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New York Marijuana Delivery Services Generate Plenty of Green

Experts compare them to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” speakeasies of the 1920s

Email icon  eam412@nyu.edu

Jeff, a college student living in Manhattan, is in a predicament faced by thousands every night. His favorite TV show just started and the couch might as well be quicksand. All would be right in the world if one thing magically appeared. For some, that’s a Ray’s Pizza, for others, a Sam Adams. For Jeff, it’s a nice, fat joint. And in New York City, the mecca of delivery services, illicit drugs are just a phone call away.

Over the past decade, scoring weed in New York has become a lot like ordering pizza – if one has the right connection. Since the delivery services are of course illegal, buyers must be referred by other customers. Jeff, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used, said being invited into a network was like hitting the pot jackpot: zero paranoia, myriad flavors and 24/7 availability.

“Delivery services are a stoner’s dream,” he said. “You don’t have to hunt down an unreliable dealer. You just pick up the phone, and an hour later you’re getting stoned.”

Jeff places a phone order with an operator at “Sunsets” —who, for all he knows, is in Amsterdam. An hour later, a clean-cut, twenty-something deliveryman shows up at his front door and unzips a backpack. A buffet of weed billows out before Jeff’s eyes. The marijuana is separated into containers labeled with brand name, price and type of high.

“The delivery guys can normally refer me to a particular strand of weed for the kind of high I’m looking for. If I’m looking for “perma-grin” [supposed to lead to non-stop giggling] I’ll take Blueberry Cush. If I want a mellow stoned with slight hallucinations, I’d take Bubblegum.”

Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said delivery services have a reputation of carrying the best marijuana, and cost most – about $500 to $600 for a half ounce.

The services reputedly cater to wealthier clients.

“Wall Street [business people], or even NYU kids, don’t want to be seen trying to score weed on the street,” said Barry Spunt, a professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studied pot delivery services.

Long gone are New York’s “candy shops”—joint-selling bodegas—and open air drug markets, according to his 2000 study, “We Deliver: The Gentrification of the Lower East Side Drug Market,” written with fellow John Jay professors Travis Wendel and Rick Curtis. So is the city were “two old hippies could sit on a rock in Central Park and smoke a joint in peace,” he noted. Now there are corporate-style marijuana organizations, whose deliverers get paid holidays and Christmas bonuses.

The researchers tracked the first pot delivery service in New York to the mid-1980s, but such services flourished during the late 1990s, amid aggressive street policing. The number of people arrested for marijuana possession skyrocketed from 774 in 1991 to more than 50,000 in 2000. (This tapered off to about 33,000 in 2007.) Pagers, cell phones and laptops abetted the trend.

Only 12 recent arrests were connected to a delivery service. In 2005, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency busted the sophisticated marijuana sales organization “Cartoon Network.” The organization was packaging tons of Canadian-grown marijuana with special holiday greeting labels when it was busted. The DEA alleged that “Cartoon Network” had served 50,000 customers in the New York City area for six years, and fielded 600 phone call requests a day. A customer would place an order at a roving call center, and after the operator confirmed the customer’s identity in a computer database, received two-gram packages of marijuana, at $100 to $500 each. According to the DEA, the boss of “Cartoon Network,” John Nebel, made millions from the organization.

Despite the hype of a big bust, the cops know they are just scratching the surface with such organizations, St. Pierre said. A number of experts compare delivery services to the speakeasies of the 1920s, saying they help cops look the other way while people violate the law.

“The police know that it’s going on, but they don’t seem to have delivery services very high on their radar,” Curtis wrote in an e-mail. The services use predominantly white delivery people, since police are seen as targeting black or Latino dealers.

The 2007 study “Dollars for Collars” by Queens College professor Harry Levine found that eight blacks or Hispanics were arrested for marijuana possession for each white arrest.

Though she wouldn’t comment on delivery services, a DEA spokeswoman confirmed that there has recently been a significant increase in the number of marijuana distributors and growers in the city.

Predicted St. Pierre: “[The delivery services] are going to keep expanding as the technology gets better, and the demand keeps growing.”