Legal marijuana is officially on sale in Washington, making the state the nation's second to sell pot for purely recreational purposes to customers 21 and over. Tuesday, then, should be a very good day for Washington state's pot aficionados, despite the regulatory chaos that has resulted in just one store opening in Seattle, and a potentially tiny supply overall.
But there's one group of people who stand to lose out on pot legalization: the dealers who have been selling pot illegally in the state for years. If there's a new legal market where you can get pot, you could reasonably assume that buyers will shift away from the illicit market.
Right now, that's not how actual dealers see it. "I don't think the illegal pot market will be directly affected, at least not yet," a person familiar with selling illicit drugs in Washington state told National Journal in an email. "People purchase things based on quality, trust and rapport! The same especially applies to medicine, I would assume!"
"I don't expect my day-to-day life to change much," he said. "We've already been transitioning somewhat by networking. I think things will be fine for everyone who sells.... We are more worried about the long-term effects, over the next two years."
As you'd expect, it's not the easiest thing in the world to get a full survey of drug dealers operating illegally in Washington state. But speaking with people associated with the trade helps give a sense of just what increasing marijuana legalization is doing to our country's illicit drug dealers, and how they're thinking about the rapidly changing environment.
"I've worked for Starbucks too, and view it the same way. In both cases, I sold drugs to bleary-eyed people to put myself closer to my goals. One was legal, one wasn't. Maybe I was lucky, but for the better part of a decade, I couldn't tell the difference."
Below is a slightly edited e-mail conversation I had with a separate person involved in Washington's drug trade, a guy who operates out of Seattle. He's worked in illegal pot for the last seven years, split between California and Washington. While he's been completely reliant on selling for his personal income in the past, he now is otherwise employed, and marijuana sales represent about a quarter of his total income. He says that he specializes in particularly high-quality pot.
Matt Berman: Why do you sell pot?
Seattle Dealer: Without dismissing moral/cultural arguments, my involvement with the marijuana trade is financially motivated. When my friends and I began consistently using, I often found myself in the position of acquirer due to my contacts. I quickly saw the financial advantage of buying in bulk, though took no profit when distributing to close friends. As those close friends started referring acquaintances, I realized the possible business capacity.
I moved to Los Angeles just after the advent of the medical-marijuana legislation, which effectively allows bulk sales to credentialed California residents. As universities are typically comprised of many non-residents, there was an obvious consumer base. Although I never applied for a medical-marijuana license, the prevalence of marijuana dispensaries and cooperative license holders made acquisition easy. At the same time, I began illicitly growing and harvesting various plant strains, which eventually provided me with a high-quality, and consistent, product.
When I returned to Seattle, the political setup was very similar to that in California, and I resumed selling using all of the practices I've learned. I've lately stopped growing, in exchange for a 9-5.
"In my ideal world, marijuana would be classified alongside alcohol, tobacco, and all other recreational drug use. Perhaps hypocritically, I would also see such use of all drugs, alcohol included, completely prohibited and abolished from our society."
MB: How do you feel about marijuana legalization generally? What does your ideal regulation look like, and do you think Washington is moving in a positive direction?
SD: In my ideal world, marijuana would be classified alongside alcohol, tobacco, and all other recreational drug use. Perhaps hypocritically, I would also see such use of all drugs, alcohol included, completely prohibited and abolished from our society.
But that's not gonna happen.
So in our current legislation, marijuana should be scheduled at the level of alcohol. Specifically, harvested products (flowers) should be equated to beer/wine regulation and distillates (hash, oils) equated to distilled spirits. In this sense, Washington seems to be headed in the right direction, but there is still significant ambiguity as to how it will unfold with time.
MB: How have you been planning for legalization? Do you expect much in your life to change?
SD: I've rationalized Washington's projection on Colorado's response to legalization. The two obvious factors at play are accessibility and price/quality. Legalization increases accessibility, as physical stores are much more reliable than mobile dealers. On the same coin, significant overhead and taxation have caused Colorado's legal prices to increase up to $18 for a gram, with little discount in bulk. For comparison, I usually pay $7 a gram when buying 1 ounce, down to $4 a gram per pound.
Legal stores are especially attractive to growers and distributors, and most street dealers would appreciate the consistent paycheck. The illicit trade will keep certain privileges, namely price and discretion, and those who have grown up calling a contact will likely continue. But for new and casual users, it'll be much more convenient to stop in the local shop.
MB: What's next for you? Do you think you'll be able to continue selling pot illegally, or would you try going legal or stop dealing altogether?
SD: Ultimately, I've worked for Starbucks too, and view it the same way. In both cases, I sold drugs to bleary-eyed people to put myself closer to my goals. One was legal, one wasn't. Maybe I was lucky, but for the better part of a decade, I couldn't tell the difference.
If its been this way all along, what's left for legalization to bring? I think I'm done selling weed. It's a gig better suited to the student life. I've got a good job in my chosen field, and it's way better.
But I am looking forward to building another greenhouse.
Note on sourcing: The people interviewed for this story would only talk if they were allowed to remain anonymous. Because. You know.