On a typical weekday afternoon, Adam would bicycle past rows of Brooklyn brownstones with a half-dozen plastic, orange pill bottles full of high-quality marijuana in the pockets of his Carhartt jacket. He’d stop at an apartment building, lock his metallic 9-speed Bianchi road bike on the sidewalk and call his client to be buzzed inside.
Adam’s customer, who was always someone who’d been referred by a friend or a prior client, could examine the 2.5 grams of fragrant flower clusters before handing Adam $50 in cash. Adam wouldn’t make much small talk -- on most days he’d have between 10 and 15 more deliveries to make, meaning he’d often bike upward of 30 miles a day during a typical nine-hour shift.
For nearly two years throughout 2007 and 2008, Adam (whose last name has been withheld to protect his identity) delivered weed for a small, illegal company he and a friend started in New York City. His territory covered a wide swath of Brooklyn -- from the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Bushwick to eastern Bed-Stuy and down to Park Slope -- and included lower Manhattan, too.
Delivering pot, Adam could make up to $250 a day, tax free. At his previous job selling car rims, Adam had made about $66 per day after taxes. So when the opportunity arose to pedal vials of cannabis around New York City, it was a no-brainer.
“I enjoy smoking weed immensely,” Adam says. “It was my way of meeting people and getting out and seeing and learning everything I could about the city. I learned the streets of Brooklyn like the back of my hand.”
It all started not long after Adam first moved to the city after majoring in history at a college upstate. “The gentrification happening in the Williamsburg, Bushwick, Fort Greene area” during that time had created “an untapped market for selling weed,” Adam said.
The work was physically taxing, and Adam lost several bikes to broken wheels and thieves; but he says he loved the job, particularly getting to interact with New Yorkers.
“I met people from all walks of life connected by their love of weed. I’d deliver to fancy buildings with doormen in the West Village and to artists living in brownstones. I got asked out on dates and invited to dinner parties by my customers -- all kinds of stuff,” he said.
There are more than a dozen marijuana home delivery companies currently operating in New York City. There are bigger ones like Safeway, whose voicemails sound like an actual Safeway supermarket, and Sour Kush Cafe, which sends its customers alerts via text message when a courier is nearby. There are also smaller, boutique services like Fresh Direct, Jackpot, Exotic 420, Brooklyn Organics, Reliable and Speedy’s Dogwalkers.
Brownies baked with marijuana butter are $10 each (left); Sour Diesel and Strawberry Cough are just two of the dozens of strains New Yorkers can have delivered to their homes as easily as ordering a pizza.
Such companies have existed since at least the late 1980s. Despite the dramatic rise in street arrests for marijuana possession in the mid 1990s, spearheaded by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and zealously continued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the services have proliferated, offering residents a safe and private way to buy pot.
Many of the services, if not all of them, avoid police infiltration with a simple but apparently effective system in which new customers must be personally referred by existing clients.
Some services have code words: Customers of one company must ask if a "rep" is available when they call and specify that they need help with their "cookies programming" if they want to buy edibles.
Communication between dispatchers and couriers is often done using mobile messaging apps that are said to be more difficult for the police to access.
Many services employ marketing techniques to increase their customer base, like offering incentives for frequent customers, customers who buy large quantities or customers who refer their friends to the service.
Most of New York's cannabis couriers are knowledgeable about their product in a way that suggests they cater to buyers who take their pot seriously. Runners typically arrive with at least three or four different strains of neatly packaged and labeled bud, and they will explain its qualities like a waiter reciting the specials at a fancy restaurant.
The weed itself -- usually ultra-potent buds grown hydroponically or occasionally in outdoor gardens -- comes from Pennsylvania and New England but also from the West Coast, British Columbia and Quebec.
Most services carry both indica and sativa weed varieties, as well as hybrid strains that incorporate qualities from both, giving consumers a range of choices to suit their tastes.
The difference between indica and sativa, says Abdullah Saeed, author of the weekly Vice series “Weediquette,” is that sativas “tend to make you feel more active and creative,” whereas indicas are “nighttime stuff” that “make you feel more introspective and sedated.”
"Everybody has their own personal preferences for what works for them," said a wool sweater-clad Saeed, his hair in a topknot, at the Manhattan loft where he works.
One of the only drawbacks to getting such good pot, many New Yorkers will tell you, is that a standard “eighth” in the Big Apple contains only 2.5 grams of pot (an eighth of an ounce of weed should weigh a little over 3.5 grams.) But that’s the price you pay in New York City.
Part of the reason is that customers are paying for convenience. “Because it's NYC, everyone expects to have anything and everything delivered to their front door,” Adam says.
Since the services have a relatively high buy-in threshold ($50 or $60 is the least you can spend) most customers tend to be hard-working, often middle- or upper-middle class people.
"A lot of my customers were 9-to-5 people who just needed that after-work break," Adam said. “If there's one thing I learned, it's that weed knows no boundaries when it comes to who wants to smoke. For the most part, people just want a little distraction from their everyday struggle. I was more than happy to provide them with it.”
Remarkably, these illegal herb services are allowed to operate with near impunity. Couriers who have been arrested report being let off with a relatively small fine. In the last 20 years, there has only been one major bust involving a delivery service. That business, known as the Cartoon Network, had been a large and lucrative operation before it was broken up in 2005 by a team of federal and local law enforcement agents. According to court documents, Cartoon Network sold about 2,200 pounds of weed over a seven-year period, sometimes moving more than $12,000 of pot per day. Still, its ringleader, John Nebel, served just a little more than four years of his five-year sentence.
For Adam, who is black, the statistical likelihood that he’d be caught via “stop and frisk” -- the controversial New York Police Department (NYPD) tactic where people are questioned and patted down on mere suspicion of criminal activity -- was high. In 2007 and 2008, when Adam was delivering marijuana three to five days a week, blacks in New York were about nine times more likely to be stopped and patted down by the police than whites, according to calculations based on data from the New York Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Census Bureau.
Luckily, though, Adam was never caught. He believes it was because he didn’t "fit the prototype for a 'drug dealer.’"
"Even though I was a black male in his early 20s, I wore skinny jeans, glasses, and had a high-top haircut,” he said.
Part of the reason for the NYPD’s apparent indifference to busting weed couriers is because of the small quantities being sold. Runners use New York’s marijuana possession laws to their advantage by never carrying too much weed at any given time. Being caught with less than 25 grams is a violation, not a criminal offense, under New York state law.
“The people being prosecuted as dealers in NYC are generally not those selling an ounce or a half-pound of weed, unless they're also selling harder drugs,” said New York attorney Joseph Bondy, who specializes in defending people who have been arrested for marijuana offenses. “Unless you're doing a deal in broad daylight, and you happen to get stopped by the cops, the police are not going to concern themselves.”
The services themselves are also structured to prevent snitching.
"The system [used by weed delivery companies] is set up so that they can't roll anybody up the chain. That's why it's so resilient," said National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Executive Director Allen St. Pierre. "The delivery guys at the bottom often have no idea who is providing the pot to them. They may know the person, but they don't know their real name."
The NYPD's apparent apathy toward busting weed couriers, St. Pierre says, is simply that it has more important things to worry about: “Gotham has so many other things going on that should rightly concern police than trying to get between two consenting adults who are having private communications and doing their business in private.”
Not only was Adam never arrested, he says his parents never found out about his job. Eventually, however, he left the weed service entirely to pursue a career in hospitality. But the company he helped found in 2007 has grown and continues to prosper in his absence.
This story appears in Issue 83 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Jan. 10 in the iTunes App store.