NEW YORK PRESS
Aug. 2-8, 2006
WEED ON WHEELS
Delivery services pair illegal drugs with the comforts of home
By Sushil Cheema
Looking dapper in dark slacks and a powder blue oxford shirt, 31-year-old Ricky (names have been changed) approaches the bar and drapes his suit jacket and messenger bag over the back of a bar stool. He greets the bartender and orders a Stella. Here he is relaxed and comfortable—just another young professional having a drink after work. During the day he works at a large media company. Some nights he goes out to bars. He calls this particular one his watering hole and spends countless evenings here with friends, playing pool and chatting. Other nights it’s dinner with fine wine. And once in awhile it’s time at home, complete with delivery. But delivery is not just Chinese food.
In a city in which residents are accustomed to delivery services ranging from groceries to laundry, some, like Ricky, have discovered the convenience and safety of having drugs—namely marijuana—brought directly to their doors. “I’ve never bought pot in New York any other way,” says Ricky, who has lived in New York City for more than eight years and who has used a variety of delivery services for the past six.With such to-your-door services, the privacy of the exchanges appeals to many clients. The chances of getting caught, clients think, are also much lower.
As Federal prosecutor for Manhattan, Rudolph Giuliani waged a war on the small-time drug dealers of the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, and he continued to fight street-level drug dealing when he became mayor in 1993. As mayor, he subscribed to the “Broken Window” theory developed by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson in the ’80s. In a 2003 interview with the Academy of Achievement, Giuliani discussed the theory and its influence on his policies. “The idea of it is that you had to pay attention to small things, otherwise they would get out of control and become much worse. And that, in fact, in a lot of our approach to crime, quality of life, social programs, we were allowing small things to get worse rather than dealing with them at the earliest possible stage.” Through his efforts, Giuliani helped reduce the city’s crime, including street-level drug dealing. He says of his strategy, “You’ve got to pay attention to everything, and you can’t give criminals a sense of immunity.”
But it is just such a sense of immunity to punishment that seems to drive the drug delivery services and their clients. No longer is a drug deal limited to a quick exchange in the dark corners of the city’s streets and parks. “Instead of an outdoor market it’s gone into houses and apartments and indoor markets,” says Erin McKenzie-Mulvey, a public information officer at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This trend, she says, has occurred primarily over the past five years.
“I remember the first time I was introduced to this in the city,” says Molly. “I was amazed. I mean, I thought it was cool I could get any sort of food delivered, then found out the liquor store delivered—an added bonus. But when I had the number to get pot delivered I was floored; there was no need to leave the house. Ah, the comforts of home and a phone, not to mention the variety of pot offered.”
Ricky says other clients of services that he knows are just like him. “They’re yuppies. People who make more than $70,000 who are professionals.”
Zachary, a clean-cut thirty-something who runs his own one-man delivery service confirms that generalization. His client base consists of college students at schools like Columbia, NYU and Parsons, as well as young professionals, including investment bankers and clothing companies.
Some of the drug delivery services are large, intricate networks of deliverymen on bicycles or on foot. Others, like Zachary’s, are smaller operations run by a single person. “I prefer smaller delivery services now, just a one-man team instead of the bicycle team both ‘Fresh Direct’ and ‘Cartoon Network’ [street names unrelated to the actual companies] use,” Molly says of the city’s larger services, the latter of which has been shut down. Fresh Direct, she says, not only uses the name of the grocery delivery service but also uses its logo on its business cards. “I like seeing the same guy over and over again instead of guessing who it is the other two will
Whether using a large or small service, the mode of operation is very similar. Clients contact the service by phone and have the supplier come to their apartments.
“They’re regular guys,” Ricky says of the dealers. “You wouldn’t recognize them on the street.” Zachary himself is an average thirty-something man who wears polo shirts and slacks. In no way does his appearance indicate that he is a dealer.
Conversations are simple and friendly. “They’re cool guys,” says Ricky, who has used different services over the years. “You hang out with them. Sometimes you smoke with them and then they leave.” He adds, “If I was having a party, I would invite them.”
“When people become familiar with you, they’re gonna take a lot of liberties,” says Zachary, explaining why he avoids socializing with clients who are not close friends.
The order and the exchange sometimes take place live, but some services take orders, in code, over the phone. The dealer—carrying a backpack or messenger bag—has a variety of products from which the customer can select. Customers, Ricky says, can buy in quantity and spend $300 to $500 if they choose, but being only an occasional user, he himself buys only one $50, vacuum-sealed, plastic container—the minimum required—at a time. That amount, he says, typically lasts him a month.
“It’s very fucking efficient,” Ricky says. “I mean it’s amazing.”
Word-of-mouth is the main means of advertising for these drug delivery services, but a quick look through Craigslist brings up a handful of requests for delivery as well as service providers. Some services also hand out cryptic business cards and flyers that clients know to look for.
The suppliers, it seems, keep basic information about their clients, relying primarily on phone numbers and first names to verify the client. The customers know very little about the suppliers. “I don’t know anything about them except the name they give me,” Molly says.
Like most customers, Ricky only has the pot delivered to his home. He is not concerned that the dealers have his cell phone number, first name and address in a database that could potentially be seized by police. “Naw,” he says. After a pause, he chuckles and says, “I never even thought of that until you just asked.”
Like Ricky, direct delivery is the only way in which Kris, another client, has obtained marijuana while living in Manhattan. At a rooftop party with stunning views of the midtown Manhattan skyline on Saturday night, he talked about an order he placed that very day. Usually, this 31-year-old doctor says, he orders for friends when they are visiting from out of town, and Saturday was one of those days. There is always a selection of items—like northern lights or purple haze—and he says the products come in vacuum-sealed containers.
“It took them more than two hours to get here today,” he says with slight exasperation. “Sometimes they don’t show up at all.”
“That’s the thing about dealers,” says Ricky. “You really can’t rely on them to be punctual.” Ricky himself has waited an average of 45 minutes for a delivery but says it can be as little as 20 minutes or as much as two hours. “It comes with the package.”
Despite the wait, Ricky, like Molly and Kris, is a devoted fan of the services. “You paid for the comfort, you paid for the safety, and you paid for the trust, and that’s that,” he says. “It’s a good thing.”
Unfortunately for the customers and suppliers, the NYPD and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) disagree. In December 2005, the DEA shut down the Cartoon Network, one of the larger, sophisticated networks that began operating in New York City in 1999. Twelve of the organization’s members were arrested and indicted.
“The defendants’ organization received up to 600 customer telephone calls per day from over 50,000 different telephone numbers through a roving call center and delivered the marijuana via a distribution system of drug couriers,” the DEA reported in a press release immediately after the arrests were made.
Pagers, cell phones and computers were staples in the network’s operations. Customers would page the group, and the managers would return the calls. Confirmation of identity was required and orders were accepted over the phone. The vials in which the product arrived contained a special Cartoon Network logo.
“With Cartoon Network, you get the name of the guy who just dropped off your latest order, and you use that as your password for your next,” says Molly, a former customer of Cartoon Network who was unaware that the organization had been shut down.
Casper, a graduate student, was a client of the Cartoon Network when he lived in Williamsburg. He says he and his friends questioned who was behind the delivery service but continued to use it because it was reliable. “We thought it was the cops doing an inside job,” he says, laughing. “Turns out it wasn’t, but the cops knew about them.”
The person sent to make the delivery would match the profile of the neighborhood, Casper says, to make sure he wouldn’t stand out and draw attention to himself. If he and his friends were having the delivery made to Williamsburg, the deliveryman would be “a big black guy,” but a delivery to a Soho apartment would bring a “white kid with a backpack,” he says.
Police are unable to understand why individuals would not worry about getting caught as clients. “I wouldn’t begin to guess why someone could think they could break the law and get away with it,” says one police officer, who declined to be named. He was unable to say what repercussions a person could face if their name, address and phone number were found in a supplier’s database, but suggested that a person could be kept under watch. “We need reasonable cause to pursue a case, not mere suspicion,” he says.
Even if the cops are watching, many clients are not worried. “Big deal,” says Gary. “So what, the cops know a buyer.”
Ricky agrees. “There’s no violence involved in this,” he says of the services benefits. “They have a lot of other shit going on,” he says of the police. He laughs and adds sarcastically, “Well, I hope.”
Zachary doesn’t worry about the police, he says, but he does worry about getting robbed. Deliverymen must carry not just the products they supply on them but also large amounts of cash. “Honestly, there’s no precautions you can take,” he says of deterring attacks.
And customers are not afraid of the services disappearing. “They can keep busting as many as they want,” Ricky says of the police. “Another one is going to pop up in their place.”
Volume 19, Issue 31