How Washington’s Illegal Pot Dealers Feel About the State’s Marijuana Legalization

You can now buy recreational marijuana in Washington. But the state’s illicit salesmen aren’t freaking out”“yet.

The highly-rated strain of medical marijuana 'Blue Dream' is displayed among others in glass jars at Los Angeles' first-ever cannabis farmer's market at the West Coast Collective medical marijuana dispensary, on the fourth of July, or Independence Day, in Los Angeles, California on July 4, 2014.
National Journal
Matt Berman
July 8, 2014, 9:50 a.m.

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.

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