Weed Dealer Believes Black Market Will Survive Legalization
Last week, Gov. Tim Walz signed what was once known as House File 100, the bill legalizing recreational sale of cannabis in Minnesota. The DFL legislators behind the bill structured it, they said, to shut down the ubiquitous black market in cannabis. A government shot across the bow of entrepreneurism is hardly unheard of in these parts, but we wondered if their aim will be true. There was only one way to find out.
I got to know the dealer before the pandemic at a restaurant where he worked. Eventually it got back to me that he had this side business. He got into it in high school. If you liked to get high in the ‘00s, it was a good way to generate walking around money and it made you a lot of friends. Now he’s 34 and continues to supplement his income selling cannabis. It constitutes a quarter of his take-home, he says, and allows him a better lifestyle in one of the more fashionable parts of town. He’s still got at least a year of exclusivity selling smokeable weed, but we wondered whether the business still looks hospitable, post HF100.
So, what all do you sell?
I do flower, carts, and edibles. Sometimes wax and other concentrates. Stuff with more potency, refined down to just the THC, basically.
You mean hard drugs? No.
When did you get into this?
Oh, my first time was in high school. And then in college. I didn’t think it was fiscally responsible for me to smoke a bunch of weed when I knew a bunch of people who wanted to get high and so I could smoke for free or make a profit on it. Buying in bulk costs you less in the long run; I’d just sell it in eighths.
So you’ve been at it on and off for nearly 20 years? Back in the day I assume it was just flower?
Yeah. I didn’t see other forms until maybe ‘08 or ‘09.
Did you ever grow?
No, I don’t know the process. I have friends who do. It requires an operation. It smells. I live in an apartment. It also uses a lot of energy with the grow lights.
What’s been your level of concern over the years about arrest or legal trouble?
For six or eight months I was a corner guy, in that I’d sell to people I met at bars, people on the street, I’d cycle through burner phones [to communicate with them]. But other than that time period, I’ve just sold to people I know and they give me referrals, so it’s a pretty close circle. Even if I was to get busted, it’s not like cocaine, where you’re going to jail.
Have you seen the HBO show High Maintenance?
Huh. So you got into the business because you liked to party?
Sort of. In college I’d cop a couple ounces and sell it before the weekend and that’d pay for my drinks, my food. I lived in a fraternity, so it was shooting fish in a barrel.
How did you find suppliers?
You just kind of ask around. My biggest partner I ever had I met in high school. I went to a military prep school. Then after college I stopped smoking [because it was incompatible with his work]. Then I got back into it and my old partner got back in touch with me. That’s when I made the most money because I was driving too. Here to Colorado, here to Memphis, here to Cedar Rapids, just transporting weed. Of the people I was working with I was the only white man without tattoos and so I attracted less attention. It’s a profiling thing. I’d have 15-30 pounds in my trunk.
That didn’t freak you out? You trusted your partners?
He was my best friend in life. We went through a lot together. I have a good eye for character.
Who are your customers today?
Mostly co-workers and friends of co-workers. I work in the service industry, so lawyers and doctors are not who I work with. People like to party. It’s a cash industry. I won’t sell to someone until I’ve known them for a few months. I don’t approach people, they come to me.
What do you sell most of?
It varies. Some people just want to roll joints, but more and more people are getting into the [vape oil] carts. Colorado is the OG state and I think it has the best product and pricing. My supply comes out of Colorado. My guy has access to a lot of stuff. He’ll send me 40 carts or a pound of weed. I don’t travel anymore.
40 carts is the equivalent of like $1,500 worth of product?
So is it being diverted from the wholesale stream?
Either he knows someone in a dispensary or he has some sort of license that allows him access to buy large quantities at lower prices. He does not work in that industry, I know that. The product I get has batch numbers, expiration dates. They’re not expired but they’re closer to expiration than you’d buy in a dispensary.
Not from China.
Do you have enough to meet demand?
I sell whatever I can get my hands on, as long as I have the right product. People are choosy because they can go all sorts of places and buy it now. And the quality is very good most everywhere.
The reasons people buy weed now are quite diverse. The legal marketplace has become very sophisticated. Do you know why your customers buy?
A lot of people use it for sleep and, this is going to sound strange, but to motivate them for random tasks around the house, with a sativa [strain]. I have one customer, she has bad celiac disease, and uses it for GI pain. But most is recreational.
There’s this whole “California sober” movement, where NA shops like Marigold sell THC products for customers who don’t want booze. They’ve drawn a bright line between alcohol and cannabis. Do you notice the de-stigmatization of marijuana?
I think so. I’ll be serving tables of people who’d never order a THC seltzer in a previous era. Back in the day it was a blunt or a joint. And smoking is out of favor, people look down on smoking. But now you can get high in a bathroom in 30 seconds and it doesn’t smell, or you can make it part of a meal and compare [tasting] notes. And there’s also a lot of information. The labels tell you what’s inside and so in that sense it’s like alcohol or a food product.
Minnesota wants to eliminate the black market, guys like you. So our taxation is going to be 17-18% (including sales tax), lower than in many states. Is that going to put you out of business?
We don’t know if an eighth is going to cost you 60 bucks or 35. And it depends on the quality of the product. In Michigan their carts are like $25-$30, but their [THC] concentration is low, under 45%. In Colorado you can get much higher concentrations, like I carry, so it will depend on the quality of what’s available.
Are you worried, or do you feel you have a built-in advantage, because you don’t have to rent a storefront and you don’t have to charge 18% tax?
I think it all comes down to the product available here. I imagine initially it’s going to be very expensive. In KCMO, which just legalized six months ago, carts are $80, $90, because the demand is crazy and [like MN, they’re surrounded by states that have prohibition]. People will not want to pay $90 a cart when they can spend $55 with me.