. People talk about third- and fourth-generation weed, because they take all those roaches and roll them into new joints, and all that. All I know is that it tastes lousy, it tastes like ashes, and it doesn't interest me at all.
    I don't know any dealer who abstains completely. Many dealers are stoned all the time, but most heavy smokers will occasionally go without smoking for a week or two, to clean out their systems, and so they can enjoy getting high again.
    One of the side gains of all this for me was to open up my social life to many more kinds of people; currently, there are about two hundred, all in a relationship of trust with me. Some of my clients have asked to see me as patients, but I don't think it's a good idea to mix the two worlds. Dealing is very pleasurable, but it's also very intense. I get worn out at the end of the day, and I prefer to spend most of my evenings alone.
    No matter what business you're in, you want your customers to come back, you want to satisfy them. I do what I can, within the limits of security. I know I've done everything I can to make the business safe. There's nothing more I can do. Now I have to stop worrying; I can't go around being paranoid all the time. When I began, I had to decide whether I was willing to risk going to jail. I had to think about what jail was like, and whether I could survive it, and what the repercussions would be. Was I willing to take the consequences? But I knew I could survive it, and could go on to do something else, even if it were not the profession I'm trained for. I've had other changes in my life, and I could survive this one too.

Chapter 8

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