I’d like to think I got into selling pot with the best of intentions. I was a freshman in college and one of my friends had some weed he needed to sell to buy his books. Seeing as how it was at least a step closer to the right thing–he’d stolen his textbooks when he couldn’t afford them the semester before–I figured I should too.
I had worked in a cafeteria for a year before college and had saved what I considered a substantial amount (more money than I would see for a long time once I started smoking pot). The people I’d be selling to were close friends, happy to fund our ad hoc scholarship. There was minimal risk; I would make back the initial investment plus a small profit for my time. And that’s exactly what happened.
Getting to live in that Milton Friedman fantasy world was the best part about dealing. It was the most perfectly rational and benevolent universe, the best of all possible worlds, and it provided a hallucination strong enough to obscure whatever real-world problems made this your smartest option.
The second best part about selling pot was the money. No, that was probably the third best part. My girlfriend and I smoked too much to make much profit (the eternal problem of the small-time pot dealer), and what was left over went toward boarding her horse. I guess there are smarter things to do with money than get high and pay a horse’s rent, but she loved the horse and it made her happier than the antidepressants that didn’t do much except make her suicidal when she tried to go off them, so that was how we lived.
The second best part was feeling like an upstanding member of my little platoon of potheads. Some drug dealers, if you can imagine, are less than scrupulous. They charge inflated prices when they know that supply is low or give you short bags when they know you’re desperate. They do all the things non-illegal businesses do to maximize profits and I found it disgusting. My plan, insomuch as “sell some weed….uh….$$$” is a plan, was that I’d deal fair bags at fair prices and make up the reduced margins through repeat customers. And I would be able to balance the books of my conscience with the knowledge that my friends wouldn’t be victims of the profiteering frat boys who were their other option.
So, I became a drug dealer, though that sounds a lot more grand than I deserve. I was the lowest of the low, what law enforcement calls a “peddler.” I wouldn’t even have gotten caught–well, I wouldn’t have been caught the way I was–if I hadn’t been swept up in an investigation of people moving orders of magnitude more weight than myself. I sold grams or eighths of ounces (3.5 grams) to people who intended to smoke pot immediately. I bought ounces from mid-level distributors, who in turn bought pounds from guys in NYC, who in turn worked in the quantities of drugs that make national news.
The people in NYC had an apartment where the walls were stuffed full of bricks of weed. Like a weed version of Candy Land, I imagined, except that there were men with guns watching you closely. At least that was the report from the two guys who made the drive every couple months to bring back a package looking like a party sub made out of solid weed. Between trips, those guys slept on our couch. They were essentially homeless, except that their bottomless drug supply was accepted as a payment in kind for couch-renting.
I was working at Exxon when the cops raided our apartment looking for them. A SWAT team broke down our door with a battering ram and tossed our rooms.
As my roommates explained this over the phone my first fear was that the cops were on their way to Exxon to arrest me, too. I’d have to explain to my bosses–a co-op of mechanics who owned the shop and who I respected immensely–why their parking lot was full of flashing lights. But that didn’t happen. I sat there stewing in adrenaline until nine when I got out the mop bucket, counted receipts, and went home. The cops left a warrant at the house telling me what I was charged with. Apparently I wasn’t worth the time it would take to drive across town.
When I came home my bed was buried under a pile of clothes, a pile of drawers, and the polaroid pictures my girlfriend had been taking for years. One of them was of her naked; until then no one had seen it but us. We talked about what to do next. We shared a room and sold from our shared stash, but since it was only my name on the lease it didn’t make sense for her to get in trouble. I would be the official drug dealer. She, like the rest of my roommates, would get “first offender status,” which meant the charge would be wiped from their records after doing some community service. I would be treated more harshly.
The next day I told my parents. They were more sad than angry, although they were also angry. I made the case that what I was doing was not morally wrong; that America’s prohibition on marijuana had its roots in Hearst-era racism and sensational fearmongering. They pointed out I was going to cost them thousands of dollars and probably hurt my employment prospects.
That was a good point and one I had not adequately considered in choosing to become a drug dealer. I was nineteen. There were very few things outside of aesthetic theory that I considered adequately.
I got a lawyer who seemed to deal only in plea bargains that didn’t require him to work very hard. I cannot recall him as other than Henry Winkler in Arrested Development–a mane of white hair, a messy office tucked in a sagging Victorian, solicitous to the point of being neurotic. He got me down from felony intent to distribute to misdemeanor intent to distribute just by being a lawyer and having a relationship with the DA’s office.
A few years before I was busted, a car full of high school students got caught skipping class to smoke a bowl. The kids whose parents paid for lawyers got a lighter punishment than those whose parents could not. Everyone in my town knew this story and took from it one of the few, though not surprising, lessons of the drug trade: you will be treated differently if you have more money. My parents knew this–hell, they knew each of those kids and their parents–and insisted on helping me pay for a lawyer.
Punishment included a hefty fine, court fees, losing a few hundred dollars that the cops seized as evidence, and the cost of paying for drug therapy sessions. I didn’t really mind the therapy–it included acupuncture every few weeks–except that it was expensive and sessions were at the end of the day when I was tired from working at the horse farm.
Other educational aspects of my sentencing included AA meetings and a state-sponsored class on the badness of drugs and alcohol. The teacher was a cop who bragged in a collegial way about how he could drink more than us on account of his “fat gut.” He was, as much as I hated to admit it, pretty cool. After another day at the farm I fell asleep during a video and almost cried when he told me I would have to retake the class. But when he saw that I wasn’t being intentionally disobedient, he cut me a break and just let it go. At this point I stopped trying to make sense of cops and accepted them as inscrutable beings of terrible power, like aliens in The X-Files.
First I went to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, thinking it would be the better fit for me. Not so. Most of the people there were recovering meth and cocaine addicts whose experience I could not relate to. There was a man crying with joy because he baked a cake. It was a cake for his daughter’s birthday. He had missed the first ten years of her life because he was devoted to meth instead of her. I now have a daughter I would give up anything for, so I can only imagine what kind of addiction he was going through. And there were people drinking several cups of coffee even though the meeting was after eight pm. What kind of person drinks more than one cup of coffee that late at night? It’s madness.
So I switched to Alcoholics Anonymous. Those meetings were great. I went on Sunday morning when they had donuts and coffee and it felt like church. One time I recognized a co-worker from years before, an older man who saw me reading A Clockwork Orange and told me that Earthly Powers was the superior Burgess novel (which is true). At the time I was confused by the huge coin jangling against his manager’s key ring. Now I knew it was a twenty-five year chip. Coming out of that VFW building I wanted to be better person just because it felt possible.
Paying for everything was difficult and unpleasant, and my parents were right about the employment thing. I would probably be a high school teacher today if I hadn’t marked myself as a drug dealer, which is frowned upon in schools. For a few months after going on probation I had intense nightmares as my brain adjusted to the absence of THC. But those stopped and I found I was a lot better at talking to strangers than I had been in my shoegazing stoner haze.
Since then I have only smoked a handful of times. Even small amounts of pot make me intensely anxious, which I do not enjoy. In a final “Time Enough At Last” twist, I now live in California and can buy all the pot I want (and at low prices standardized by an abundance of supply). But I don’t want it, and with the kind of horrific violence the drug trade fuels across the border I’m glad I don’t have to wonder whether I’m buying from Humboldt or Juarez.
Still–it’s hard for me to reflect on my series of mistakes without seeing them within the long blighted shadow of U.S. drug policy. Thomas Nagel calls it moral luck: if I had lived in California instead of Virginia, none of this would have happened, but there is nothing morally relevant about happening to live in Virginia. And I got off easy. Millions of people, disproportionately young men of color, are sucked into the prison-industrial complex under the auspices of the war on drugs.
So I can’t say that I learned my lesson, at least not the one the government wanted me to. Selling pot should not be a crime. There’s just no argument that is consistent with the legal rationale for prohibited substances and our extant medical knowledge of marijuana. Because marijuana happened to be outlawed and I did not want to be punished, I should not have sold it. That’s the closest I can come to a mea culpa.
I want to have learned more. I want this story to end the way good stories do, where suffering is justified as the price of knowledge. But there’s nothing in me where an epiphany should be. The harder I dig to find some way in which being punished made me better, the more my gall rises at the suggestion that this corrupt apparatus operate for a second longer than it already has. The punishment it doles out is not edifying because there is no rational goal towards which it hopes to move us. The state simply bears down on you for a while, long enough to renew its coffers and appearance of purpose, and then it relents. Hopefully you have the resources–the good luck–to rebound when it’s over. I did. Many people do not.
I learned that the state is powerful. That is the only lesson taught in the prosecution of the war on drugs. I have no interest in using drugs anymore, and nothing of permanent value was taken from me.