It could be that 100 times as much marijuana, in bulk, is consumed now in comparison with ten years ago. But whether our estimate is considerably larger or smaller than this, tons of this drug move about the country in some sort of orderly fashion. It is grown, imported, distributed, and consumed according to a pattern. Our understanding of this complex, controversial drug must include an investigation of its distribution.
One item in the marijuana controversy is the attempt to legitimate one or another conception of marijuana selling. The drug's opponents, as a strategy of discrediting marijuana use, promulgate the position that it is imported, distributed, and sold by professional gangsters for profit to unsuspecting youths who have been duped by the gangsters' tricky techniques. The cannabis advocates, on the other hand, maintain that selling (and especially giving away) marijuana is an act of love representing a desire to "turn on" the whole world to beauty and euphoria. Although both views adumbrate value-tinted conceptions of its use, marijuana nonetheless continues to be grown, brought, sold, and consumed. By investigating the empirical phenomenon of marijuana distribution, we may aid and abet one or another ideological view, but the empirical substratum will remain unchanged. The pattern by which the drug moves, however, can be determined, and it is our task to shed some light on it.
The classic antimarijuana stance with regard to marijuana selling has existed at least since the 1930s, though it has undergone some modification since then. For instance, even the police realize that drug sellers need not proselytize potential users, that friends introduce friends to a drug. The essential features of the marijuana opponent's position on selling are (1) selling marijuana is a highly profitable activity; therefore, pot sellers are either linked to, or part of, the criminal underworld; (2) the personnel of marijuana selling and heroin selling overlap considerably; (3) potselling is typically a career, continued over a long period of time, with a high degree of commitment, as a means of livelihood; (4) if relatively uncommitted individuals (such as college students) who are only marginally involved with the criminal underworld are selling marijuana, they act as a kind of front for the real criminals, who use them for contact, distribution, and respectability purposes.
The police are convinced of the dominant role of profit in marijuana selling. One indication of this is the news releases given by the police to the media citing the value of their drug seizures. In order to emphasize the role of profit and inflate the importance of the job that they are doing, the police extravagantly exaggerate the monetary worth of the drugs that they have confiscated is a given raid. One of the most spectacular examples occurred in the fall of 1968, when the New York Police Department, with agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, seized, in a psychedelic "church": 4,500 doses of LSD, 1,500 of STP, fifty of mescaline, ten pounds of hashish, and ten pounds of marijuana. The cache was valued by the police at six to ten million dollars. About a week after the raid, The New York Times printed a letter from "an irate marijuana smoker" who calculated the value of the seizure, at current prices, at $50,000, less than 1 percent of the police estimate. The enormity of the disjunction calls for a look at the patterns of marijuana selling. When there are systematic patterns in the versions of reality espoused by individuals variously located in the social structure of an activity or institution, we are forced to understand how location influences perception.
The student of a deviant or illegal activity struggles with the subterranean character of his data. His area of investigation is half-hidden, usually fully accessible only to the participants. Facts are discovered in a patchy and unsystematic manner, revealing one facet of a reality, while others that might tell a very different story remain obscured. The more inaccessible a phenomenon, the broader the latitude for delineating totally contradictory portraits of it. Add to this the saturation of that phenomenon in emotional and ideological arenas, and the stage is set for every conceivable version describing it to run rampant. This is extravagantly the case with marijuana selling. In the past two or three years, journalistic accounts of marijuana selling from the inside have become public knowledge. Although necessarily partial, these accounts reflect a previously unexplored source of information which must be taken into account before we can claim to understand the phenomenon in question.
To know anything about a deviant activity, it is necessary to interview the participant. For some inexplicable reason, this maxim has rarely been followed in marijuana dealing. During the course of the research, I saw dozens of transactions, ranging from several pounds to the smallest purchase. In addition, I requested several dealers to prepare written statements of their selling activities. Third, so many of my 200 interviewees had sold at least once that the formal interview captured a great deal of information on buying and selling. From these various sources, I was able to piece together something of a consistent picture of marijuana selling.
Levels of Selling
The most striking source of the discrepancy between the police image of the marijuana market and that of the insider—i.e., the dealer—is a lack of specification of the level at which deals customarily take place. The police tend to identify one aspect with the whole, that aspect most clearly spelled out by the stereotype of the dealer conducting deals of large volume and high profit. Yet, this comprises a small percentage of all transactions which take place and, indeed, transactions at that level need not take place at all.
The metaphor which best describes the heroin distribution system is that of two funnels, one inverted, with their ends meeting. The raw opium is harvested at the production end by thousands of small and medium-sized farmers, mainly in Turkey, Southeast Asia, and Mexico, and sold at the consumption end to thousands of addicts, with a small number of highly organized criminals in between, who buy, process, and distribute the drug, earning immense profits. Although recent indications point to the fact that non-Mafia criminals are being allowed to distribute heroin, the newcomers are nonetheless organized professional criminals. There are no amateurs at the upper levels of the heroin scene.
The two funnels model does not work quite so well with marijuana. Although it is possible that organized crime may import, distribute, and sell some of the marijuana consumed in America (no definitive or systematic evidence has yet been presented which supports this contention), it is certain that enormous quantities of marijuana never pass through the hands of professional criminals at all. The leakage from these funnels is sufficient to invalidate the funnel model altogether. To begin with, there is the factor of growing one's own marijuana. "Plant your seeds," advises a cartoon Mary Jane figure in the October 1968 issue of Other Scenes, a staunchly promarijuana underground newspaper; "keep prices down." About six of my interviewees were actually growing marijuana in New York apartments at the time of the interview. One had set up an elaborate greenhouse, with fluorescent lighting, in a closet. Another grew it in a bathtub on his terrace until it was harvested and stolen by an observant thief. A recent publication, Home Grown Happiness  distributed by The East Village Other, sells thousands of copies. It gives a detailed account of the most effective methods of growing and harvesting high-quality marijuana, including sections on "Selecting The Seed," "Transplanting," "Artificial Light," and so on. The last page contains the injunction, in capital letters, "Remember, every time you throw away a teaspoon of seeds you have destroyed a potential 100 or more ounces of marijuana!" Across the front page of the April 9, 1969, issue of EVO ran the headline, "This is the Week to Plant Your Pot Seeds." A letter to the editor in the same issue announced: "The time is ripe for planting marijuana. Spring has sprung.... Beautify America.... Trees of grass in every park, vacant lot, roadside, tree box.... free marijuana for all next fall." It was signed by Ed Grassplanter.
As late as the early 1950s, huge quantities of marijuana were growing wild in empty lots in New York City; in one sortie in 1951, the New York Sanitation Department destroyed over 30,000 pounds of marijuana pulled up in these lots. Although rumors are often circulated concerning marijuana's growth in New York, it is unlikely that any plant could survive today growing wild in any urban area; it risks decimation from friend and foe alike. However, this is not the case in sparsely settled areas. Numerous cases exist of college students earning handsome profits by gathering wild marijuana spotted from cruising cars. According to one account, the "major sources of marijuana for Midwest students are the surrounding corn fields." (This is less likely to be true today than in 1965.)
Although most of the marijuana consumed, both in terms of bulk and in terms of the number of transactions, will not be homegrown or gathered wild—the majority of all marijuana smoked still comes from Mexico—a sizable minority of it is, and these sources should not be discounted in delineating the marijuana distribution system. (In addition, it must be kept in mind that American-grown marijuana is considerably less potent than Mexican-grown cannabis.)
Far more users planted their seeds (which many keep around for just such contingencies) during the drought year of 1969 than any in recent years. In addition, a great deal more hashish became available in 1969, possibly only part of a general trend toward greater hashish use—which is on the rise much faster than the use of leaf marijuana—or, possibly, partly as a response to this lack of availability of Mexican marijuana. In any case, most of the time, most of the marijuana consumed in America originates from Mexico.
A reasonable price for a ton of marijuana, purchased from a middleman in Mexico, is between $10,000 and $20,000, which means that it costs about five or ten dollars per pound, or less than fifty cents per ounce. A typical wholesale price in New York, buying in a bulk lot of several kilograms, is about $120 per kilo, or about $3.50 per ounce. (California prices are generally about half New York prices.) Most characteristically, ounces are sold at the retail street price of twenty or twenty-five dollars.* If the smoker wishes to purchase joints (individual marijuana cigarettes) already rolled, he pays between fifty cents and a dollar apiece. Employing simple arithmetic, we find that the mark-up from field to joint can be considerably higher than 100 times in price, that is, buying at two joints per penny at the ton price, and selling at one dollar per joint at the joint price. Thus, the enterprising dealer might see in marijuana sales a source of enormous profits. This is, however, a naive inference. The novice might make the same mistake about the workings of the marijuana market as do the police.
The joint price, a dollar per joint, is a ghostly abstraction. Few purchase individual joints, pre-rolled. Almost every smoker beyond the level of rawest novice rolls his own. (Except, I am told, in Vietnam, where large joints of excellent quality may be purchased in emptied American cigarette packs.) Even when he buys the smallest bulk quantity, the "nickel bag," for five dollars, he must strain out the twigs and seeds, buy cigarette papers (the same as for tobacco roll-your-owns), and learn the technology involved in manufacturing a smokeable joint. The nickel bag is a common quantity for a smoker only moderately involved with the drug and its subculture. In New York, this is between one-fourth and one-eighth of an ounce? enough marijuana to make between eight to fifteen marijuana cigarettes, depending on the size of the joints, the dealer's generosity, and the purchaser's willingness to be shortchanged.
As both the market and the subculture of marijuana use expand, purchases become increasingly larger in bulk. In the 1930s and 1940s, purchasing individual joints was common. A few years ago the nickel bag purchase was characteristic. Now the smoker buys an ounce, enough marijuana for fifty to seventy joints. This means that each cigarette costs him somewhere between twenty-five and forty cents—not a dollar. Economy is part of the motivation; obviously, the larger the size of the purchase, the lower the unit cost. It is also to the advantage of the purchaser to minimize the number of transactions in which he is involved: the greater the number of purchases he makes, the greater the chance of coming into contact with an undercover agent and getting arrested. As the user becomes increasingly sophisticated about the workings of the market and the activities of law enforcement agencies, the size of his purchase increase correspondingly. Thus, the recent appearance of the typical ounce purchase. Since the ounce is the most characteristic purchase, it comes closest to being what corresponds, in the purchase of legal goods, to the "retail" price.
A given bulk quantity of marijuana in a dealer's living room or garage automatically is worth less than if it is split up and distributed among his customers. Selling marijuana, at least at the dealer-to-user level, is hard work; each deal involves a certain amount of moving about and a lot of socializing. No farmer would reckon the value of his tomato crop in the field on the basis of its total sale at the supermarket. The final product is saturated with the value of labor. Thus, a dealer's cache of several kilograms is worth the kilogram price—in New York, about $120 per kilo. If sold to the customer, that cache might eventually earn twenty dollars per ounce instead, but the point is, it hasn't been sold to the customer, and it is, therefore, worth correspondingly less.
In addition, the multi-kilo purchaser rarely earns twenty dollars per ounce, because he doesn't generally sell in ounces. At that level, two or three stages below the original source, he is most likely to break up what he has into pounds, and sell pounds for $100 or $120. He usually does not want to be bothered with ounce purchases, except as a favor to friends, because it involves a great many discrete transactions. Even though the margin of profit is higher if he buys several kilos and sells 100 or 200 ounces, the profit on each transaction is much smaller, and each transaction represents work, time, and danger. He leaves the ounce sales to the man below him, who has bought his pound. A 20-year-old male college student dealer explains his usual marketing procedure with a kilo (a "ki" or "key" in the jargon):
Well, let's say I pick a ki or something like that, instead of breaking it up into nickels (laughs) and dimes, you know, and trying to squeeze every penny out of it, I'll probably just break it in half and sell it in pounds, or something like that, and I might make $100 off it, and that'll keep me going for three or four weeks.
Yet, even this qualification simplifies the actual situation because unlike legally sold products, a great percentage of the marijuana that finally reaches the user is not sold at the retail or consumer level. A given kilogram may be cut into at many different levels. Since all (or nearly all) sellers smoke, a given proportion will be diverted for the dealer's own use at wholesale prices with no profit. Depending on how much he smokes, a purchase of a kilogram will typically involve a diversion of, say, half a pound for his own private use. Another chunk will be given or sold at cost to close friends, offered to guests, girl friends, used to cancel debts, so that marijuana may be thought of as a kind of tribal barter currency. Out from the center (the dealer) are less intimate friends and acquaintances who might pay less than the standard prices—in New York, probably ten dollars per ounce. Further out will be the near-stranger transactions, which will entail payment of the full retail price. It is obvious, therefore, that the leakage from the wholesale to the retail price is considerable. A marijuana purchase occurs at nearly any link in the producer-to-consumer chain, depending on one's intimacy with the dealer and one's knowledge of the current market price.
Max Weber maintained that one of the triumphs of Western civilization was the introduction of the universalistic price system. Products are held to be worth a given fixed quantity. As with time, the universe is segmentalized into uniform units of equal size, infinitely reproducible. Any and all products are held to be translatable into a standard measure, easily arranged into an unambiguous hierarchy of clearly gradable value. How much a man is "worth" is how much money he has. The marijuana subculture is a kind of island of tribalism within a sea of commercial ethic. Value, like time, is relative. How much a given quantity of marijuana is worth depends less on an abstract quality inherent in the product than on a variety of concrete and personal indices. While the junkie mentality in many ways is a ruthless exaggeration of the spirit of capitalism, the committed marijuana smoker's subculture represents its very opposite.
If this is so as a general guiding principle, it is especially so when marijuana itself is at issue. This is not to say that money has no meaning for smokers, even in marijuana exchanges, nor that all heads are idealistic flower children. Representatives of the bourgeois spirit may be found everywhere, even among the most seemingly uncommitted. Capitalists of the drug underground abound, and mimeographed demands are circulated from time to time in various drug-using communities that the local dealers should try to curb their avarice, lower their prices and hand out more free grass. Where there is demand for something, money, goods, or services will be exchanged for it, whatever it is, wherever it is. Nor does it mean that marijuana is not felt to be "worth" anything. But what is so strange about the attitude of heads toward marijuana is that its value seems to be so curiously elastic. A dealer who would not hesitate to hand out dozens of free nickel bags to friends couldn't imagine giving away the same value in real money—either what the substance is supposed to be worth, or even what it cost him. It is as if marijuana isn't quite real, as if it exists in some sort of other world, where the rules of the game are different. The closest thing that comes to it in the "straight" world is food. It is an act of hospitality to feed one's guests; a breach of common good manners to allow them to go hungry. Smoking marijuana, like eating together, binds its participants in a primitive sense of fellowship.
Using and Selling
The police commonly express the view that the real target of their efforts is the dealer, not the user. Their imagery is commonly borrowed from the world of heroin addiction, where, it is asserted, the narcotics peddler makes a profit from human degradation and misery. Marijuana use, too, supposedly typifies this clear-cut distinction between user and seller.
The problem with this view is that selling takes place on many levels, among many kinds of participants. Selling is often a matter of convenience; it may be an arbitrary decision as to who is the buyer and who the seller on a specific transaction. Knowledge of current deals being transacted, or simply having requisite cash, often defines who is to play the role of the dealer on a given occasion. Among our informants, nearly half (44 percent) said that they had sold at least once. Moreover, there was a continuum from the user who had sold only once (12 percent of those who admitted ever selling) to the one who sold frequently, say, more than fifty times (18 percent of all sellers), with shades of variation between. One is struck by the evenness of the range of selling, while if one took the classic pattern of pushing seriously, one would expect to see very few sellers, with nearly all of those that sold to have done so innumerable times in gigantic quantities. Rather, what we actually find is that many marijuana smokers sell, characteristically in very small quantities. Over a third of those who had sold (36 percent) reported that they most commonly sold in ounces, and about 5 percent said that selling in quantities of a pound or more was usual. The typical seller sold a median of eight times in an average quantity of two ounces.
However, far more important than the mere incidence of selling —since our sample is not "representative"—is the systematic variation in selling according to certain key variables. The most important variable influencing whether the smoker sold or not is how much he uses: the more one smokes, the greater is the likelihood that he sold. Among our respondents, the relationship between these two variables could hardly have been more striking (see Table 10-1).
Selling by the Amount One Smokes
"Have you ever sold marijuana?"
Percent saying "yes"
|The Amount One Smokes
|3 to 6 times weekly
|1 to 2 times weekly
|1 to 4 times monthly
|Less than monthly
The logistics of continued heavy use implies, and even demands, selling. The heavy marijuana user invariably keeps a supply, and many only occasional smokers do as well. The more that one smokes, the greater is the likelihood that one will have a supply. Not one of the twenty-six daily smokers said that they did not have a supply of marijuana (see Table 10-2).
Keeping a Supply of Marijuana by
"Do you generally keep a supply of marijuana around your house?"[a]
|3 to 6 times weekly
|1 to 2 times weekly
|1 to 4 times monthly
|Less than monthly
[a] All other replies aside from "yes" and "no" eliminated from table.
It is characteristically the case that even heavy marijuana smokers will not be able to use up, within a brief space of time, the quantities that they purchase. Often a sale will be on a basis of "take it or leave it." An available quantity might be an ounce, in which case none of it will be sold, or a pound, or a kilogram, in which case most of it will be sold. The only way the marijuana user can limit his transactions and his exposure to arrest is to purchase large amounts. By buying a pound at the near-wholesale price of $120, and selling twelve ounces to twelve friends at ten dollars for each ounce, one thereby has four ounces free. "Free grass" is an inducement for selling.
On the surface, the parallel with the heroin addict might seem striking: each sells to support the habit, getting nothing else out of it. Yet, even if the marijuana seller smokes five joints a day, an enormous quantity, he would consume a pound every six months, which means that his habit costs about fifty cents a day, at the most. We are forced, therefore, to discard the "support the habit" explanation for selling.
Every marijuana user is not only a marijuana user, he is invariably also a friend, and his friends also smoke. There is a positive and linear relation between the amount one smokes and the percentage of one's friends who also smoke (see Table 10-3).
Percent of Closest Friends Who Are Regular Marijuana Smokers [a]
|3 to 6 times weekly
|1 to 2 times weekly
|1 to 4 times monthly
|Less than monthly
[a] Designated as at least once per week.
This would create, therefore, a certain amount of pressure to sell. The more that one smokes marijuana, the higher the proportion of one's friends who are marijuana smokers; the higher the proportion of one's friends who are marijuana smokers, the greater is the probability that they will buy and sell from one another, particularly as their turnover in supply is so much greater (see Table 10-4).
Selling by Closest Friends Who Are
Regular Marijuana Smokers
"Have you ever sold marijuana?"
Percent saying "yes"
|Percent of One's Friends
Who are Regular Marijuana
Moreover, not only is a higher proportion of the heavy smoker's friendship network more likely to smoke, but he is also more likely to have access to information concerning the availability of periodically appearing quantities of marijuana on the market. He is more likely to know others who buy and sell and who are higher up in the distribution ladder. He is more acquainted with the price system, which fluctuates even in the short run. He knows more about some of the rules and precautions to take to avoid arrest, thefts "burns" and being short-changed, as well as buying adulterated goods. He can buy and sell successfully and with confidence. Anyone arriving on the marijuana scene in a complete-stranger situation would encounter great difficulty in making a large purchase.
There is a two-way process at work here. On the one hand, one must be implicated in a web of social relations to be able to purchase the drug. In this sense, friendship patterns are a necessary condition for selling to take place. But one's friendship network is not merely a passive requirement for selling and buying; it is also an active force which insures one's involvement in selling as an activity, since friends who smoke make requests and demands that often relate to marijuana sales. In addition, selling further implicates one in social relations that are marijuana-based. By buying and selling, one extends one's network of acquaintances, almost all of whom are marijuana users. In short, friendships and sales intersect with one another; they are inseparable elements of a single dimension. Their relationship with one another must be seen in dialectical terms, rather than simple cause and effect.
Generally, selling must be considered as part of the syndrome of use. It is not simply that the user must purchase his drug supply from the seller to consume the drug (this symbiotic relationship exists with heroin as well), but that the user and the seller are largely indistinguishable; there is no clear-cut boundary between them. A large percentage of users sell, and nearly all sellers use. In fact, the determining force behind selling is use: heavy users are very likely to sell, while infrequent users are unlikely to do so. The fact that a given individual sells—whether it be done once, occasionally, or frequently, specifically for a profit—is determined mainly by his involvement in the drug, in its subculture, with others who smoke. Selling marijuana, then, to some degree presupposes involvement with the marijuana subculture which, in turn, implies at least a moderate degree of use. Selling and using involve parallel activities and associations; the seller and the user inhabit the same social universe. The difference between them is simply a matter of degree, since selling is a surer indicator of one's involvement with the drug subculture than is buying or, even more so, using. To think of the dealer as preying on his hapless victim, the marijuana smoker, as profiting on his misery, is to possess a ludicrously incorrect view of the state of affairs.
It is necessary, therefore, to abandon the conspiratorial view of the relationship between the marijuana user and the seller—a primitive model borrowed from the world of addiction. Rather, selling must be looked at as an index of involvement with the marijuana subculture. At the peripheries of the marijuana scene, we find the experimenter, the extremely infrequent user, the dabbler, the once, twice, or dozen-time user. He has few marijuana-smoking friends, is rarely presented with opportunities for use, is curious about its effects, and usually discontinues its use after his curiosity is satisfied. It is possible that he is the most frequent representative of the total universe of all individuals who have ever used the drug; if not, at any rate, he forms a sizable minority of all users.
At the lowest levels of use, the smoker does not even buy marijuana; close to three-quarters of our less than monthly smokers (71 percent) said that they never bought the drug. He is dependent on friends who are involved with marijuana to offer him the drug when he visits. In fact, when the drug is extended, it is not thought of as one person giving another a material object. Generally, a joint is passed around to all present in a kind of communal fellowship. Hence, giving marijuana away, in this specific sense, is more common than selling. In volume, of course, marijuana is far more often sold than given away. But more individuals have given marijuana away than have sold, since nearly every smoker who owns any amount of the drug has smoked socially, and has passed a communally smoked joint around to his guests.
The infrequent user generally does not seek out the drug, but accepts it when offered. This pattern is most characteristic of women. If the experimenter is unlikely to buy, it holds, a fortiori, that he is unlikely to sell. At the middle levels of use, the smoker will generally buy his own marijuana, keep a small supply for occasions when the mood strikes him, and only occasionally sell to others when he happens to have some extra, or when asked by a friend who finds other channels unavailable. At the highest levels of use, the smoker will not only buy and have his own supply, but also sometimes sell in fairly sizable quantities, and explicitly for a profit, although this may be only one among a variety of motives. (Not all, or even most, heavy users are large-scale dealers, but the dealer is most likely to be found among the heavy users.) Each of these activities can be thought of as an index of one's involvement with the marijuana-using subculture. Each represents a kind of subtle step into another social world.
There are, it would seem, two types of marijuana exchanges. One type is "dealing," which may be defined as selling explicitly for a profit at current street prices to anyone one trusts. A dealer (not a "peddler" nor a "pusher," although, sometimes, a "connection") is the person who sells a certain quantity in high volume for a profit. (He will always, in addition, also sell to friends at little or no profit.) Often someone who sells regularly to friends and acquaintances for minimal profit will be requested by a near-stranger to sell some of his supply. His answer will often be, "I'm not a dealer," meaning, not that he is averse to selling per se, but that he sells only to certain people, and only as a favor to them; he does not deal for a profit. At one end of the spectrum, then, we have transactions involving little or no profit (at the extreme, giving marijuana away, either in bulk, or, in the form of individual joints, in one's home, as a gesture of hospitality like a glass of sherry). At the other end, "dealing" means many transactions, usually in sizable quantities (although the "nickels and dimes" street hustler must be considered), always for a profit, and often to near-strangers. Although the law treats these two types of exchanges as being in the same category, entailing the same penalties, they are distinct sociologically. Legal categories are often meaningless as social descriptions of the acts they penalize, although often accurate, even simultaneously, as a description of how these acts are viewed by the rest of society. Naturally, there is an entire continuum between these two types, with mixed characteristics. But in terms of the sheer number of transactions—because the product is finally fanning out to the consumer, and is, therefore, small in bulk and large in number—the friendship end of the spectrum is far more common than the profit end.
Motives for Selling
The motives underlying marijuana dealing are complex. Although at the top of the hierarchy of selling, profit is likely to dominate more than is true at the bottom, there is no level in the distribution system (on the American side of the transaction at least) where profit is the sole reason for dealing. In contrast, the expressed motives for selling heroin might be reduced to two: profit (at the top), and the use of heroin (at the bottom). With marijuana, the picture is considerably more intricate. Certainly the free use of marijuana predominates—at least in frequency, if not in the strength of motivation.
But beyond "free grass" and some profit, the reasons for selling vary. Some dealers enjoy the cloak and dagger intrigue, at least in the beginning:
The dealer commands a certain mystique in the East Village. He is playing a far more dangerous game than the customer, and he is respected for it. For himself, the excitement surrounding a "big deal" and the ritual and accoutrements of the trade act as an antidote for the growing plague of boredom. Most dealers are proud of their fine scales, and enjoy the ritual of sifting and weighing their stock. The exchange, sometimes involving large amounts of cash and drugs, is the climax of the business and may have an "007" sort of intrigue.
The fact that one is a sometimes central figure in a subcommunity whose values and evaluations of others revolve, in part, around drug use and especially "inside dopester" information concerning drug prices and sources acts as an attraction for many users to sell and deal. The dealer is acquainted with a scene from which the nondealer is to some degree excluded. The dealer simply knows more about what is happening in a sphere of some importance to the smoker; moreover, he distributes a valued object, which the smoker could obtain with a little more difficulty from others. A twenty-seven-year-old high school teacher only sporadically involved in selling explains the reasons for his involvement.
It's this: being in on something that's important to others. Other people are dependent on you. They have to rely on you. You are, in a minor sense, controlling their destiny. You are important—you have a source and they don't, and that shows how "in" you are, how others trust you and maybe even like you. You are a big man. Others come to you needing something, and you dispense largesse. It's kind of an ego boost, I guess. Like, after copping a quarter of a pound of grass, the guy I copped from said, man, I want to get some DMT. I was in debt to this guy for getting the grass, see, so I said, I can get you some DMT, man. It shows how much you know, how you are in the middle of things, how you are hip.
The dealer, a respected figure on the drug scene, commands a kind of low-level charisma. Often relations spill onto one another, his dealer role and activities becoming translated into access to, and demands for, activities in other valued spheres. "As a dealer," said one heavy drug user, "it was easy to become a witch doctor, soul counselor, elder brother."
Every drug seller is a political man as well as an economic and social man, so that satisfactions with their drug activities often include motives having a somewhat civic character. A twenty-two-year-old college student dealer delineates his involvement with marijuana:
I'm spreading drugs around, and turning people onto drugs, and thereby they're meeting people who are, you know, involved politically, or involved in the revolution in its many facets, and they're just becoming involved with other people. I consider it, you know, kind of humanitarian, getting people away from plastic and steel, and getting them back toward the funk of life, you know, digging people as just being people.
It seems clear, then, that for some dealers a variety of expressed motives are of at least some degree of importance in their involvement in the drug selling scene; they must be counted as impelling reasons for participation in dealing. All of this does not deny the role of profit in selling. What it does do, however, is affirm that in most transactions, pure profit never rules supreme; it is always alloyed with motives that make a mercenary image of the dealer empirically suspect. The bulk, if not nearly all, of marijuana buying and selling transactions that take place entail some profit, generally modest, and of secondary consideration. Of course, even if profit were a potent motive in dealing, the question remains: why deal in preference to anything else? Why deal marijuana in preference to any other drug? There are endless number of ways of making a living. Why sell pot?
Selling, Dealing, and the Law
When we attempt an appraisal of the role of the organized criminal in marijuana dealing, we encounter a number of logical and methodological obstacles. A given quantity of marijuana bought by a dozen members of a criminal ring from a middleman in Mexico, imported to this country and sold for a considerable profit to hundreds of American dealers, will be broken down into increasingly smaller quantities, eventually sold among friends for little or no profit. What will be bought at the top in one transaction will be sold at the bottom in thousands of transactions, so that if we take as our basic unit of analysis the transaction, typically marijuana is sold for no profit, in an unorganized fashion, among friends. On the other hand, an immense quantity of marijuana does pass through the hands of individuals who earn their living from selling drugs and nothing else. In bulk, then, most marijuana was sold at one time among professional criminals for profit. How we characterize marijuana selling depends on what level the transaction takes place. This might lend sustenance to the ideologically involved contestants, since they may, without distortion, portray dealing in a fashion which pleases their biases.
Just how involved the large-scale dealer is in marijuana selling is obliquely determined by the size of the seizures of imports from Mexico. In terms of the number of these smuggling attempts, clearly the overwhelming majority are of relatively insignificant quantities—under a pound. The largest recent border seizure was about a ton of marijuana. An operation of this size obviously requires organization: a micro-bus, middlemen in Mexico, drivers and high-level dealers for distribution. This is not Cosa Nostra organization, but it is organization. If we mean by "organized crime," a syndicate involving thousands of tightly knit, lifelong committed gangsters whose entire livelihood derives from illegal activities, then marijuana probably is not sold, never has been sold, and never will be sold by professional criminals. If, however, we mean an independent operation involving a score of individuals whose activities are coordinated, and who will earn their living for a few years from marijuana sales, then it is true that marijuana is often sold by professional criminals. Just how much of the total of marijuana consumed derives from this kind of source is impossible to determine.
This is why a consideration of the level at which a deal takes place is important. The importer is often a criminal: his livelihood is importing grass; he is a capitalist who sells an illegal product with no particular commitment to marijuana as an agent of mind-transformation, an element in a subculture, or a catalyst in social change. He probably does not smoke marijuana. The unsystematic business practices of "head" dealers created a vacuum into which he stepped. The multi-kilogram top-level dealers to whom he sells are also primarily profit seekers. The crucial difference between the importer and his deal-customers is that the dealer sells to consumers as well as to other dealers and is very likely to be a consumer himself. Next to the consumer, friendship transactions are common. Thus, to say that marijuana is a business is both true and false. At some levels it is; at some, it is not. To say that it is big business is misleading. A monthly take of a quarter of a million dollars, split twenty ways, might represent the very top of the profession. Lower down, even dedicated hustling brings in what an unskilled factory worker might make. Below that, the profit motive breaks down entirely.
A commonly encountered argument against the use of marijuana employs the differential association theory: by using the drug, one is thrown into association with the criminal underworld and, therefore, attitudes toward, and opportunities for, committing extremely serious crimes, and for using heroin, will become increasingly favorable. This statement is made in complete ignorance of how the market works. The average American user never comes into contact with the underworld, even if every gram he smokes were the handiwork of a tightly organized network of full-time professional gangsters. The typical marijuana smoker has no idea where his grass comes from. It has been filtered down through so many levels, has exchanged hands so many times, that the world of top-level selling and of the average user are as alien to one another, and about as likely to associate with one another, as the tobacco auctioneer and the cigarette smoker. The average user buys his pot from a friend, even though it may originally have been derived from someone whose livelihood is dealing.
In New York State, the line dividing a misdemeanor from a felony in marijuana possession is either twenty-five cigarettes or an ounce; the reasoning is that anyone with such a quantity may be presumed to intend to sell, even if no actual sale is detected. On one level, this distinction is absurd and erroneous; on another, it indirectly captures something of the flavor of the actual situation. To suppose that anyone who purchases and possesses one ounce—or who happens to have an ounce lying around, remaining from a possibly even larger purchase—is necessarily going to sell anything from that ounce, is to adopt a peculiar conception of what is actually happening. But to think that anyone who has as much as an ounce is sufficiently integrated into the marijuana community as to render it likely that he has participated in a number of marijuana-related activities—selling among them—is an accurate supposition. The smoker who purchases (and possesses) only an ounce is unlikely to split it up for the purpose of selling it to others.
The law, moreover, makes no distinction between the act of selling or giving away small quantities to friends or acquaintances for little or no profit, and dealing on a large-scale professional basis. In September 1969, a twenty-one-year-old man was sentenced to fifty years in prison by the state of Texas for the act of selling two marijuana cigarettes. Although the legal implications of petty selling and professional dealing are identical, the social worlds of these activities are radically disjunctive.
So there is the question of what the penalties are designed to deter. Is it the technical fact that the literal act of an exchange of money for marijuana took place? Or is it designed to eradicate the source of the drug? Can a user who has only an ounce or two in his possession where distribution sources must be measured in kilograms, not ounces, possibly be the original source for anyone's drug use, aside from his own and a few friends? In fact, it is probably safe to say that the user who possesses only an ounce is almost certainly not a large-scale dealer.
There is the argument that the penalties for marijuana possession (and use) should be reduced, but not for selling. This distinction violates empirical reality; it implies the existence of two relatively separated social and moral spheres that articulate on a superficial basis—profit. If the seller is guilty, the user is, too, because the user is the seller, and the seller the user. The technical exchange of contraband goods for money takes place at every conceivable level and by nearly everyone above the minimally involved. Labeling all selling heinous and use only moderately reprehensible, is to display ignorance of how the market works. The present law, as well as the moderate reforms currently being proposed, puts use in one legal, logical category, and all levels of selling in another. We find use and most selling transactions to be logically and socially indistinguishable while high level, high volume, and high profit selling transactions exist in a disjunctive social and moral universe. If we believed in "natural" social categories, the present confusion would represent as great an intellectual blunder as classifying whales as fish and bats as a species of bird.
* These prices were current before the Mexican border blockade and increased vigilance of 1969 and 1970. At the present time (February 1970), prices are about one and a third to one and a half more than what they were a year earlier, even assuming the availability of marijuana, which is often problematic. (back)
N O T E S
1. It is interesting that the most vigorous of the antimarijuana propagandists of the 1930s, Harry Anslinger, denied that marijuana was sold by professional gangsters in 1937: "... the control and sale of marijuana has not yet passed into the hands of the big gangster syndicates. The supply is so vast, and grows in so many places, that gangsters perhaps have found it difficult to dominate the source.... gangdom has been hampered in its efforts to corner the profits of what has now become an enormous business." See Harry J. Anslinger, with Courtney Ryley Cooper, "Marijuana—Assassin of Youth," American Magazine 124 (July 18, 1937): 152-153. (back)
2. The clearest recent statement of this position may be found in Will Oursler, Marijuana: The Facts, the Truth (New York: Paul S. Eriksson, 1968), pp. 113-120. Oursler seems to think these college student distributors are gangland fronts, and are called "beavers" in the underworld. (back)
3. The New York Times, September 27, 1968. (back)
4. Ibid., October 6, 1968. (back)
5. The most informative of recent accounts must include: James T. Carey, The College Drug Scene (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), esp. chs. 2, 4, 5; Jerry Mandel, "Myths and Realities of Marijuana Pushing," in J. L. Simmons, ed., Marijuana: Myths and Realities (North Hollywood, Calif.: Brandon House, 1967), pp. s8-1lo; Don McNeill, "Green Grows the Grass on the Lower East Side," The Village Voice, December 1, 1966, pp. 3, 21; "Ric," "I Turned on 200 Fellow Students at the University of Michigan," Esquire, September 1967, pp. 101, 190-193; Anonymous, "On Selling Marijuana," in Erich Goode, ed., Marijuana (New York: Atherton Press, 1969), pp. 92-102; Jaakov Kohn, "Superdealer," The East Village Other, January 10, 1969, pp. 3, 14-15 and "Midipusher," The East Village Other, January 24, 1969, pp. 6 7, 21; Nicholas von Hoffman, We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1968). (back)
6. Charles Grutzner, "Mafia is Giving Up Heroin Monopoly," The New York Times, September 2, 1968, pp. 1, 49. (back)
7. This raises uncomfortable and intriguing constitutional questions that we do not have the space to elaborate on. The parallels between growing one's own marijuana and consuming it in the privacy of one's own home, and pornography consumed in private, are striking. Since the Supreme Court has ruled that owning privately consumed pornography is legal, the same demand could be made for marijuana consumption. See the article by Michael A. Town on the constitutionality of marijuana use as being protected by the right to privacy: "The California Marijuana Possession Statute: An Infringement on the Right of Privacy or Other Peripheral Constitutional Rights?" The Hastings Law Journal 19 (March 1968): 758-782. Now that growing one's own has become so important among many users, this consideration is especially crucial. (back)
8. Michael W. Morier, Home Grown Happiness (New York: Mikus Book, 1967). See also Robert G. Barbour ed., Turn on Book: Synthesis and Extractions of Organic Psychedelics (BarNel Enterprises, 1967); this latter volume includes instructions on preparing and growing a dozen psychedelic drugs, including marijuana, mescaline, DMT, LSD, peyote, and psilocybin. (back)
9. "Saw Toothed," New Yorker, August 11, 1951, pp. 18-19; however, probably only one-tenth or less of this bulk would be useable marijuana. (back)
10. Unquestionably the most fantastic of these rumors is the story, in the January 30, 1965, issue of The Marijuana Newsletter, a short-lived mimeographed publication whose purpose was to "disseminate information toward the legalization of marijuana," about a form of marijuana called "Manhattan Silver," marijuana grown inadvertently in sewers by the seeds having been flushed into the sewage system and growing untended (silver because of the lack of light). The story was a hoax. It was, nonetheless, believed, picked up, and passed on both by advocates and opponents of marijuana use. See John Rosevear, Pot: A Handbook of Marijuana (New Hyde Park, N. Y.: University Books, 1967), pp. 42-43, and Edward R. Bloomquist, Marijuana (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Glencoe Press, 1968), pp. 5, 14, for two contestants—the first pro- and the second antimarijuana use—taken in by the hoax. (back)
11. However, at least one account quoted an informant who claimed that "over a hundred pot smokers, himself included, are growing hidden little marijuana gardens in Manhattan's Central Park." See James Sterba, "The Politics of Pot," Esquire, August 68, p. 59. (back)
12. As a rough indication of the extent of growth of the marijuana plant in the Midwest, consider that a botanist recently stated that 17 percent of the seasonal pollen in the air in Nebraska originates from the marijuana plant. Cited in Sterba, op. cit., p. 118. See Julian Steyermark, Flora of Missouri (Ames: Iowa State University, 1963). (back)
13. RichardGoldstein,1in7: Drugs on the Campus (New York: Walker, 1966),p. 115. (back)
14. McNeill, op. cit., p. 21. (back)
15. I depart from Mandel, op. cit., p. 93, on this point; Mandel underplays the prestige motive among sellers. (back)
16. Anonymous, in "A Note From the Underground," in J. L. Simmons, ed., Marijuana: Myths and Realities (North Hollywood, Calif.: Brandon House, 1967), p. 19. (back)
17. Jack Rosenthal, "A Fresh Look at Those Harsh Marijuana Penalties," The New York Times, Sunday, October 19, 1969, Section 4, The Week in Review, p. E8. (back)