The Dealer Next Door: Selling Marijuana Becomes a Second Job for Many
CNBC.com News Editor
“Nancy Botwin” is a suburban mom-turned-neighborhood pot dealer in the hit show “Weeds.”
Sound like fiction?
Hardly. It’s art imitating life.
Drug dealers these days are far from the stereotypes of blinged-out urban kids and long-haired dirtbags.
Sure, some dealers still fit those profiles, but there are also moms, teachers, construction workers, city workers, professional athletes and students who are dealing, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Small Time, Part Time
“Most of the people we encounter have a regular job of some kind,” says Jonathan F. Marshall, a marijuana-defense attorney in New Jersey. His clients include web designers, public-works employees and landscape-design engineers.
Income from dealing marijuana varies widely, depending on the quality of the product and the amount sold.
One dealer in Brooklyn, “Frank,” we’ll call him, says he makes less than a couple of hundred dollars a week from marijuana, though he knows a guy who makes $3,000 to $5,000 a week.
“You’ve got to build that kind of business up…It takes time to get there,” says Frank, who holds a day job in construction and deals marijuana and cocaine in the evenings.
Many dealers are on the lower end of that income scale—and that’s how they stay under the radar. They’re not leading flashy lifestyles.
Marshall says most of his clients are white, middle- to lower-income individuals who evolved into big smokers and eventually started dealing.
One client, he recalls, was smoking nine joints a day, so he started growing marijuana plants in his attic, then sold the excess.
Growing is riskier than just selling and certainly more complicated—you have to worry about diverting your electricity and other preventive measures so as not to call attention to yourself —but it boosts margins.
Beyond the suburban growing operations, which are often housed in an attic, second floor or basement, the DEA says some people also grow marijuana in remote areas of national park lands.
Most dealers today like to keep their inventories lean. In the event they get caught by police, the quantity can make the difference between a misdemeanor and felony charge.
Writer Matt Mernagh amusingly likened it to the auto industry’s “Just-in-Time Delivery” strategy in a story on CannabisCulture.com.
In “How to Be a Weed Dealer,” Mernagh explains: “The goal is a seamless flow of parts without any hold-up.”
And, contrary to the slacker image of the profession, Mernagh stresses that the “whole purchasing chain needs to be littered with professionals—not slackers.”
Frank, the dealer, who doesn’t do drugs himself, agrees. He even demands professionalism from his customers.
“I want people in their 20s, 30s and 40s—I don’t want kids. Kids—they get rowdy, act stupid, draw attention,” he says, explaining how he once kicked a couple out of his car after the girl told him to “Take a chill pill.”
“I’m like, ‘What? Take a chill pill? What is that? Get out of my car,’” Frank recalls. “I won’t deal with that guy any more.”
One friend relays the story of a dealer in Queens who is the consummate salesman, making small talk with customers for a few minutes when he delivers. He even brings a bottle of wine at the holidays.
Frank adds another caveat to choosing customers: “You don’t try to sell to people of other races,” he says. It’s not that he’s racist—it’s that it stands out. So, black dealers sell to black customers and white dealers sell to white customers. Frank says if he wanted to start selling to black customers, he’d have to get a black partner.
Some dealers like to keep “office hours”—specific hours when they allow visits or calls—much like a college professor.
That helps keep people from stopping by at all hours of the day or night, which looks suspicious.
Frank usually limits his selling to weekday evenings until 9 or 9:30 p.m. because he has to get up early for his construction job. After that, he shuts his phone off.
Having a legitimate day job helps keep some dealers in the mainstream; they can pay taxes on that income, get health insurance and save for retirement.
But most of them wind up off the main grid, paying for everything in cash — including health care — and avoiding taxes.
Frank has a day job but says he still doesn’t have health insurance because it’s too expensive—even through a union—and his income from construction is too much for him to qualify for Medicaid.
So, he pays for all of his medical care in cash and tries to limit doctor and hospital visits to when it is absolutely necessary. And even then, he offers a statistical defense.
“If I have to go to the hospital and it costs too much money ... I just won’t pay,” he said. “A third of the people you see in the emergency room, they’re not going to pay for it.”
Frank just figures he’s one of those people.
And, while it seems like paying cash for everything may raise red flags, Bruce Margolin, a criminal-defense attorney in Los Angeles, says most businesses are happy to have the cash—especially in this economy. They’re not going to turn someone in for it.
Not to mention, he's never heard of someone getting busted because of a large cash payment. (Businesses are required by law to report all-cash purchases over $10,000 to the federal government.)
Dealing is often a short-lived profession, and Frank adds you never know what can happen, so he saves regularly for retirement.
He grew up poor and says what he learned from that experience was that if you don’t save you’re stupid.
“I’m out here, taking all these risks…why would I do all that if I’m not saving something for myself?” he says.
Margolin, who’s been in marijuana defense for 40 years, says 90 percent of the dealers he’s seen operate outside of the mainstream but still lead very normal lives; they have families, cars, homes. Their lifestyles are totally “legitimate,” he explains—it’s just the marijuana that’s illegal.
And, as a result, “most of them don’t pay taxes,” he says.
Law-enforcement officials say the most surprising thing about the marijuana industry in the U.S. is the volume, the amount of money that’s being cultivated in the U.S. and the amount of people involved in the business.
If legalized, marijuana would be a $40-billion business, based on a CNBC.com analysis of estimates from various sources.
Margolin says he believes marijuana will one day be legalized, but one of the road blocks is law enforcement itself; the marijuana business keeps an army of police officers, prosecutors and other law-enforcement personnel employed. The FBI calculates that marijuana arrests cost taxpayers more than $10 billion annually.
Frank agrees. “New York City has, what, 40,000 cops? You take away the drugs, how many cops are we gonna need—like 10,000?” he asks. “What are we gonna do with those 30,000 guys, you see? They’re gonna be on the street.”
The recession, which left a lot of people unemployed and has dried up many a revenue stream, has actually spurred law-enforcement officials to get more creative—and aggressive—in busting people for marijuana, Marshall said, as an increase in fine money would help fill gaping holes in government coffers.
“The recession is good for me—that’s for sure!” Margolin quips.