The Marijuana Smokers
Chapter 10 - Using, Selling, and Dealing Marijuana
It could be that 100 times as much marijuana, in bulk, is consumed
now in comparison with ten years ago. But whether our estimate
is considerably larger or smaller than this, tons of this drug
move about the country in some sort of orderly fashion. It is
grown, imported, distributed, and consumed according to a pattern.
Our understanding of this complex, controversial drug must include
an investigation of its distribution.
One item in the marijuana controversy is the attempt to legitimate
one or another conception of marijuana selling. The drug's opponents,
as a strategy of discrediting marijuana use, promulgate the position
that it is imported, distributed, and sold by professional gangsters
for profit to unsuspecting youths who have been duped by the gangsters'
tricky techniques. The cannabis advocates, on the other hand,
maintain that selling (and especially giving away) marijuana is
an act of love representing a desire to "turn on" the
whole world to beauty and euphoria. Although both views adumbrate
value-tinted conceptions of its use, marijuana nonetheless continues
to be grown, brought, sold, and consumed. By investigating the
empirical phenomenon of marijuana distribution, we may aid and
abet one or another ideological view, but the empirical substratum
will remain unchanged. The pattern by which the drug moves, however,
can be determined, and it is our task to shed some light on it.
The classic antimarijuana stance with regard to marijuana selling
has existed at least since the 1930s, though
it has undergone some modification since then. For instance, even
the police realize that drug sellers need not proselytize potential
users, that friends introduce friends to a drug. The essential
features of the marijuana opponent's position on selling are (1)
selling marijuana is a highly profitable activity; therefore,
pot sellers are either linked to, or part of, the criminal underworld;
(2) the personnel of marijuana selling and heroin selling overlap
considerably; (3) potselling is typically a career, continued
over a long period of time, with a high degree of commitment,
as a means of livelihood; (4) if relatively uncommitted individuals
(such as college students) who are only marginally involved with
the criminal underworld are selling marijuana, they act as a kind
of front for the real criminals, who use them for contact, distribution,
and respectability purposes.
The police are convinced of the dominant role of profit in marijuana
selling. One indication of this is the news releases given by
the police to the media citing the value of their drug seizures.
In order to emphasize the role of profit and inflate the importance
of the job that they are doing, the police extravagantly exaggerate
the monetary worth of the drugs that they have confiscated is
a given raid. One of the most spectacular examples occurred in
the fall of 1968, when the New York Police Department, with agents
of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, seized,
in a psychedelic "church": 4,500 doses of LSD, 1,500
of STP, fifty of mescaline, ten pounds of hashish, and ten pounds
of marijuana. The cache was valued by the police at six to ten
million dollars. About
a week after the raid, The New York Times printed a letter
from "an irate marijuana smoker" who
calculated the value of the seizure, at current prices, at $50,000,
less than 1 percent of the police estimate. The enormity of the
disjunction calls for a look at the patterns of marijuana selling.
When there are systematic patterns in the versions of reality
espoused by individuals variously located in the social structure
of an activity or institution, we are forced to understand how
location influences perception.
The student of a deviant or illegal activity struggles with the
subterranean character of his data. His area of investigation
is half-hidden, usually fully accessible only to the participants.
Facts are discovered in a patchy and unsystematic manner, revealing
one facet of a reality, while others that might tell a very different
story remain obscured. The more inaccessible a phenomenon, the
broader the latitude for delineating totally contradictory
portraits of it. Add to this the saturation of that phenomenon
in emotional and ideological arenas, and the stage is set for
every conceivable version describing it to run rampant. This is
extravagantly the case with marijuana selling. In the past two
or three years, journalistic accounts of marijuana selling from
the inside have become public knowledge. Although
necessarily partial, these accounts reflect a previously unexplored
source of information which must be taken into account before
we can claim to understand the phenomenon in question.
To know anything about a deviant activity, it is necessary to
interview the participant. For some inexplicable reason, this
maxim has rarely been followed in marijuana dealing. During the
course of the research, I saw dozens of transactions, ranging
from several pounds to the smallest purchase. In addition, I requested
several dealers to prepare written statements of their selling
activities. Third, so many of my 200 interviewees had sold at
least once that the formal interview captured a great deal of
information on buying and selling. From these various sources,
I was able to piece together something of a consistent picture
of marijuana selling.
Levels of Selling
The most striking source of the discrepancy between the police
image of the marijuana market and that of the insideri.e.,
the dealeris a lack of specification of the level at which
deals customarily take place. The police tend to identify one
aspect with the whole, that aspect most clearly spelled out by
the stereotype of the dealer conducting deals of large volume
and high profit. Yet, this comprises a small percentage of all
transactions which take place and, indeed, transactions at that
level need not take place at all.
The metaphor which best describes the heroin distribution system
is that of two funnels, one inverted, with their ends meeting.
The raw opium is harvested at the production end by thousands
of small and medium-sized farmers, mainly in Turkey, Southeast
Asia, and Mexico, and sold at the consumption end to thousands
of addicts, with a small number of highly organized criminals
in between, who buy, process, and distribute the drug, earning
immense profits. Although recent indications point to the fact
that non-Mafia criminals are being allowed to distribute heroin, the
newcomers are nonetheless organized professional criminals. There
are no amateurs at the upper levels of the heroin scene.
The two funnels model does not work quite so well with marijuana.
Although it is possible that organized crime may import, distribute,
and sell some of the marijuana consumed in America (no definitive
or systematic evidence has yet been presented which supports this
contention), it is certain that enormous quantities of marijuana
never pass through the hands of professional criminals at all.
The leakage from these funnels is sufficient to invalidate the
funnel model altogether. To begin with, there is the factor of
growing one's own marijuana. "Plant your seeds," advises
a cartoon Mary Jane figure in the October 1968 issue of Other
Scenes, a staunchly promarijuana underground newspaper; "keep
prices down." About six of my interviewees were actually
growing marijuana in New York apartments at the time of the interview. One
had set up an elaborate greenhouse, with fluorescent lighting,
in a closet. Another grew it in a bathtub on his terrace until
it was harvested and stolen by an observant thief. A recent publication,
Home Grown Happiness  distributed
by The East Village Other, sells thousands of copies. It
gives a detailed account of the most effective methods of growing
and harvesting high-quality marijuana, including sections on "Selecting
The Seed," "Transplanting," "Artificial Light,"
and so on. The last page contains the injunction, in capital letters,
"Remember, every time you throw away a teaspoon of seeds
you have destroyed a potential 100 or more ounces of marijuana!"
Across the front page of the April 9, 1969, issue of EVO ran the
headline, "This is the Week to Plant Your Pot Seeds."
A letter to the editor in the same issue announced: "The
time is ripe for planting marijuana. Spring has sprung.... Beautify
America.... Trees of grass in every park, vacant lot, roadside,
tree box.... free marijuana for all next fall." It was signed
by Ed Grassplanter.
As late as the early 1950s, huge quantities of marijuana were
growing wild in empty lots in New York City; in one sortie in
1951, the New York Sanitation Department destroyed over 30,000
pounds of marijuana pulled up in these lots. Although
rumors are often circulated concerning marijuana's growth in New
York, it is unlikely
that any plant could survive today growing wild in any urban
area; it risks decimation from friend and foe alike.
However, this is not the case in sparsely
settled areas. Numerous cases exist of college students
earning handsome profits by gathering wild marijuana spotted from
cruising cars. According
to one account, the "major sources of marijuana for Midwest
students are the surrounding corn fields."
(This is less likely to be true today than
Although most of the marijuana consumed, both in terms
of bulk and in terms of the number of transactions, will
not be homegrown or gathered wildthe majority of all marijuana
smoked still comes from Mexicoa sizable minority of it is,
and these sources should not be discounted in delineating the
marijuana distribution system. (In addition, it must be kept in
mind that American-grown marijuana is considerably less potent
than Mexican-grown cannabis.)
Far more users planted their seeds (which many keep around for
just such contingencies) during the drought year of 1969 than
any in recent years. In addition, a great deal more hashish became
available in 1969, possibly only part of a general trend toward
greater hashish usewhich is on the rise much faster than the
use of leaf marijuanaor, possibly, partly as a response to
this lack of availability of Mexican marijuana. In any case, most
of the time, most of the marijuana consumed in America originates
A reasonable price for a ton of marijuana, purchased from a middleman
in Mexico, is between $10,000 and $20,000, which means that it
costs about five or ten dollars per pound, or less than fifty
cents per ounce. A typical wholesale price in New York, buying
in a bulk lot of several kilograms, is about $120 per kilo, or
about $3.50 per ounce. (California prices are generally about
half New York prices.) Most characteristically, ounces are sold
at the retail street price of twenty or twenty-five dollars.*
If the smoker wishes to purchase joints
(individual marijuana cigarettes) already rolled, he pays between
fifty cents and a dollar apiece. Employing simple arithmetic,
we find that the mark-up from field to joint can be considerably
higher than 100 times in price, that is, buying at two joints
per penny at the ton price, and selling at one dollar per joint
at the joint price. Thus, the enterprising dealer might see
in marijuana sales a source of enormous profits. This is, however,
a naive inference. The novice might make the same mistake about
the workings of the marijuana market as do the police.
The joint price, a dollar per joint, is a ghostly abstraction.
Few purchase individual joints, pre-rolled. Almost every smoker
beyond the level of rawest novice rolls his own. (Except, I am
told, in Vietnam, where large joints of excellent quality may
be purchased in emptied American cigarette packs.) Even when he
buys the smallest bulk quantity, the "nickel bag," for
five dollars, he must strain out the twigs and seeds, buy cigarette
papers (the same as for tobacco roll-your-owns), and learn the
technology involved in manufacturing a smokeable joint. The nickel
bag is a common quantity for a smoker only moderately involved
with the drug and its subculture. In New York, this is between
one-fourth and one-eighth of an ounce? enough marijuana to make
between eight to fifteen marijuana cigarettes, depending on the
size of the joints, the dealer's generosity, and the purchaser's
willingness to be shortchanged.
As both the market and the subculture of marijuana use expand,
purchases become increasingly larger in bulk. In the 1930s and
1940s, purchasing individual joints was common. A few years ago
the nickel bag purchase was characteristic. Now the smoker buys
an ounce, enough marijuana for fifty to seventy joints. This means
that each cigarette costs him somewhere between twenty-five and
forty centsnot a dollar. Economy is part of the motivation;
obviously, the larger the size of the purchase, the lower the
unit cost. It is also to the advantage of the purchaser to minimize
the number of transactions in which he is involved: the greater
the number of purchases he makes, the greater the chance of coming
into contact with an undercover agent and getting arrested. As
the user becomes increasingly sophisticated about the workings
of the market and the activities of law enforcement agencies,
the size of his purchase increase correspondingly. Thus, the recent
appearance of the typical ounce purchase. Since the ounce is the
most characteristic purchase, it comes closest to being what corresponds,
in the purchase of legal goods, to the "retail" price.
A given bulk quantity of marijuana in a dealer's living room
or garage automatically is worth less than if it is split up and
distributed among his customers. Selling marijuana, at least at
the dealer-to-user level, is hard work; each deal involves a certain
amount of moving about and a lot of socializing. No farmer
would reckon the value of his tomato crop in the field on the
basis of its total sale at the supermarket. The final product
is saturated with the value of labor. Thus, a dealer's cache of
several kilograms is worth the kilogram pricein New York, about
$120 per kilo. If sold to the customer, that cache might eventually
earn twenty dollars per ounce instead, but the point is, it hasn't
been sold to the customer, and it is, therefore, worth correspondingly
In addition, the multi-kilo purchaser rarely earns twenty dollars
per ounce, because he doesn't generally sell in ounces. At that
level, two or three stages below the original source, he is most
likely to break up what he has into pounds, and sell pounds for
$100 or $120. He usually does not want to be bothered with ounce
purchases, except as a favor to friends, because it involves a
great many discrete transactions. Even though the margin of profit
is higher if he buys several kilos and sells 100 or 200 ounces,
the profit on each transaction is much smaller, and each transaction
represents work, time, and danger. He leaves the ounce sales to
the man below him, who has bought his pound. A 20-year-old male
college student dealer explains his usual marketing procedure
with a kilo (a "ki" or "key" in the jargon):
Well, let's say I pick a ki or something like that, instead of
breaking it up into nickels (laughs) and dimes, you know, and
trying to squeeze every penny out of it, I'll probably just break
it in half and sell it in pounds, or something like that, and
I might make $100 off it, and that'll keep me going for three
or four weeks.
Yet, even this qualification simplifies the actual situation
because unlike legally sold products, a great percentage of the
marijuana that finally reaches the user is not sold at the retail
or consumer level. A given kilogram may be cut into at many different
levels. Since all (or nearly all) sellers smoke, a given proportion
will be diverted for the dealer's own use at wholesale prices
with no profit. Depending on how much he smokes, a purchase of
a kilogram will typically involve a diversion of, say, half a
pound for his own private use. Another chunk will be given or
sold at cost to close friends, offered to guests, girl friends,
used to cancel debts, so that marijuana may be thought of as a
kind of tribal barter currency. Out from the center (the dealer)
are less intimate friends and acquaintances who might pay less
than the standard pricesin New York, probably ten dollars per
ounce. Further out will be the near-stranger transactions, which
will entail payment of the full retail price. It is obvious, therefore,
that the leakage from the wholesale to the retail price is considerable.
A marijuana purchase occurs at nearly any link in the producer-to-consumer
chain, depending on one's intimacy with the dealer and one's knowledge
of the current market price.
Max Weber maintained that one of the triumphs of Western civilization
was the introduction of the universalistic price system. Products
are held to be worth a given fixed quantity. As with time, the
universe is segmentalized into uniform units of equal size, infinitely
reproducible. Any and all products are held to be translatable
into a standard measure, easily arranged into an unambiguous hierarchy
of clearly gradable value. How much a man is "worth"
is how much money he has. The marijuana subculture is a kind of
island of tribalism within a sea of commercial ethic. Value, like
time, is relative. How much a given quantity of marijuana is worth
depends less on an abstract quality inherent in the product than
on a variety of concrete and personal indices. While the junkie
mentality in many ways is a ruthless exaggeration of the spirit
of capitalism, the committed marijuana smoker's subculture represents
its very opposite.
If this is so as a general guiding principle, it is especially
so when marijuana itself is at issue. This is not to say that
money has no meaning for smokers, even in marijuana exchanges,
nor that all heads are idealistic flower children. Representatives
of the bourgeois spirit may be found everywhere, even among the
most seemingly uncommitted. Capitalists of the drug underground
abound, and mimeographed demands are circulated from time to time
in various drug-using communities that the local dealers should
try to curb their avarice, lower their prices and hand out more
free grass. Where there is demand for something, money, goods,
or services will be exchanged for it, whatever it is, wherever
it is. Nor does it mean that marijuana is not felt to be "worth"
anything. But what is so strange about the attitude of heads toward
marijuana is that its value seems to be so curiously elastic.
A dealer who would not hesitate to hand out dozens of free
nickel bags to friends couldn't imagine giving away the same value
in real moneyeither what the substance is supposed to be worth,
or even what it cost him. It is as if marijuana isn't quite real,
as if it exists in some sort of other world, where the rules of
the game are different. The closest thing that comes to it in
the "straight" world is food. It is an act of hospitality
to feed one's guests; a breach of common good manners to allow
them to go hungry. Smoking marijuana, like eating together, binds
its participants in a primitive sense of fellowship.
Using and Selling
The police commonly express the view that the real target of
their efforts is the dealer, not the user. Their imagery is commonly
borrowed from the world of heroin addiction, where, it is asserted,
the narcotics peddler makes a profit from human degradation and
misery. Marijuana use, too, supposedly typifies this clear-cut
distinction between user and seller.
The problem with this view is that selling takes place on many
levels, among many kinds of participants. Selling is often a matter
of convenience; it may be an arbitrary decision as to who is the
buyer and who the seller on a specific transaction. Knowledge
of current deals being transacted, or simply having requisite
cash, often defines who is to play the role of the dealer on a
given occasion. Among our informants, nearly half (44 percent)
said that they had sold at least once. Moreover, there was a continuum
from the user who had sold only once (12 percent of those who
admitted ever selling) to the one who sold frequently, say, more
than fifty times (18 percent of all sellers), with shades of variation
between. One is struck by the evenness of the range of selling,
while if one took the classic pattern of pushing seriously, one
would expect to see very few sellers, with nearly all of those
that sold to have done so innumerable times in gigantic quantities.
Rather, what we actually find is that many marijuana smokers sell,
characteristically in very small quantities. Over a third of those
who had sold (36 percent) reported that they most commonly sold
in ounces, and about 5 percent said that selling in quantities
of a pound or more was usual. The typical seller sold a median
of eight times in an average quantity of two ounces.
However, far more important than the mere incidence of selling
since our sample is not "representative"is the
systematic variation in selling according to certain key variables.
The most important variable influencing whether the smoker sold
or not is how much he uses: the more one smokes, the greater is
the likelihood that he sold. Among our respondents, the relationship
between these two variables could hardly have been more striking
(see Table 10-1).
Selling by the Amount One Smokes
"Have you ever sold marijuana?"
Percent saying "yes"
|The Amount One Smokes || Percent || N |
|Daily ||92 ||26|
|3 to 6 times weekly ||80 ||42|
|1 to 2 times weekly ||40 ||55|
|1 to 4 times monthly ||14 ||36|
|Less than monthly ||11 ||45|
The logistics of continued heavy use implies, and even demands,
selling. The heavy marijuana user invariably keeps a supply, and
many only occasional smokers do as well. The more that one smokes,
the greater is the likelihood that one will have a supply. Not
one of the twenty-six daily smokers said that they did not have
a supply of marijuana (see Table 10-2).
Keeping a Supply of Marijuana by
"Do you generally keep a supply of marijuana around your house?"[a]
|Marijuana Use|| Yes || No || N |
|3 to 6 times weekly||64||21||42|
|1 to 2 times weekly||54||28||54 |
|1 to 4 times monthly ||29||41||34|
|Less than monthly||11||79||38|
[a] All other replies aside from "yes" and "no"
eliminated from table.
It is characteristically the case that even heavy marijuana
smokers will not be able to use up, within a brief space of
time, the quantities that they purchase. Often a sale will be
on a basis of "take it or leave it." An available quantity
might be an ounce, in which case none of it will be sold, or a
pound, or a kilogram, in which case most of it will be sold. The
only way the marijuana user can limit his transactions and his
exposure to arrest is to purchase large amounts. By buying a pound
at the near-wholesale price of $120, and selling twelve ounces
to twelve friends at ten dollars for each ounce, one thereby has
four ounces free. "Free grass" is an inducement for
On the surface, the parallel with the heroin addict might seem
striking: each sells to support the habit, getting nothing else
out of it. Yet, even if the marijuana seller smokes five joints
a day, an enormous quantity, he would consume a pound every six
months, which means that his habit costs about fifty cents a day,
at the most. We are forced, therefore, to discard the "support
the habit" explanation for selling.
Every marijuana user is not only a marijuana user, he is invariably
also a friend, and his friends also smoke. There is a positive
and linear relation between the amount one smokes and the percentage
of one's friends who also smoke (see Table 10-3).
Percent of Closest Friends Who Are Regular Marijuana Smokers [a]
|Marijuana Use|| 0-29 || 30-59 || 60-100 || N |
|Daily ||4 ||35 ||62 ||26|
|3 to 6 times weekly ||14 ||36 ||50 ||42|
|1 to 2 times weekly ||35 ||24 ||41 ||54|
|1 to 4 times monthly ||42 ||31 ||28 ||36|
|Less than monthly ||72 ||19 ||9 ||43|
[a] Designated as at least once per week.
This would create, therefore, a certain amount of pressure
to sell. The more that one smokes marijuana, the higher the proportion
of one's friends who are marijuana smokers; the higher the proportion
of one's friends who are marijuana smokers, the greater is the
probability that they will buy and sell from one another, particularly
as their turnover in supply is so much greater (see Table 10-4).
Selling by Closest Friends Who Are
Regular Marijuana Smokers
"Have you ever sold marijuana?"
Percent saying "yes"
|Percent of One's Friends|
Who are Regular Marijuana
| Percent || N |
Moreover, not only is a higher proportion of the heavy smoker's
friendship network more likely to smoke, but he is also more likely
to have access to information concerning the availability of periodically
appearing quantities of marijuana on the market. He is more likely
to know others who buy and sell and who are higher up in the distribution
ladder. He is more acquainted with the price system, which fluctuates
even in the short run. He knows more about some of the rules and
precautions to take to avoid arrest, thefts "burns"
and being short-changed, as well as buying adulterated goods.
He can buy and sell successfully and with confidence. Anyone arriving
on the marijuana scene in a complete-stranger situation would
encounter great difficulty in making a large purchase.
There is a two-way process at work here. On the one hand, one
must be implicated in a web of social relations to be able to
purchase the drug. In this sense, friendship patterns are a necessary
condition for selling to take place. But one's friendship network
is not merely a passive requirement for selling and buying; it
is also an active force which insures one's involvement in selling
as an activity, since friends who smoke make requests and demands
that often relate to marijuana sales. In addition, selling further
implicates one in social relations that are marijuana-based. By
buying and selling, one extends one's network of acquaintances,
almost all of whom are marijuana users. In short, friendships
and sales intersect with one another; they are inseparable elements
of a single dimension. Their relationship with one another must
be seen in dialectical terms, rather than simple cause and effect.
Generally, selling must be considered as part of the syndrome
of use. It is not simply that the user must purchase his drug
supply from the seller to consume the drug (this symbiotic relationship
exists with heroin as well), but that the user and the seller
are largely indistinguishable; there is no clear-cut boundary
between them. A large percentage of users sell, and nearly all
sellers use. In fact, the determining force behind selling is
use: heavy users are very likely to sell, while infrequent
users are unlikely to do so. The fact that a given individual
sellswhether it be done once, occasionally, or frequently,
specifically for a profitis determined mainly by his involvement
in the drug, in its subculture, with others who smoke. Selling
marijuana, then, to some degree presupposes involvement with the
marijuana subculture which, in turn, implies at least a moderate
degree of use. Selling and using involve parallel activities and
associations; the seller and the user inhabit the same social
universe. The difference between them is simply a matter of degree,
since selling is a surer indicator of one's involvement with the
drug subculture than is buying or, even more so, using. To think
of the dealer as preying on his hapless victim, the marijuana
smoker, as profiting on his misery, is to possess a ludicrously
incorrect view of the state of affairs.
It is necessary, therefore, to abandon the conspiratorial view
of the relationship between the marijuana user and the sellera
primitive model borrowed from the world of addiction. Rather,
selling must be looked at as an index of involvement with the
marijuana subculture. At the peripheries of the marijuana scene,
we find the experimenter, the extremely infrequent user, the dabbler,
the once, twice, or dozen-time user. He has few marijuana-smoking
friends, is rarely presented with opportunities for use, is curious
about its effects, and usually discontinues its use after his
curiosity is satisfied. It is possible that he is the most frequent
representative of the total universe of all individuals who have
ever used the drug; if not, at any rate, he forms a sizable minority
of all users.
At the lowest levels of use, the smoker does not even buy marijuana;
close to three-quarters of our less than monthly smokers (71 percent)
said that they never bought the drug. He is dependent on friends
who are involved with marijuana to offer him the drug when he
visits. In fact, when the drug is extended, it is not thought
of as one person giving another a material object. Generally,
a joint is passed around to all present in a kind of communal
fellowship. Hence, giving marijuana away, in this specific sense,
is more common than selling. In volume, of course, marijuana is
far more often sold than given away. But more individuals have
given marijuana away than have sold, since nearly every smoker
who owns any amount of the drug has smoked socially, and has passed
a communally smoked joint around to his guests.
The infrequent user generally does not seek out the drug, but
accepts it when offered. This pattern is most characteristic of
women. If the experimenter is unlikely to buy, it holds, a
fortiori, that he is unlikely to sell. At the middle levels
of use, the smoker will generally buy his own marijuana, keep
a small supply for occasions when the mood strikes him, and only
occasionally sell to others when he happens to have some extra,
or when asked by a friend who finds other channels unavailable.
At the highest levels of use, the smoker will not only buy and
have his own supply, but also sometimes sell in fairly sizable
quantities, and explicitly for a profit, although this may be
only one among a variety of motives. (Not all, or even most, heavy
users are large-scale dealers, but the dealer is most likely
to be found among the heavy users.) Each of these activities
can be thought of as an index of one's involvement with the marijuana-using
subculture. Each represents a kind of subtle step into another
There are, it would seem, two types of marijuana exchanges. One
type is "dealing," which may be defined as selling explicitly
for a profit at current street prices to anyone one trusts. A
dealer (not a "peddler" nor a "pusher,"
although, sometimes, a "connection") is the person who
sells a certain quantity in high volume for a profit. (He will
always, in addition, also sell to friends at little or
no profit.) Often someone who sells regularly to friends and acquaintances
for minimal profit will be requested by a near-stranger to sell
some of his supply. His answer will often be, "I'm not a
dealer," meaning, not that he is averse to selling per
se, but that he sells only to certain people, and only as
a favor to them; he does not deal for a profit. At one end of
the spectrum, then, we have transactions involving little or no
profit (at the extreme, giving marijuana away, either in bulk,
or, in the form of individual joints, in one's home, as a gesture
of hospitality like a glass of sherry). At the other end, "dealing"
means many transactions, usually in sizable quantities (although
the "nickels and dimes" street hustler must be considered),
always for a profit, and often to near-strangers. Although the
law treats these two types of exchanges as being in the same category,
entailing the same penalties, they are distinct sociologically.
Legal categories are often meaningless as social descriptions
of the acts they penalize, although often accurate, even simultaneously,
as a description of how these acts are viewed by the rest of society.
Naturally, there is an entire continuum between these two
types, with mixed characteristics. But in terms of the sheer number
of transactionsbecause the product is finally fanning out to
the consumer, and is, therefore, small in bulk and large in numberthe
friendship end of the spectrum is far more common than the profit
Motives for Selling
The motives underlying marijuana dealing are complex. Although
at the top of the hierarchy of selling, profit is likely to dominate
more than is true at the bottom, there is no level in the distribution
system (on the American side of the transaction at least) where
profit is the sole reason for dealing. In contrast, the expressed
motives for selling heroin might be reduced to two: profit (at
the top), and the use of heroin (at the bottom). With marijuana,
the picture is considerably more intricate. Certainly the free
use of marijuana predominatesat least in frequency, if not
in the strength of motivation.
But beyond "free grass" and some profit, the reasons
for selling vary. Some dealers enjoy the cloak and dagger intrigue,
at least in the beginning:
The dealer commands a certain mystique in the East Village. He
is playing a far more dangerous game than the customer, and he
is respected for it. For himself, the excitement surrounding a
"big deal" and the ritual and accoutrements of the trade
act as an antidote for the growing plague of boredom. Most dealers
are proud of their fine scales, and enjoy the ritual of sifting
and weighing their stock. The exchange, sometimes involving large
amounts of cash and drugs, is the climax of the business and may
have an "007" sort of intrigue.
The fact that one is a sometimes central figure in a subcommunity
whose values and evaluations of others revolve,
in part, around drug use and especially "inside
dopester" information concerning drug prices and sources
acts as an attraction for many users to sell and deal. The
dealer is acquainted with a scene from which the nondealer
is to some degree excluded. The dealer simply knows more
about what is happening in a sphere of some importance to the
smoker; moreover, he distributes a valued object, which the smoker
could obtain with a little more difficulty from others. A twenty-seven-year-old
high school teacher only sporadically involved in selling explains
the reasons for his involvement.
It's this: being in on something that's important to others. Other
people are dependent on you. They have to rely on you. You are,
in a minor sense, controlling their destiny. You are importantyou
have a source and they don't, and that shows how "in"
you are, how others trust you and maybe even like you. You are
a big man. Others come to you needing something, and you dispense
largesse. It's kind of an ego boost, I guess. Like, after copping
a quarter of a pound of grass, the guy I copped from said, man,
I want to get some DMT. I was in debt to this guy for getting
the grass, see, so I said, I can get you some DMT, man. It shows
how much you know, how you are in the middle of things, how you
The dealer, a respected figure on the drug scene, commands a kind
of low-level charisma. Often relations spill onto one another,
his dealer role and activities becoming translated into access
to, and demands for, activities in other valued spheres. "As
a dealer," said one heavy drug user, "it was easy to
become a witch doctor, soul counselor, elder brother."
Every drug seller is a political man as well as an economic
and social man, so that satisfactions with their drug activities
often include motives having a somewhat civic character.
A twenty-two-year-old college student dealer delineates his involvement
I'm spreading drugs around, and turning people onto drugs, and
thereby they're meeting people who are, you know, involved politically,
or involved in the revolution in its many facets, and they're
just becoming involved with other people. I consider it, you know,
kind of humanitarian, getting people away from plastic and steel,
and getting them back toward the funk of life, you know, digging
people as just being people.
It seems clear, then, that for some dealers a variety of expressed
motives are of at least some degree of importance in their involvement
in the drug selling scene; they must be counted as impelling reasons
for participation in dealing. All of this does not deny the role
of profit in selling. What it does do, however, is affirm that
in most transactions, pure profit never rules supreme;
it is always alloyed with motives that make a mercenary image
of the dealer empirically suspect. The bulk, if not nearly all,
of marijuana buying and selling transactions that take place entail
some profit, generally modest, and of secondary consideration.
Of course, even if profit were a potent motive in dealing, the
question remains: why deal in preference to anything else? Why
deal marijuana in preference to any other drug? There are endless
number of ways of making a living. Why sell pot?
Selling, Dealing, and the Law
When we attempt an appraisal of the role of the organized criminal
in marijuana dealing, we encounter a number of logical and methodological
obstacles. A given quantity of marijuana bought by a dozen members
of a criminal ring from a middleman in Mexico, imported to this
country and sold for a considerable profit to hundreds of American
dealers, will be broken down into increasingly smaller quantities,
eventually sold among friends for little or no profit. What will
be bought at the top in one transaction will be sold at the bottom
in thousands of transactions, so that if we take as our basic
unit of analysis the transaction, typically marijuana is sold
for no profit, in an unorganized fashion, among friends. On the
other hand, an immense quantity of marijuana does pass through
the hands of individuals who earn their living from selling drugs
and nothing else. In bulk, then, most marijuana was sold
at one time among professional criminals for profit. How we characterize
marijuana selling depends on what level the transaction takes
place. This might lend sustenance to the ideologically involved
contestants, since they may, without distortion, portray dealing
in a fashion which pleases their biases.
Just how involved the large-scale dealer is in marijuana selling
is obliquely determined by the size of the seizures of imports
from Mexico. In terms of the number of these smuggling attempts,
clearly the overwhelming majority are of relatively insignificant
quantitiesunder a pound. The largest recent border seizure
was about a ton of marijuana. An operation of this size obviously
requires organization: a micro-bus, middlemen in Mexico, drivers
and high-level dealers for distribution. This is not Cosa Nostra
organization, but it is organization. If we mean by "organized
crime," a syndicate involving thousands of tightly knit,
lifelong committed gangsters whose entire livelihood derives from
illegal activities, then marijuana probably is not sold, never
has been sold, and never will be sold by professional criminals.
If, however, we mean an independent operation involving a score
of individuals whose activities are coordinated, and who will
earn their living for a few years from marijuana sales, then it
is true that marijuana is often sold by professional criminals.
Just how much of the total of marijuana consumed derives from
this kind of source is impossible to determine.
This is why a consideration of the level at which a deal takes
place is important. The importer is often a criminal: his
livelihood is importing grass; he is a capitalist who sells an
illegal product with no particular commitment to marijuana as
an agent of mind-transformation, an element in a subculture, or
a catalyst in social change. He probably does not smoke marijuana.
The unsystematic business practices of "head" dealers
created a vacuum into which he stepped. The multi-kilogram top-level
dealers to whom he sells are also primarily profit seekers. The
crucial difference between the importer and his deal-customers
is that the dealer sells to consumers as well as to other dealers
and is very likely to be a consumer himself. Next to the consumer,
friendship transactions are common. Thus, to say that marijuana
is a business is both true and false. At some levels it is; at
some, it is not. To say that it is big business is misleading.
A monthly take of a quarter of a million dollars, split twenty
ways, might represent the very top of the profession. Lower down,
even dedicated hustling brings in what an unskilled factory worker
might make. Below that, the profit motive breaks down entirely.
A commonly encountered argument against the use of marijuana employs
the differential association theory: by using the drug, one is
thrown into association with the criminal underworld and, therefore,
attitudes toward, and opportunities for, committing extremely
serious crimes, and for using heroin, will become increasingly
favorable. This statement is made in complete ignorance of how
the market works. The average American user never comes into contact
with the underworld, even if every gram he smokes were the handiwork
of a tightly organized network of full-time professional gangsters.
The typical marijuana smoker has no idea where his grass comes
from. It has been filtered down through so many levels, has exchanged
hands so many times, that the world of top-level selling and of
the average user are as alien to one another, and about as likely
to associate with one another, as the tobacco auctioneer and the
cigarette smoker. The average user buys his pot from a friend,
even though it may originally have been derived from someone whose
livelihood is dealing.
In New York State, the line dividing a misdemeanor from a felony
in marijuana possession is either twenty-five cigarettes or an
ounce; the reasoning is that anyone with such a quantity may be
presumed to intend to sell, even if no actual sale is detected.
On one level, this distinction is absurd and erroneous; on another,
it indirectly captures something of the flavor of the actual situation.
To suppose that anyone who purchases and possesses one ounceor
who happens to have an ounce lying around, remaining from a possibly
even larger purchaseis necessarily going to sell anything from
that ounce, is to adopt a peculiar conception of what is actually
happening. But to think that anyone who has as much as an ounce
is sufficiently integrated into the marijuana community as to
render it likely that he has participated in a number of marijuana-related
activitiesselling among themis an accurate supposition.
The smoker who purchases (and possesses) only an ounce is unlikely
to split it up for the purpose of selling it to others.
The law, moreover, makes no distinction between the act of selling
or giving away small quantities to friends or acquaintances for
little or no profit, and dealing on a large-scale professional
basis. In September 1969, a twenty-one-year-old man was sentenced
to fifty years in prison by the state of Texas for the
act of selling two marijuana cigarettes.
Although the legal implications of petty
selling and professional dealing are identical, the social worlds
of these activities are radically disjunctive.
So there is the question of what the penalties are designed to
deter. Is it the technical fact that the literal act of an exchange
of money for marijuana took place? Or is it designed to eradicate
the source of the drug? Can a user who has only an ounce or two
in his possession where distribution sources must be measured
in kilograms, not ounces, possibly be the original source for
anyone's drug use, aside from his own and a few friends? In fact,
it is probably safe to say that the user who possesses only an
ounce is almost certainly not a large-scale dealer.
There is the argument that the penalties for marijuana possession
(and use) should be reduced, but not for selling. This distinction
violates empirical reality; it implies the existence of two relatively
separated social and moral spheres that articulate on a superficial
basisprofit. If the seller is guilty, the user is, too, because
the user is the seller, and the seller the user. The technical
exchange of contraband goods for money takes place at every conceivable
level and by nearly everyone above the minimally involved. Labeling
all selling heinous and use only moderately reprehensible, is
to display ignorance of how the market works. The present law,
as well as the moderate reforms currently being proposed, puts
use in one legal, logical category, and all levels of selling
in another. We find use and most selling transactions to be logically
and socially indistinguishable while high level, high volume,
and high profit selling transactions exist in a disjunctive social
and moral universe. If we believed in "natural" social
categories, the present confusion would represent as great an
intellectual blunder as classifying whales as fish and bats as
a species of bird.
* These prices were current before the
Mexican border blockade and increased vigilance of 1969 and 1970.
At the present time (February 1970), prices are about one and
a third to one and a half more than what they were a year earlier,
even assuming the availability of marijuana, which is often problematic.
N O T E S
1. It is interesting that the most vigorous
of the antimarijuana propagandists of the 1930s, Harry Anslinger,
denied that marijuana was sold by professional gangsters in 1937:
"... the control and sale of marijuana has not yet passed
into the hands of the big gangster syndicates. The supply is so
vast, and grows in so many places, that gangsters perhaps have
found it difficult to dominate the source.... gangdom has been
hampered in its efforts to corner the profits of what has now
become an enormous business." See Harry J. Anslinger, with
Courtney Ryley Cooper, "MarijuanaAssassin of Youth,"
American Magazine 124 (July 18, 1937): 152-153. (back)
2. The clearest recent statement of this position
may be found in Will Oursler, Marijuana: The Facts, the Truth
(New York: Paul S. Eriksson, 1968), pp. 113-120. Oursler seems
to think these college student distributors are gangland fronts,
and are called "beavers" in the underworld. (back)
3. The New York Times, September 27,
4. Ibid., October 6, 1968. (back)
5. The most informative of recent accounts
must include: James T. Carey, The College Drug Scene (Englewood
Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), esp. chs. 2, 4, 5; Jerry
Mandel, "Myths and Realities of Marijuana Pushing,"
in J. L. Simmons, ed., Marijuana: Myths and Realities
(North Hollywood, Calif.: Brandon House, 1967), pp.
s8-1lo; Don McNeill, "Green Grows the Grass on the Lower
East Side," The Village Voice, December 1, 1966, pp.
3, 21; "Ric," "I Turned on 200 Fellow Students
at the University of Michigan," Esquire, September
1967, pp. 101, 190-193; Anonymous, "On Selling Marijuana,"
in Erich Goode, ed., Marijuana (New York: Atherton Press,
1969), pp. 92-102; Jaakov Kohn, "Superdealer," The
East Village Other, January 10, 1969, pp. 3, 14-15 and "Midipusher,"
The East Village Other, January 24, 1969, pp. 6 7, 21;
Nicholas von Hoffman, We Are the People Our Parents Warned
Us Against (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1968). (back)
6. Charles Grutzner, "Mafia is Giving
Up Heroin Monopoly," The New York Times, September
2, 1968, pp. 1, 49. (back)
7. This raises uncomfortable and intriguing
constitutional questions that we do not have the space to elaborate
on. The parallels between growing one's own marijuana and consuming
it in the privacy of one's own home, and pornography consumed
in private, are striking. Since the Supreme Court has ruled that
owning privately consumed pornography is legal, the same demand
could be made for marijuana consumption. See the article by Michael
A. Town on the constitutionality of marijuana use as being protected
by the right to privacy: "The California Marijuana Possession
Statute: An Infringement on the Right of Privacy or Other Peripheral
Constitutional Rights?" The Hastings Law Journal 19 (March
1968): 758-782. Now that growing one's own has become so important
among many users, this consideration is especially crucial.
8. Michael W. Morier, Home Grown Happiness
(New York: Mikus Book, 1967). See also Robert G. Barbour ed.,
Turn on Book: Synthesis and Extractions of Organic Psychedelics
(BarNel Enterprises, 1967); this latter volume includes instructions
on preparing and growing a dozen psychedelic drugs, including
marijuana, mescaline, DMT, LSD, peyote, and psilocybin. (back)
9. "Saw Toothed," New Yorker,
August 11, 1951, pp. 18-19; however, probably only one-tenth
or less of this bulk would be useable marijuana. (back)
10. Unquestionably the most fantastic
of these rumors is the story, in the January 30, 1965, issue of
The Marijuana Newsletter, a short-lived mimeographed publication
whose purpose was to "disseminate information toward the
legalization of marijuana," about a form of marijuana called
"Manhattan Silver," marijuana grown inadvertently in
sewers by the seeds having been flushed into the sewage system
and growing untended (silver because of the lack of light). The
story was a hoax. It was, nonetheless, believed, picked up, and
passed on both by advocates and opponents of marijuana use. See
John Rosevear, Pot: A Handbook of Marijuana (New
Hyde Park, N. Y.: University Books, 1967), pp. 42-43, and Edward
R. Bloomquist, Marijuana (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Glencoe
Press, 1968), pp. 5, 14, for two contestantsthe first pro-
and the second antimarijuana usetaken in by the hoax.
11. However, at least one account quoted
an informant who claimed that "over a hundred pot smokers,
himself included, are growing hidden little marijuana gardens
in Manhattan's Central Park." See James Sterba, "The
Politics of Pot," Esquire, August 68, p. 59.
12. As a rough indication of the extent
of growth of the marijuana plant in the Midwest, consider that
a botanist recently stated that 17 percent of the seasonal pollen
in the air in Nebraska originates from the marijuana plant. Cited
in Sterba, op. cit., p. 118. See Julian Steyermark, Flora
of Missouri (Ames: Iowa State University, 1963).
13. RichardGoldstein,1in7: Drugs on
the Campus (New York: Walker, 1966),p. 115. (back)
14. McNeill, op. cit., p. 21.
15. I depart from Mandel, op. cit.,
p. 93, on this point; Mandel underplays the prestige motive
among sellers. (back)
16. Anonymous, in "A Note From the
Underground," in J. L. Simmons, ed., Marijuana: Myths
and Realities (North Hollywood, Calif.: Brandon House, 1967),
p. 19. (back)
17. Jack Rosenthal, "A Fresh Look
at Those Harsh Marijuana Penalties," The New York Times,
Sunday, October 19, 1969, Section 4, The Week in Review, p.