by J. Tobias Beard
Profile of a small time dope dealer.
Published in C-VILLE 7/29/08
He isn’t nervous yet, because there isn’t any reason to be.
Nothing in the car. Nothing in his pockets. Expired tags. Just popped into the office to grab something, his wallet with his ID left at home.
A cop asks him to step out of the car, please, sir.
Another officer says he smells pot and asks if they can search his person. Yes you can, officer, because he knows he’s got nothing on him. Can we search the car? The car is a mess, boxes of stuff from the move, clothes all over the place, it’ll take forever for them to go through it. No, you can’t search the car. It’s Saturday. He works full-time. Wants to get home and enjoy his weekend. The cops take their sweet time filling out the ticket and as he’s signing it, a K-9 unit pulls up. The dog sniffs around outside the car and then sniffs around inside. When it gets to the back, it starts to paw at the seats, scrabble, scrabble, skritch, skritch, and so now too bad, sucker, we’re gonna search the trunk. And they find a backpack and look inside.
A half-pound of weed and a half-ounce of mushrooms, the irony being the shit in that bag was well over 18 months old, so moldy it was useless, couldn’t smoke it or sell it, and he’d been meaning to throw it out. But he’d forgotten. So now he’s handcuffed and seated on the curb and they go through everything in the car while a tow truck is called and it starts to get dark.
He’s taken to the drug task force office, Mirandized and interrogated.
Name and address?
My name is ___________, and I live at ___________.
Got any priors?
A misdemeanor possession charge in Richmond. Not gonna say anything else without a lawyer present.
And, like, eight cop cars drive over to his apartment. Please don’t knock the door down, BAM! Too late. Guns drawn, bulletproof vests secured, 12 cops spread through the rooms, CLEAR, CLEAR….
And lo…a big ol’ bag of weed, digital scales, another bag of weed, and another, and another. We got ’im! And about $1,700 cash, and he is processed, photographed and locked up in jail with the late night drunks for two days.
He is 26 years old and has been selling weed for over 10 years.
“Mr. Dealer” grew up in Charlottesville, bought and sold and smoked weed in Charlottesville, and got busted in Charlottesville. He is a soldier in the War on Drugs, specifically the war on marijuana, which the U.S. has been officially fighting for over seven decades.
Around 69 million Americans 12 and older have tried marijuana at least once. Last year, 356,472 kilos were seized nationwide, nearly 174 of them in Virginia, with almost nine kilograms of processed marijuana and 486 plants taken by the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force (JADE) in our area. So far this year, JADE has confiscated just under 3 kilos. In 2007, 34 percent of Albemarle High School students admitted to having smoked pot, according to the Albemarle County Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Seems like a lot of us are buying weed. So I ask you, how well do you know your dealer? How well do you know what he goes through? How much do you really want to know?
Buying harder drugs is furtive and illicit and feels a little dirty. Coke dealers often don’t do coke and despise the very people they serve. Some dealers dabble in everything. What do you want? Coke? Pot? X? Pills? Those dealers tend to have very short careers. They rent a hotel room every weekend to serve the parade of unknown users. Those dealers see you only as a source of cash.
But pot dealers are somewhat different. They sell to their friends and smoke with their clients. There’s a ritual to it.
Sometimes buying drugs isn’t that different from buying coffee. You bring a little gossip to the counter because you want the barista to think of you as more than just “Double Americano with room for cream.” And you want your dealer to know that you’re not just some stoner.
So you chat a little bit.
You hang out before exchanging money. Make awkward small talk.
Pot deals have a weird vibe of familiarity between rank strangers. If you’re a frequent smoker, you see your dealer with some regularity, know his name, maybe where he lives, maybe even a little bit about his nondealing life. But you’ve probably never visited when you didn’t want something.
When it comes to drugs, how well does anybody know anybody?
Mr. Dealer, (friends call him “D”), started smoking weed when he was 13. He was in the eighth grade, at a county middle school, driven by life situations he needed to escape. Growing up with divorce, growing up poor. Driven by a general teenage sense of rebellion. In the ’80s, when I was going through the local schools, it was rare to find kids smoking weed, but by the ’90s there were definitely stoners amongst the Saved-by-the-Bell set. You usually got your weed from somebody’s older brother, maybe the wealthier kids living out in Forest Lakes or Farmington. The STAB kids always had a lot of weed. So did the hippie-spawn who pinched it from their parents’ stash.
“I had a friend whose parents smoked,” Mr. Dealer says, “and he figured out where their stash was and when his parents would leave we’d run up to their closet.” It was mostly weekend smoking, strictly scrounging, “no one was peddling at school or like, you know, selling dimes in class or anything like that.”
Just the same, someone wrote a letter to the assistant principal naming names, and young D was called with 10 or 12 others into the office and grilled. It was then that his mom began to be suspicious, but he said, ”No, no, I only tried it once. It hurt my throat…”
It’s alright, ma, I didn’t inhale.
He did inhale, of course. So did Mom. Rifling around in her glove compartment one day, he found an envelope down in the bottom all rolled up. “I wonder what this is?” he thought, and opened it. A week later his mom and her boyfriend have every door in the car open, the contents spread out on the ground, and they’re searching through it like mad.
When she finds a bag of pot in his closet, she picks him up from school and sits him down for a serious talk.
“Think carefully before answering me, young man. Where did this come from?”
She grounds him for two weeks.
By ninth or 10th grade, Mr. Dealer and the childhood friend with whom he’d begun smoking were running out of sources of free pot and beginning to buy it. “Initially we’d just buy $10 worth, just enough to roll up and smoke that afternoon. But you know a month or two after that it was kind of like, ‘Well I don’t have $10 to spend on this shit.’” Both lived with single mothers and weren’t exactly rich: “We were the kids at the bottom of the barrel in terms of, you know, the brand-name clothes.” Somewhere along the way the realization came that if they were to buy a little bit more, they could sell some and pretty much smoke for free. “So we throw together, you know, $25, buy a quarter of schwag and break it up into as many dimes as we could muster out of it and sell that to make the money back. And then whatever we had left over we’d share, smoke for the afternoon.”
At Albemarle High School, plenty of kids were getting high. “Looking back, the only kids that didn’t smoke were, like, the kids that only did schoolwork and were in the AP classes and were, you know, like, really into consciously trying to advance themselves for college.” Not that D wasn’t doing well. He was an honor roll student throughout high school, but by 10th grade he was also smoking every day, before school, after school and on weekends. So many people he knew smoked, and needed weed, that, well, how could he not sell it? “It went from buying a quarter and selling a couple dimes to, like, throwing in on an ounce.”
Things began to escalate.
D needed more than he could get from his old friend. He was looking for two or three ounces now. He met a new friend whose cousins lived in town and could get them what they needed. “We kind of formed a little partnership,” D says, “and that just opened the floodgates.”
Yeah, so now Mr. Dealer is the man at AHS. His new friend had gone to another middle school, so when the stream of kids got dumped into Albemarle, well, between the two of them they had a lot of acquaintances eager to become customers. Not that they were the only dealers around. Wealthier kids had access to better weed, buying and selling kind bud to those who could afford it. D and his buddy were selling schwag and they sold it mostly to middle- or lower-class kids who just didn’t know where else to go.
Once or twice a week they’d drive to Orangedale, where the friend’s cousins lived in the projects, and they’d buy weed, starting with a quarter pound, two ounces each—cheap enough to make good money on.
Things began to heat up. They started buying half-pounds.
“Hey,” the cousin said, “next time you can just take a pound. Buy the half up front and I’ll front you a half with it and you can work that.”
At 13, his mom told him he had to pay for things on his own—even, like, dental bills. Selling weed began as a way to pay for what he smoked, but it easily and quickly became a way to make a little money as well. He wasn’t rolling in dough. The cousins down in Orangedale, selling in much larger quantities, made better money. D was buying a pound of not-so-great weed for $1,100 to $1,200, and selling it for $100 an ounce. That doesn’t pay for diamond pendants or tricked-out rides, “but I mean when you’re 16 and you’re making $6.50 an hour at the mall, it’s a considerable help.”
It’s always tempting, however, to spend it if you’ve got it. Mr. Dealer bought a big down-filled winter jacket for, what, 200 some bucks, and his mother found the receipt in his room and began to wonder.
“How’d you get the money for that?”
“Well, you see, that receipt was from me and my friend buying stuff together, and they put it all on one receipt. He bought the coat.”
“Uh huh. We’ll see about that. ‘Hello, my son has this receipt for a $200 coat, and I was wondering…’”
“Yes ma’am, I remember him….”
“So, where are you getting this kind of money?”
And it’s Suspicion City from then on out. Checking up, poking around, not fully trusting you. Kids aren’t exactly criminal masterminds, and it’s inevitable that Mom finds another bag of pot. She makes him flush it down the toilet. She gets really watchful.
She finds digital scales and a whole lot of empty plastic bags. She takes him to the Juvenile Court to try and head off disaster, get him drug tested regularly, scare him straight. But then she finds a quarter pound of pot and so she calls the cops on her son and has him arrested.
He’s 16, bigger and stronger than the child she used to know. Her son, this drug dealer. The cops ask him if he’s angry with his mom, if he resents her invasion of his privacy.
Yeah, he does. He’s pissed that she entered his room and rooted through his stuff and then turned him in.
But he’s not going to hurt her, if that’s what you’re thinking!
Jesus. She’s his mother.
Before the court date, he’s sent to Region Ten for an after-school drug treatment program. The threat of random testing looming, he manages to stay clean for a while. But spring break rolls around and his buddy lights a joint.
“Now, you know you don’t have to smoke this.”
“But if you want to you’re more than welcome.”
“Fuck it. I don’t have to go in for a week!”
He fills a Poland Springs water bottle with his fresh, clean piss. He’s stoned for the rest of break.
And the piss trick works for a while. You take a pocket hand warmer, and during the 10-minute break at the meeting you rip it open and shake it and rubber band it to the little squeeze bottle of piss. They call you for the test, and you go into the bathroom with this guy who stands right behind you while you unzip your pants, reach in, pull out the little squeeze bottle and aim the warm stream into the cup. And then you tuck it back inside and hand over the cup like you got nothin’ to worry about.
“I think I’m going to need another urine stream from you.”
“What are you talking about? You know I just peed in the cup. Obviously I don’t have to go to the bathroom again. I’ve to be at work in 30 minutes.”
“If you leave right now I’m going to mark you down as dirty.”
“How are you going to do that? I just peed in a cup for you.”
“If your urine was this warm you’d be dead.”
A few weeks later he does coke for the first time and tests positive for that, too.
Defense: He has voluntarily entered drug treatment, your Honor. He is a promising young man. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Prosecution: He tested positive for marijuana. He tested positive for cocaine. QED and Boo-ya.
Things are not looking good. The judge, unhappy with the lack of seriousness with which Mr. Dealer is taking this whole thing, sends him to juvey in Staunton. He’s just turned 17.
”You go in, you’ve got to strip in front of this guy, you know, hold your balls and cough and make sure that you’re not trying to smuggle anything in or whatever. I was there for two or three nights and at some point during that time I think my mother just felt so bad about the situation…I don’t think that she thought it was going to go that far.”
Yes, well. Things escalate.
The War on Drugs was taking hold at Albemarle High School. Gates popped up to keep students from leaving during school hours and cops with dogs came in to sniff around the parking lot. By the time Mr. Dealer got to 11th grade, students were regularly doing coke on weekends, and the school seemed to have a good-sized population of drug users. D made no real effort to hide the fact that he had become a drug dealer, despite the beefed-up security. He wore a pager openly and did crazy shit like packing dime bags in the middle of class, hidden in the Kangaroo pocket on the front of his jacket.
“… the quadratic equation. Let’s try it with this…”
B____ turns around and the small bag of pot hits him smack in the forehead.
Gasps and giggles ripple through the students.
“…and so what is the value of X in….”
Another bag goes whipping at B____’s head. He ducks this one and scrambles to pick it up, looking to retaliate.
The Teacher turns around, sensing a disturbance in the force.
“What is going on here? B_____, do you have something you’d like to share with the class?”
Or maybe something the class would like to share with him…
Before Mr. Dealer graduated, he was buying his weed from another kid over in Mallside, the neighborhood across Rio Road from Fashion Square. So there’s D, a white kid dressed like a dealer—baggy clothes, pager—walking through the house with his black friend, and he’s introduced to his friend’s mom and she rolls her eyes as they walk through the living room. She knows exactly what’s going on.
D heads off to college in Richmond. “O.K.,” he thinks, “I’m going to get rid of the last of what I have and then I’m going to be a college student. I’m going to go to school, going to learn and get my degree. And then I’m not going to have a reason to have to do this anymore.”
Richmond seems flooded with weed. It doesn’t take long for D to find someone in his dorm, this hippy kid, who’s selling better shit than D ever did, shit that D’s old customers can’t get back in Charlottesville, and it doesn’t take long before Mr. Dealer is back in the game, selling the better weed to people making the hour drive down I-64, and about two pounds or so a week starts moving through Charlottesville because of D and the Phish phan.
Eighty percent of the marijuana that Mr. Dealer sold came from New York City. There might be, every once in a while, a shipment brought cross-country from California or Oregon, five or even 10 pounds maybe, but the risk involved was too great. Better to stick with the long-established and steady connection between the Northeast and the South, deeply rutted like ancient wagon trails, the path of all East Coast vice: New York, Philly, D.C., Richmond, Florida.
The hippy kid would drive his ghetto mobile with tinted windows and big rims, happy, hippy music blaring, up to New York and bring back 25 to 30 pounds of pot, sometimes as much as 60.
It took two to three weeks to move it all, and not wanting to keep that much weight at his house, he started paying D to store it for him.
Mr. Dealer begins to see this as a serious business.
“I really kind of remember being surprised that he would be willing to pay me that much just to keep shit at my house. …For every pound that he was going to leave there he would pay me 50 bucks for the first night…and then $25 per pound for however long it needed to stay there after that.” Twenty-five pounds times 50 bucks. That’s $1,250 for a night’s work, maybe $2,500, depending. “And, you know, it adds up.”
At college, much more so than when he was in high school, it felt to D that he was living two lives, or at least concealing a large part of his one life. He was a student, going to classes and doing his work. And like a lot of students, he smoked pot. But he was also a professional drug dealer and his dealing was a much larger part of his life than his education.
Graduation. D moves back to Charlottesville. Finds a full-time, legit job and an apartment.
(He’s still got the job. That’s why you can know his story, but you can’t know his name. At work they know his name, but they can’t know his story.)
In fundamental ways he was different than his peers. The character traits a drug dealer needs to thrive were deeply ingrained in him, a unique set of survival skills.
Secrecy, an underlying paranoia, mistrust.
“It was becoming more and more clear to me,” D says, “that a lot of who I had become was going to be detrimental to pursuing anything in the real world.”
It was a strange transition for a 25-year-old, one that few, if any, of his co-workers could have understood. “I wonder,” he thought, sitting in his cubicle, “if it’s obvious that up to this point, I’ve only sold drugs to support myself.”
He was still dealing, but was trying to operate at a lower level. More people knew him, however, than he would have wanted. Walking down the street, friends of his friend’s younger brothers would come up to him and say, “Hey, I remember when so-and-so’s brother was driving to Richmond to see you…” Or people he barely knew would see him in the restaurant where they worked and say, “Hey, do you think you can help me out?”
And if he said:
“Yeah, I can help you out.”
Then the next time they would say:
“I’ve been buying extra for a friend. Maybe it would be better if he just met you….”
But he really didn’t want to meet your friend, didn’t want more customers or more risk than he already had. He wanted things to no longer escalate.
“I don’t want anything to do with you,” he said when the scene got too sketchy.
“I don’t want you to know who I am. I don’t want you to know my name. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want you to talk to anyone I know.”
This was not an attitude common around the office.
Risk is a funny thing. It can be calculated only so far. By it’s very nature, it’s uncertain, unknowable in its entirety. When he moved back to Charlottesville, he brought with him a large amount of weed that hadn’t been cured properly, and was unsellable. It was too much to just toss in the trash, so he decided to deal with it later. He threw it in a backpack, and that backpack sat, forgotten, on a shelf at a friend’s house where he crashed for a while, and then got stuffed, with a bunch of clothes, etc., in the trunk of his car.
He wakes up in the afternoon, throws on some shorts and a shirt (forgets to grab his wallet) and runs over to the office to finish up a few things. On the way home, he’s pulled over for expired tags, and the lack of a license and the way he’s dressed, makes the officer ask him to step out of the vehicle, please sir. The car’s a mess, filled with shit from the move. He isn’t nervous yet, because there isn’t any reason to be.
Marijuana Possession with Intent to Distribute. Psilocybin Possession with Intent to Distribute. Both felonies in the State of Virginia.
Mr. Dealer, D, had been smoking weed every day, multiple times a day, since he was 16.
He got a lawyer.
Fighting the charges would have cost, like, over two grand. And he still might have lost.
A deal was offered. Plead guilty, and the marijuana charges are gone. The Intent to Distribute on the ‘shrooms is gone. He takes a simple possession charge on the ‘shrooms. Four years suspended sentence, 18 months probation, five years good behavior, and a felony on his record.
He took the deal.
“I was never into sports. I wasn’t one of the jocks. I didn’t have that kind of close-knit group of like teammates. I kind of hated all those kids for that because they were all a bunch of pompous asses anyway, or so I felt like at that time. You know, [dealing] kind of gave me a one up on everybody else… it allowed me to kind of pick and choose who I wanted to be accessible to. …I think during that time in my life, there was a lot of things going on in my personal life, in my family life, that I didn’t have any control over and [dealing] gave me this definite sense of something that was all mine, that I was in complete control of.”
After that real bad Saturday night, Mr. Dealer came home one day to find a girl he knew standing at the top of his stairs, staring curiously at the recently busted-down door.
“Oh, hey,” she said, “did someone break into your apartment?”
“I’ve been trying to call you, but your phone’s been off.”
“JADE broke into my apartment and they took my phone.”
Her face got that deer-in-the-headlights look.
“Oh. O.K., well, I was just stopping by,” she said, and bolted down the stairs and out the front door.
“This was someone who used to come by and sit around for, like, 45 minutes to an hour just to buy an eighth,” D says, “and we’d shoot the shit about work and life. Just talk about what had been going on in our lives a few weeks earlier when we last saw each other, whatever. There was no, like, ‘Oh, god! I’m so sorry, are you O.K.?’ It was like, ‘Oh. Cool.’ Voooom! All those kind of clichés like, ‘You’ll see who your friends are.’ It’s all true.”
“There’s a certain relationship, a certain ceremonial aspect of smoking weed,” D says, “a level of bonding with someone…seeing eye to eye on art and music and kind of opening up that sort of lateral thought process that isn’t really as awake when you’re not high.”
The light, dim now that it’s evening, insinuates itself through the venetian blinds as we sit in Mr. Dealer’s apartment. His girlfriend, young and pretty, hovers protectively behind us. I feel like she doesn’t really approve of all this interviewing.
Does he still get high?
“Am I going to smoke while I’m on probation? Hell no! It’s not worth four years of my life.”
Will he ever sell pot again?
“I’d like to say no, but once I’m in the clear, and I don’t have this sort of storm cloud looming over my head all the time, I may feel differently about it. If I were to go back to that, it definitely would not be anywhere near what it was before.”
“The, sort of, cardinal rules of the game that I’ve found myself lectured on so many times recently—don’t keep it at your house, don’t travel with it, don’t give them a reason to pull you over—obviously would be adhered to more strictly.”
“I’d been doing this shit a long time, and I got really comfortable. Free use, always having money in my pocket, never having to question dropping $30 to $50 dollars on clothes or food. It creates a very, sort of, ingrained thought process.”
(And as he talks, it comes to me that interviewing D about selling drugs feels eerily similar to buying them. We are co-conspirators, sharing his secrets. He has shared a lot of his life with me, but the real question is, once I get his story published, will I ever visit his apartment again? How well do I know Mr. Dealer?)
“Ever since this happened, its been like, ‘What do you mean I can’t buy a $3 latte on the way to work every morning?’”
He stubs out a cigarette.
“You stock up on the beans, you wake up, you grind some, you make a pot, and take it in a thermos to work, just like everybody else.”