Confessions of a Journalist Turned Weed Smuggler
IT’S A LITTLE after midnight on a cold winter night. I’m in someone else’s van, driving down a highway I’ve never seen before. I’m on my way to pick up a load of marijuana and transport it across state lines.
What could go wrong?
The trip was organized at the last minute. In situations like these, you don’t ask questions. But when a friend of a friend calls to ask if you can drive to Oklahoma for a quick drug deal, it’s hard to say no. The money is just too good.
The trip, however, is nerve-wracking. I don’t know the client, nor the person I’m meeting in Oklahoma. It’s 25 degrees outside. The van is old, and cold air rushes in through cracks in the window. I can’t seem to keep my phone charged because the cord is frayed. And where the hell is that heater control?
I’m making good time, though, considering that I’m supposed to make the connection around 3 a.m. At this rate, I should get in around 2 a.m. Once I’m there, I’m not exactly sure how it’s supposed to go down. I’m working solely on trust.
About an hour outside Oklahoma City, my client calls to check on my progress.
“Hey, you be real careful when you get down there,” my client says. “That’s the same place a guy got killed a couple months ago.”
Wait. What? The who did what now?
The adrenaline kicks in. I remember this feeling from when I was a reporter, embedded with Marines in Iraq. Your senses are heightened. Backing out is not an option. You just have to push forward, hyper-aware of every ripple and detail, every nuance in the moment that might spell trouble. Because you cannot fail. Failure in this job means jail or worse.
I’ve got bills to pay, which is theoretically why I’m out here. But to be honest, I’m also enjoying the adrenaline rush. I don’t know what attracts me to this task more, the money or the excitement. I’ll make more money on this one run than I would have working at Amazon for two months. But just as valuable to me is the feeling of vitality, of intensity, of real stakes. I feel engaged, alive. What I do has consequences. It matters. You don’t get that working at an Amazon warehouse either.
This is something they don’t tell you about criminal activity. When you’re facing economic hardship, you’re also usually facing mind-numbing, soul-destroying drudgery at the jobs that are available to you. It’s not just that they don’t pay you enough. They also make you feel dead. A lot of people turn to illegal or otherwise questionable activity simply because they want to feel alive.
It started for me when I got back from Iraq. I went there three times as a journalist. I got shot at, bombed, and watched a lot of people die. And then I was back at the office, writing about an infestation of woodpeckers at a local retirement village. The disconnect was severe. The alienation was setting in. But at least I was compensated well.
Maybe too well, my bosses thought. After working as a journalist for twenty-five years, I was laid off from the paper. I had no other work experience, no other skills, and the industry was beginning its death throes, making jobs scarce. Worse, I had a bad attitude — I’d never been good at pretending to like people I didn’t, so networking didn’t exactly come naturally to me. My job prospects were limited. That’s an understatement; they were nonexistent. Soon, depression set in.
But depression or not, eventually the bills had to be paid. I spotted an ad looking for people to manage some of the strip clubs in town. I had some familiarity with that world, having covered San Francisco’s underground sex scene for a while. While not always a particularly pleasant milieu, it was at least a vibrant one. I figured that if getting paid decently for boring work was out of the question, my best option was getting paid poorly to do interesting work.
I worked as a manager for San Francisco strip clubs for two years. I broke up fights, drove out pimps and drug dealers, had a stripper throw up on me. And those are just the highlights. It was a stressful job, but there was never a dull moment. At the heart of it all were the dancers, the women who stripped in front of crowds and who would grind on strangers’ laps for money. I was in some sense a pimp, even though everything I did was legal.
Once you take the first step into the netherworld, others are easy. Your self-worth is no longer tied up in following society’s rules. In fact, it starts to get tied up in bending them. In time, the idea of a strait-laced life starts to sound a little repugnant, the idea of a job behind a desk or counter a touch insulting.
One day, I was on the phone with a friend who had moved to Florida. He was complaining about the high price of marijuana down there. He said an enterprising person could take a couple pounds of California green to Florida and make some cash. The idea appealed to me. I’m not a bad criminal — I would never hurt someone or steal anything. But I don’t agree with the laws prohibiting cannabis. Everyone I know uses it or at least thinks the laws are stupid. So I had no moral qualms that way. The only question was: could I do it and not get arrested?
At the time, I would have told you that my main interest was money. But then I remember something that happened before the idea was proposed, back when weed was illegal in California too. I once met an older woman at a bar in San Francisco’s upscale Noe Valley neighborhood. Her husband had died, and she had trouble making her rent. I asked how she was able to live in this expensive city. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said, leaning in and whispering, “but I sell marijuana.” I detected a note of pride in her voice, and I understood it implicitly. Poverty can’t subdue me, she seemed to be saying. I live life on my terms.
I knew some people who knew some people. The arrangement seemed pretty straightforward. Buy low in Humboldt, drive to Florida, and sell high. Long drive, nice payoff, no problems. Well, maybe a few problems. As much as I didn’t want to go to jail or get robbed or shot, the idea that things might go bad sweetened the deal. It meant I had to keep my wits about me. It was a choose-your-own-adventure story.
That first drive was nerve-wracking. I kept my speed down and my head on a swivel, careful for any sign of the highway patrol. The cardinal rule of drug smuggling is don’t get pulled over. It’s not that hard: don’t drive a car that looks like a drug dealer’s car, don’t go over the speed limit, and never not be white.
After the first time, I got more comfortable with the process — but not too comfortable. That’s the other trick to staying out of jail. Never cut corners. Always take the greatest care. And never sample the product. Save that for later and buy your own.
It would be more noble to say that I smuggled drugs out of economic desperation, but that’s not true. I liked the rush. I also liked the people I dealt with, and the exposure to the human condition. Even after twenty-five years in journalism, I never knew humanity the way I did working at a strip club and moving product. In the dark, you see people close up. You learn who has a good soul and whose is muddy. You have to trust your gut. People will show themselves to you and it’s important that you listen.
Living on the edge brings you closer to other people, and closer to yourself. That’s why people do it. Because we want adventure, connection, and proof of our own existence in a world that otherwise treats us as expendable and interchangeable. The world seems almost designed to estrange us from ourselves. On the surface, I was selling drugs, but beneath that I was rejecting the tedium and alienation imposed on people as punishment for economic hardship. I was trying, in my own way, to touch life.
My friend Joe started selling weed when he was in seventh grade, because he wanted to get high and weed was expensive. If you sold it, you could smoke from your stash. “I had older siblings and that’s how it worked,” he tells me. “They would give me an ounce and I would roll it into joints and I would sell 80 percent of it and smoke 20 percent of it.”
He never considered whether selling weed was right or wrong. “You have to understand, my father was a bookie for over thirty years. He used to carry a gun,” he says. “I’ve seen things a lot of children wouldn’t.”
Joe has sold drugs all his life. When he was young he sold cannabis and cocaine. Later, working construction, he would do it to bring in some extra cash, especially during slow times. And when he got too old to swing a hammer, selling drugs again paid the rent. It made life livable, both because it provided needed income and because it allowed him to live life on his own terms. Selling drugs was a form of resistance to the tyranny of low-paid retail or fast-food work, or whatever other mind-numbing jobs might be available to him.
Most working-class jobs require you to clock in, do what you’re told, and clock out. You could be anybody. You’re anonymous, interchangeable. There’s very little variation or genuine interaction. By contrast, Joe’s lifestyle involves a lot of person-to-person contact, and requires him to adhere to a moral code. “You’re good to me, I’m good to you,” he says. “If you’re an asshole to me, I’m going to be an asshole to you. That’s life.”
Trusting your instincts and proving your loyalty are both critical in the drug-selling business. You have to learn to distinguish friend from foe, the honorable criminals from the bottom-feeders. You come through for people in hard times, and cut ties with those who don’t return the favor. As Bob Dylan once sang, “If you want to live outside the law, you must be honest.”
The main drawback of this life, for Joe, is the judgment from people whose lives are squeaky clean. He remembered dating a girl in his twenties and really liking her. When she saw his rolling papers and discovered what he did, she called him, a “pothead, scumbag, piece of trash.” It stung. His family still judges him harshly sometimes, and it hurts. But they hold their tongues, he says, “because I pay a lot of bills.”
I’ve felt the hammer-blow of that judgment before. It mostly comes from people who have never faced the economic uncertainty. They just don’t understand. Yes, it is true that people like us could get two or three jobs, completely subsume our personalities under the dictates of bosses and whims of customers. But we don’t want to, because we’re not dead yet.
The key to a successful drug business, Joe says, is to work with the right people. Generally, he does business only with people he’s known for ten years. Despite what you see in movies, there’s little violence among people in the business. For the most part, if someone lies, cheats, or steals, they are shunned and excluded from future deals.
Still, it could always turn ugly. “If you’re really unlucky,” he says, “someone with a gun who can’t accept the fact that you owe them a couple of grand will shoot you.”
Now, nobody wants to be shot. But when Joe says this, I don’t just hear fear. I hear pride, too — pride that he lives a life that requires him to demonstrate intelligence, loyalty, bravery, and discernment, or else face consequences. Joe is not nobody. What he does matters. He matters.
I get to Oklahoma City at three in the morning, bleary-eyed and nearly dead on my feet. I will myself awake, and meet my client at an upscale hotel downtown. He isn’t yet ready to close the deal yet, and I can barely keep my eyes open, so I take a risk and nap on the sofa in his room. He seems trustworthy, I tell myself, though in truth I can’t stay awake another minute. It’s either that or sleep in the freezing van.
On the way out, my client hands me a fat stack of cash. I count it. You always count it, and what happens here is precisely why: he’s short $150. This is a dicey moment. Did he merely miscount, or is he shortchanging me on purpose, a display of aggression, a dare? Do I just go along? Not in this business. That money is a pittance, but it’s the principle of the thing. My word is my bond, and his should be too. There are no contracts, no lawyers — only honest and dishonest hustlers, distinguishable by reputation alone. I mention the discrepancy and he counts, then adds the money to make everything correct. No bad blood, no violent disputes, no business lost.
I’m not done yet. I head to a house in the suburbs — nice bones, but with sheets and blankets covering the windows, a sure sign that some shady shit is going on. It’s the crack of dawn, and the neighbors are all still asleep, plastic-wrapped newspapers collecting dew on freshly-mown lawns. I back the van into the garage and close the garage door.
If something bad is going to happen, it’s here, at the handoff point. This was a last-minute gig. I am not privy to the reasons why, but I assume someone else had been scheduled to make the trip first, and the plan fell through. That person might know a few key details of this transaction. That person might be vengeful, or greedy, or both. That person might decide to show up at this point and take the shipment or exact revenge. I could get caught in the crossfire. It’s happened to plenty of people, many of them more seasoned than me.
Inside, the client has a two-man crew filling black trash bags full of high-quality cannabis. The place smells like a skunk farm. One guy is smoking a joint. That bothers me. This is a sloppy operation. I greet them warily, ready to jump at the first sign of trouble.
They load up the van with an enormous amount of product, enough for me to know that getting caught would mean significant jail time. I have never been in prison. Not in this country, anyway — just three days in a Pakistani prison a long time ago. But that was when I was a reporter, and had the full weight of the newspaper and the U.S. government behind me. Now I’m on my own.
I almost start to have second thoughts, but then I realize there’s no use anyway. I’ve gone too far down this road to turn around now. Plus, the pay is good. The crew is sloppy loading the van, and I have no time to make it right. I just throw a blanket over the whole mess and hit the road again, back north.
It is a quiet and cold Sunday morning. Just go easy and stick to the speed limit and everything should go well. And thankfully it does. I meet my client’s deadline no problem. He happily pays me what he owes me and takes the van. I go home, tired but high on adrenaline, and a lot richer than when I left.
I’m retired now. Just like the newspaper business, everything changed. Every year, more states are legalizing marijuana, causing a tremendous shift in the way the underground business works. Legit farms sell legit weed to legit customers. Which means the bootleggers are squeezed out by the monied interests. You can go to a nice, clean dispensary in most places and talk to a budtender about which strain of Sour Diesel will work best on your arthritis. No more sketchy dealers in the back alley to get your fix. Not for weed, anyway.
And so, it’s over for me. I could do more; I could transport other contraband items, but that doesn’t appeal to me. You have to run a “risk-versus-reward” calculation every time, and the risk of moving cocaine or meth is far higher than I can justify.
When I look back on my time in the weed smuggling business, I remember a lot of downtime, a lot of situations that are objectively pretty boring: long waits, long distances, long red lights. But here’s the thing: when you work most jobs available to the average person, boredom comes with the territory. When you work on the black market, you experience a countervailing pressure. Boredom means dull senses, which could result in a stupid mistake. So, you will yourself to stay vigilant, to pay attention, to find everything interesting.
I flash back to the drive back from Oklahoma City. The trip is long and quiet, and I’ve barely slept. I load up on Red Bull to keep on the alert. Another mile marker, another town limit, another state line. In the background, thoughts of money, prison, and death. In one sense, I’m nearly comatose. But in another, I’m wide awake.
John Koopman is a recovering journalist who spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter in Florida, Nebraska and San Francisco.
Co-published with Rolling Stone.