Friday, 7 March 2014

I Spent A Day Delivering Weed In New York City

Two drug dealers are sitting in my living room, drinking a pot of French-pressed coffee I brewed for our interview. With long hair, beards and matching black nail polish, the two could almost be members of a grunge band, except they’re exceedingly well-mannered.

“Even though what we do is illegal, we’re both morally sound people,” Abe says, rearranging his position on my grandmother’s old couch. “We try to do right by people. That’s what I always tell my mom, anyway.”

Abe, who’s in his early 30s, is from an Austin, Texas, military family. His dad, a doctor who served in Vietnam, died a few years ago when a small plane he built crashed into a mountain in New Mexico. Like his father, Abe is a risk taker. He was working on Wall Street before he started an illegal marijuana delivery company with his best friend, Brian, who is sitting cross-legged next to Abe in a pair of beat-up khakis and a dark blue Red Sox winter jersey.

The pair tell me their company, Secret Fleet, hasn’t even been around for a year, but their clientele is growing larger every week. In fact, on a recent night, their couriers made a record 55 deliveries.

Yet there are complications that come with running a black-market business like theirs.

“I tell my family I’m just a regular bike courier trying to make it as an actor,” says Brian, a soft-spoken amateur actor and former pharmaceutical researcher, who’s also from Austin and also in his early 30s. “I don’t like having to hide what I do. But my family is made up of very traditional, conservative people. And I don’t know how they’d react to it.”

Abe’s mom knows exactly what he does. “She worries that I’m breaking the law,” he says, but she supports him nonetheless.

This is why Abe and Brian are letting me write about their business: They want to start removing the negative stigma that surrounds marijuana. To that end, they’ve agreed to let me follow Mason, one of their 12 couriers, for a full day on the job. (The names of the company and those interviewed for this story have been changed to protect their identities.)

It’s a cold, sunny afternoon when Mason arrives at my apartment. At just past 1 p.m., his 10-hour shift has only just begun.

The 36-year-old Texan seems a little nervous to be talking to a reporter. I can’t blame him. I bring him a glass of water and give him a once-over: He’s wearing a windbreaker, slightly frayed blue jeans, wool socks and hiking shoes. His blue eyes, tawny hair and scruffy beard make him look a little like an out-of-work Land’s End model.

While we wait for calls to come in, I ask Mason about himself. His past is varied. Originally from northern Texas, Mason tells me he spent the past decade living in different cities across the country. He started out in Santa Fe, N.M., where he earned a master’s in liberal arts. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a photographer’s assistant, and then Austin, where he had an office job in an organic furniture store.

With just a touch of a Southern accent, Mason tells me he gave away most of his possessions and moved to Brooklyn last year after a painful divorce.

“I never would have moved to Austin if it wasn’t for my wife,” he explains. “Everything in New York is the best -- the people, the food, everything. It’s the cream of the crop.”

Before long, Mason’s phone goes “ding, ding,” and he tells me we have our first delivery. It’s in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, about a mile away. We put our jackets on and hit the streets. I ride behind Mason, passing housing projects and groups of screaming schoolkids bundled in winter jackets. Sometimes, if the breeze is right, I catch a whiff of the marijuana inside the saddlebags hanging off his bike frame.

Ten minutes later, we are buzzed in to a newly renovated ground-floor apartment and greeted by a young blond woman in a black cashmere sweater and a smiling young man with dreadlocks almost to his waist.

Mason introduces himself with a smile and tells his customers that I’m a Secret Fleet trainee who is shadowing him for the day. “I’m the intern,” I joke, and they laugh.

Mason pulls a high-tech thermoplastic case from his bag and pops it open, letting Dreadlocks peruse the inventory. There are three kinds of weed for sale -- each 3.5-gram bag is a flat $60 (no tip necessary) -- and some marijuana-infused oatmeal cookies, which cost $10 a pop.

As Mason and Dreadlocks discuss the features of each strain of weed available, Cashmere Sweater tells me she’s a freelance reporter who covers drug policy issues.

“I’d love to write an article about you guys!” she says, and I immediately become uncomfortable. Luckily, the deal is soon over, and we say goodbye.

Mason and I share an “Oh my God!” look and try to stifle our laughter as we exit the building.

When we get back to the street, Mason’s phone dings again. There are more stops to make. By now it’s 3 p.m., and even though it’s only a Thursday, there’s no shortage of people who want to score some bud. Mason’s not the only rider Secret Fleet has working today, either; there are three others working different areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

I follow Mason 4 miles to our next stop, in Brooklyn’s historic Fort Greene neighborhood. I am straining to keep up. Mason is in great shape from cycling 15-20 miles a day. He often takes his hands off his handlebars to use his phone. This seems dangerous to me, but I don’t say anything.

When we arrive, a woman in her late 20s (a graduate student, Mason later tells me) lets us into her one-bedroom apartment. She’s wearing a loose-fitting white blouse and red lipstick; her auburn hair is wild in a calculated kind of way. “Nice to meet you,” Mason says, shaking her hand. “Oh, we’ve met before,” she tells him. “I think my bong kind of kicked your ass last time.” She laughs and sits down on a white, furry couch that looks like it’s made of dog hair.

The woman buys a bag of Agent Orange from Mason. It turns out she’s from Austin, too, and she and Mason have some friends in common. They talk excitedly about the South By Southwest music festival and where the best Airbnb deals are in the city. “Oh my God, Austin is so expensive now!” she says, groaning, and Mason agrees. She begins tearing up the sticky weed and shoving it into a glass bong. “Do you guys want to smoke with me?” she asks.

Mason politely declines, and we say goodbye. Getting high with customers isn’t against Secret Fleet policy, but Mason says he prefers to keep a clear head this early in his shift.

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