The New Dealers

Family, kids, minivan—and drug dealing. How the recession has driven average Americans into the game.

Photo Illustration: William Duke

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For some time, I’d been hearing stories from my sources in the interstate marijuana racket about law-abiding “civilians” turning to the game because of the recession, and so, armed with introductions, I hit the road to meet some of these unlikely criminals face to face. That’s how, on a hot evening in June, I found myself in Dan’s Northern California kitchen.

Dan isn’t his real name. Nor are any of the names in this story, for obvious reasons. But his situation is a familiar, harsh reality for many Americans, as I learned while doing research for my recent novel on this subject. Dan is in his early 40s, a slim, soft-spoken former short-haul trucker who once owned all the toys: a used Mercedes, snowmobiles, Jet Skis. When they were both employed, he and his wife—a retail manager—easily cleared $100,000 a year. “We ate out breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” Dan, now a minimum-wage laborer, tells me with folded arms. “That’s the way life was for 17 years.”

Today, Dan’s toys are gone, sold to support an underwater mortgage. His wife, who kept her job, left him three years ago, driving away in the Mercedes. “She didn’t like the fact that I sat at home and she was going to work,” he tells me. “There were no jobs. I filled out a thing for the city, and 400 people were there for one opening—a garbage truck driver.”

“There were no jobs. I filled out a thing for the city, and 400 people were there for one opening—a garbage truck driver.”

Keeping the house has been Dan’s only real goal since 2008, when he was laid off. It’s a simple three-bedroom, two-bath in a prefab, working-class subdivision off the I-5 corridor. “I wanted my kid to grow up in a safe community,” he explains. “I have always made my house payment, and I’ve always made it on time.” But he fretted over things like gas prices. “My daughter would say, ‘Can I take your truck to the store?’ That’s 1.2 miles, which makes it 2.4 miles round-trip. If she went there once, I would not make it to work the next day. That’s how my money was. I’ve fought for it the past three years working two and three jobs. I’ve even changed my morals.”

From his window, I can see the jagged outline of the Klamath range far off to the northwest. Surrounding those mountains is the Emerald Triangle: Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties—the heart of large-scale pot cultivation in California. In 2010, state voters rejected a proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Nevertheless, in the 15 years since they passed Proposition 215—the state’s vague and permissive medical-marijuana law—growing the drug has become more socially acceptable, local dispensaries have proliferated, and associated businesses have flourished like pilot fish on a shark. Mom-and-pop shops sell high-tech gardening gear and starter plants called clones. Pot “colleges” like Oakland’s Oaksterdam University offer “quality training for the cannabis industry.” An inexhaustible array of websites tout everything from fertilizer to legal advice and grow-room insurance.

Pot prices have plummeted in California, in part because so many of the state’s estimated 1.2 million medical-pot users now grow their own. But with a bargain-basement $1,500 pound of “Cali outdoor” fetching $5,000 or more in Eastern states, there are fortunes to be made in interstate commerce. “Between the recession and the large amount of money you can make, there is just too much money involved not to do it,” Sgt. Barry Powell, head of the Shasta County Sheriff’s Marijuana Eradication Team, tells me. “In Shasta County, medical-marijuana growers have tripled over the last three years. Just off our aerial flights, what we’re seeing in people’s backyards is unreal.”

About a year and a half ago at a wedding, an acquaintance approached Dan with a solution to his financial woes. “They wanted to do some indoor stuff, and no one had a place for it to go,” he explains. “I had a place for it to go.” The acquaintance was a veteran grower, part of a loosely knit criminal network supplying major distributors as far away as Indiana.

“I’ve never smoked,” Dan swears, raising his right hand. “I don’t even drink. Even now, I will work wherever, whenever. It was a decision I made to try and catch up.”

“Do you know how many people try to ‘black mask’ it and get as many buds as they can? It’s a fucking war zone.”

He agonized for six months. Within days of his assent, a grow room was under construction in his garage. “The first time I got nervous was when they brought the lumber to my house,” Dan tells me. “They broke out tape measures, started cutting two-by-fours, throwing up drywall, insulation, plastic.” There were 10 lights, two AC units, fans, a carbon dioxide generator, and more than 130 plants. “It was way bigger than I wanted,” he says. “That I felt pressured into a little bit. I felt bullied.”

One of the builders, a rural wiseguy I’ll call Rocky, told me it cost $12,000 to outfit Dan’s garage. “Everybody getting ‘scrips thinks you can just plant and you’ll get money,” he says when I visit his surprisingly spare apartment in Redding. “That’s not how it works. There’s feeding schedules. The whole room is wrapped in plastic—you don’t want bugs.” With outdoor grows, Rocky adds, they’re “picking and shoveling May to October. Then you gotta sleep out there with shotguns. Do you know how many people try to ‘black mask’ it and get as many buds as they can? You steal the tops off 10 plants, that’s six, eight pounds, and they didn’t do shit but swing a machete. It’s a fucking war zone.”

The growers disabled Dan’s garage door opener and reversed the lock on the garage’s interior door to keep him out. The monthly electric bill, which they covered, shot from $45 to more than $1,000. Dan fretted that this might tip off the cops. The growers insisted that, with all the legal grows, the authorities no longer pay much attention to such things. “The way the prisons are packed, they’re not going to throw someone in for growing halfway-legal weed,” Rocky says.

The first harvest arrived about three months later, and Dan was handed $10,000 in cash. “I caught up on all my house stuff, my property taxes,” he says flatly, with no hint of a victory grin. “I paid off a family member who helped with an attorney about the divorce.”

The work crew is now preparing for a third planting. Dan is no longer in a money ditch, but the stress of hosting a criminal enterprise is wearing him down. “I’m standing here with a sick stomach,” he says. “It’s nice to be able to give your kids what they want, to be able to spend the time with them that they need, but the partners I have are greedy. They don’t want to work. I don’t not want to work. All of us have agreed not to tell anybody, but I’ve found out that there have been people here trimming, people in and out. I’ve never been in trouble. I hope they’d be lenient, give me probation.”

He’s right to be worried. Growing or possessing small amounts of pot has been decriminalized or protected by 25 states and the District of Columbia, but the scale of cultivation in Dan’s garage remains a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison. And while California police agencies have been hammered by budget cuts, generous federal anti-drug grants have helped fill that gap. Last year, Powell’s boss, Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, told the Wall Street Journal that marijuana eradication (for which his department received almost $720,000 in federal support this past year) is “where the money is.”

Two days after leaving Dan’s place, I’m riding shotgun in a small car bound south for Sacramento, as the Central Valley blurs past outside my window. The commercial rice fields here are so vast they’re fertilized by crop dusters, which buzz alongside the interstate like gigantic, low-flying bees. My driver, Colin, is a well-groomed white guy who lives with his wife and kid near the capital city. He keeps his hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, stays with the flow of traffic, and glances in the rearview from time to time. I’ve warned him, just in case we get pulled over, not to tell me whether he’s hauling a shipment. In turn, he’s asked me not to publish too many details about him or his car.

As we cruise down I-5 doing the speed limit, he fills me in on his livelihood. “One of the hardest things is getting the stuff from point A to point B,” he says. “Everyone has the impression that if you’re doing this, you’re high or have a drug addiction. But if you’re driving a trunk full of somebody’s product, even have your own money in it, why would you want to be high?”

“When my wife lost her job, it just felt bleak. I would only have ever done this because of the recession.”

Colin’s no slouch. He has a master’s degree and used to teach part-time at local colleges. Two years ago, after his wife was laid off from her job, he was approached by a friend, the husband of one of his former students. “They were always going on trips,” Colin recalls. “I was always like, ‘What do you do for a living?’ He was always vague: ‘Real estate, blah, blah, blah.’ I’m not a dumb guy. He’s like: ‘We’ve known each other a long time. Want to make some money?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, what is it?'”

The gig was transporting high-grade weed from California to far-flung Eastern states. Colin has since driven “thousands and thousands of miles,” he says, and gotten to know everyone from big-time dealers who “roll with guns” down to working-class guys with families trying to make ends meet. “Cobbling together a full load between a bunch of different schools, plus teaching summers, I’d pull in about $20,000 a year,” he says in edgy, rapid speech that hints of excessive caffeine, or nerves. “I made double that in a month driving East twice. When my wife lost her job, it just felt bleak. I would only have ever done this because of the recession.”

The friend, it turned out, was a major grower and distributor. He taught Colin how to launder his earnings and promised no repercussions if he wanted to quit. “This came my way, and honest to God, at the time it felt like manna from heaven,” Colin says. Now he’s made enough money to have a stake in the product. “I can make $2,000 a pound taking it across the country.”

He points to a shuttered auto dealership. “You see that?” he asks. “These are the times we live in. You could say I had a fallback career, but there are so many people with degrees. I’m past 30. If I start another career now, what am I going to start? A couple of years have gone by, and my résumé in my own field is not what it used to be.”

Througout our drive, Colin engages in a conflicted self-dialogue. “I’m not a bad person,” he says. “I wouldn’t get into other kinds of crimes. It’s pot. It’s practically legal out here now. This fit my morals: We needed money; I did something. I feel proud of that. I really do.”

“There’s a whole lot of people with lives and families depending on what I do.”

To avoid arrest, he does his homework, scouring police profiling manuals and keeping current with the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s High Intensity Drug Trafïcking Areas program, which helps local authorities target stretches of highway where they think growers are moving weight. The feds are focused on the Mexican cartels, Colin figures, not people who look like him. If he were arrested, he could face up to 5 years in federal prison—or up to 30 in some states, like Louisiana. So far, though, he’s never been stopped. “You have to figure out how you’re going to do your plates and not stick out,” he says. “I don’t like Texas; Texas always has a ton of cops. I don’t like it, but—all right, here’s the truth: It’s scary. You’ve got to build a pretty good veneer around yourself.”

As if to prove it, he won’t specify how much money he’s made (“a lot”) or what he does to his license plates. (“I gotta keep that to me.”) He’s also selective about which jobs he’ll accept. (“Sometimes I get a feeling, ‘I’m not going to do it this time.'”) And yet he finds it hard to say no. “I definitely think about taking time off, but make everybody mad?” he says. “There’s a whole lot of people with lives and families depending on what I do.”

Late the following night, my plane touches down in Austin, Texas. The rental-car desks are closed, so I call Charlie. “Not a problem, bro,” he says. “I’m on my way.” Soon, I’m riding with him in a minivan full of car seats and baby toys.

Like my other sources, Charlie doesn’t mention the names of funky pot strains, doesn’t romanticize the drug. Unlike them, he’s a bit of a stoner, but he’s in this game solely for the money. A Frisbee-golf fanatic, he’s the friendliest of the traffickers I’ve met so far. He’s married, with two kids, and he repeats like a mantra the notion that everything he does, he does for them.

“I felt like I was going to throw up,” he tells me the next morning, as we sit watching Parks and Recreation. He’s talking about his latest layoff, in May, from an IT job. The family’s unremarkable suburban two-bedroom house is packed with stuffed animals and picture books. As we talk, his toddler wrestles on the living-room carpet with the family dog—an Akita. “My wife had just quit her job to focus on going to school.”

Charlie’s recession story begins in Louisiana, where he ran a business producing records and promoting bands, taking home $80,000 to $90,000 a year. “When the recession came, people couldn’t afford to pay us,” he says. He lost the business, went into debt, and decided to move. “I thought we could have a good shot here in the music capital of the world, but we just became another small fish in a large pond.”

“The first pound took less than five or six hours to sell. After that, it started getting bigger and bigger.”

In 2005, he gave up and looked for other work, figuring there would be a market for a guy with two bachelor’s degrees in the sciences. “All I could find were minimum-wage jobs,” Charlie says. He sold retail electronics for almost three years. After the store folded, the family resorted to food stamps on and off. Things changed in early 2009, when a California friend offered to front him a pound of weed. “If other people were presented with the same gift of opportunity, a good percentage would do it,” he tells me later. “We couldn’t turn to our parents or anybody. If that wouldn’t have happened, I think we would be homeless.”

A gregarious type, Charlie had a large circle of stoner friends. “My wife and I thought about it for a good month,” he says. “There were heavy cons, but once it got here, it exceeded everyone’s expectations. The first pound took less than five or six hours to sell. After that, it started getting bigger and bigger.”

Charlie buys wholesale for about $3,000 a pound. Selling by the quarter-pound, he more than doubles his stake, clearing $8,000 in a good month. “Austin has lots of weed festivals,” he explains. “Then I can’t get it fast enough.” He spends the proceeds on “diapers, clothes, gas, rent, lights, food,” and college fees. He and his wife, Kim, both still owe on student loans—in Kim’s case a $600 monthly payment for a “useless” culinary-arts degree that a promoter convinced her would lead to a high-paying career as a chef. Charlie’s drug dealing freed her up to quit waitressing and pursue a bachelor’s degree online. Plus, she explains, “To give our kids the life I feel they deserve, you have to have money.”

Charlie recoils when I ask him about expensive toys. “God, no,” he says. In fact, he hasn’t given up searching for legitimate work, recently “shuffling around spas for $7 an hour.” He worries about the prospect of a two-year Texas felony sentence: “That’s always on my mind. If you don’t watch everything you do, you’re going to go away, lose your kids to Child Protective Services.” But robbery is Charlie’s most immediate concern. After all, he delivers. “I’m having to transport it all the time,” he says. “When people catch on to that, you’re done. That’s what I fear. Luckily, I’ve never had a gun in my face.”

“There are lots of people with the same experience competing for the same jobs,” he adds as we say goodbye. “If I could find the way to get out of this, I would. But it’s gotten me by so far, and I’m not going to stop.”

Back home in Florida, I drive to a low-income, mixed-race neighborhood near Tampa to meet Tegan, a single mother and part-time restaurant hostess in her mid-20s. Like Charlie, she’s been selling California weed to survive the recession. “I only deal with marijuana,” she says. “I don’t feel like a drug dealer.”

Tegan’s side job has allowed her to get off food stamps, spend more time with her daughter, and attend college full time. But recently, she had a major scare. Hard up for a driver, her suppliers said they would FedEx the next shipment. They’d been doing this for months, they reassured her, and the package would bear false names. “So it came to my address,” she recalls, laughing nervously. “And yeah, the cops came.”

“The recession came, and I started looking for other options. Everyone’s an amateur in the beginning. And then you’re not an amateur anymore.”

She’d taken her daughter to the supermarket that day. When she pulled back into her driveway, an unmarked SUV sped down the street, and two burly undercover agents leaped out. “They were screaming, ‘Do you speak English?'” Tegan says. (She’s white but has a dark complexion.) The men asked if she was expecting a package, and she said no. “I was really surprised by how cool I was, because I was scared shitless,” she recalls. Spotting her toddler in the back seat, the men lightened up and told her they’d detained a Latino man who ran when they approached. “They said he was saying, ‘I just do the lawns!'” Tegan says. “They assumed because he was an immigrant, the package was for him.” She let her suppliers know the delivery was a bust. Between hers and another abandoned shipment, Tegan estimates they lost $35,000 worth of product. “But nobody went to prison.”

Later, the agents returned to say they’d released the man for lack of evidence. Criminals regularly send drug shipments to the homes of innocent people, they warned. But courier services flag suspicious packages, and agents stake out the deliveries. “We don’t tolerate the illegal use of our network, and [we] work closely with law enforcement,” explains FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey. When I ask how the company detects weed in its packages, he snorts incredulously. “We don’t disclose that!”

On the way home from Tegan’s, I’m struck by how, despite such a close call, she doesn’t seem at all eager to get out of the business. It reminds me of something Colin told me as we barreled down the interstate in his car. “Maybe I’ll go back to school,” he said when I asked how long he planned on doing this. “I don’t know. These are scary times. The recession came, and I started looking for other options. Everyone’s an amateur in the beginning. And then you’re not an amateur anymore.”


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