The Latino drug dealers on the sidewalk below "Jennifer's" apartment in the Mission keep getting arrested. Not once a year or even every few months, but constantly. (If the city wanted to be efficient, it would just have its mail carriers do the arresting, since they're there anyway.) Off to jail they go, and then others fill their place, and then the first ones get released, and all the while the dealing continues.
Jennifer, who is white, and who dresses tidily and arranges flowers for a popular art gallery, talks about the dealers with clear discomfort. Not because they're troublesome or violent. It's more that she feels guilty. The police never arrest her.
Jennifer enjoys the flower arranging, but mostly it functions as a legitimate income to show the IRS. Really, she's a marijuana dealer.
In many ways, Jennifer's a typical one for the Bay Area: She sells a relatively small amount, she sells almost exclusively to friends and she draws a line between pot and harder drugs. What's atypical is that she's a middle-class she.
Drug dealing has been dominated by men, historically. It's a glass ceiling that, ironically, has worked in Jennifer's favor: Police zero in on those who comprise the bulk of the industry and tend to overlook anomalies like Jennifer, who have typically been left out. It also helps that she looks like she doesn't need the money.
"It's a double standard," Jennifer says about her neighborhood dealers, forever getting arrested. "I probably earn twice as much as them."
And so it is that, even in drug dealing, certain grim American truths persist: The rich will get richer, the poor will struggle and run into trouble, and struggle all the more desperately.
Paloma Sales is the director of an ongoing study of women and drug markets in San Francisco at the Institute for Scientific Analysis; when it's over, 160 of the city's female drug sellers will have been interviewed. The vast majority, Sales says, started dealing to support their families and often feel they have no alternative. (This is different from male dealers, she says, who tend to be more invested in the perceived glory and status of it.) Feeling the economy's pinch, women are entering the drug market more-and at earlier ages-than ever before.
Compared to the risks a street dealer faces, a middle-class dealer like Jennifer tends to be well protected. "They have the resources to hide their activities better and a safety net should they be caught-they can pay bail-and enough capital that they can leave the profession if they want without jeopardizing their own survival," Sales says.
The middle-class pot seller is hardly a new creation. Showtime's "Weeds," for instance, has tried to portray this alternative to the more familiar image of a dealer. But as with the average low-income dealer, the show's suburban-mom protagonist is driven to sell drugs by economic circumstances largely beyond her control. As with the poorer women in Sales' study, the dealing supports the family.
But what about Jennifer, who's not supporting kids or paying a mortgage? What to make of her special variety of dealer, existing as she does in this funny kind of margin? She's a minority in the business because of her gender and class, but also an exception to the kind of desperate street dealer who gets a sliver of public sympathy for his or her plight. In a way, a middle-class woman selling marijuana from her apartment runs more counter to societal values than a poor man doing so on the street. And yet he's the one who gets arrested.
If it's any consolation to her, the pay's good.
In fact, this is where I tell you to sit down. And to clear away any thoughts about how many hours you spent last week at work, how much you spent on the education that landed you this work or how little you get paid to do it. Jennifer is 20 and figures she earns about $500 for an hour's work.
I don't mean to sound hayseed about this drug-dealing thing. It's not that I find the job particularly extraordinary; it's more that it's so common, and has so long been a fixture of the landscape, that I never really bothered to ask certain questions-not unlike a bus driver, maybe. So on a recent weekday in Dolores Park with Jennifer, I poked and prodded: What's the lifestyle like? Is it scary? Do you get Ferrari-rich, or is that just a stubborn old "Miami Vice" myth? And at some level, should I be considering a career change?
Drug dealer has a disagreeable ring to it, plus what do you tell your grandmother? But $500 an hour? And a 15-to-20-second commute, depending on how quickly she walks from the bedroom to the living room? Jennifer's in-box is not slowly elevating her blood pressure; she does not watch her youth slip away in endless branding meetings. Often she works just an hour a week, plus a few hours for flower arranging or other part-time jobs. Grandmother, we might need to talk.
Jennifer's current career began, as many of ours do, by accident. She was sharing a San Francisco apartment with someone who, it turned out, was selling pot. He had a small but reliable client base. In the film version, he is to be played by an incautious Leonardo DiCaprio with dollar signs in his eyes: He decided he could be earning more. Without warning he picked up and moved to Oregon, where lore had it he could grow and sell his own pot with impunity.
Marijuana customers are like any other shoppers: When one day the store is shuttered, they want a cardboard sign with a smiley face to direct them to the new location. Jennifer's roommate left no helpful instructions, and eventually his own supplier asked Jennifer if she wanted to inherit the business. It had never occurred to her, and she wasn't even a pothead, but she'd seen how easy the money came. In a life-is-short moment, she agreed to give it a try. (As Sales says, inheriting the business from a man is how most women get their start.)
That was a year ago, and so far it's gone off without a hitch. What she's learned is that the movies have it even more wrong than she'd thought. Is there risk? Certainly. But she believes a woman like her-in a city like this-needn't worry much.
Sure, there are industry hazards: Once her dog ate six of her brownies and spent a dazed week in the pet hospital. But other than cutting edibles from her lineup, precautions are minimal. She doesn't take her products on BART or MUNI. She only sells out of her apartment and only to close friends. When the customers come to buy, she tries to keep them around a while so that a suspicious stream of visitors isn't coming and going. Her scale, money and pot are kept in three different parts of her apartment. She never has more than two ounces with her at a given time.
"To be honest, I don't understand why someone living in San Francisco wouldn't sell pot. I probably know 15 small dealers off the top of my head -- all guys, of course-and I've never, ever heard of one getting busted," she says.
Of course, this says as much about the different strata of pot dealers as it says about Bay Area law enforcement. Poorer women are getting arrested. Certainly police focus far more on scary drugs like meth than relatively harmless ones. But women are going to prison for all kinds -- in fact, they're the fastest-growing segment of the prison population.
For Jennifer, there's no particular thrill in breaking the law; rather, the law seems more like a pesky anachronism that will eventually catch up with reality. Every few months, after all, another study confirms that marijuana's not remotely as harmful as the "war on drugs" suggests -- a war, in turn, that strikes many as far more deleterious than at least some of the drugs it aims to eliminate. Still, Jennifer is not without common sense, and when one of her customers started to seem hooked, she cut him off.
Of course, Jennifer's circumstances allow her this sort of flexibility. If she put in a little effort, she says, it wouldn't be hard to bring in $2,000 a week. Her clients? Conservatory of Music students. Customers and employees from various bars and cafes in the Mission. Friends she meets at work. She pays $35 for an eighth of an ounce and sells it for $55-$60. Or else she trades it for coffee or a haircut or drinks at a bar, or even friends' belongings.
"It's a business," she explains, "and business ventures are male things. Even now my dealer treats me like I'm fragile. Or else he treats me gentlemanly. I tell him not to-that's usually when he goes off to make a phone call or something."
Jennifer's male customers are no less silly, she says, with their foodie-like technical interest in pot. When they ask what strain she's selling that week, she makes up the name. Dreamsicle. Purple Heaven. The Nutty Deluxe.
The Nutty Deluxe? Jennifer tells me anyone could become a successful pot dealer within a day, but by the time we're done talking, I conclude that I lack the youth for it, other considerations notwithstanding. Maybe gender and class aren't as significant as age. After tallying the friends still prolific enough to keep me in sports cars, I realize they've gotten older, too -- the pool has shrunk. At best, I'd have some new roller skates after a month. Still, it's hard to overlook the details of my parting with Jennifer:
I head back to work, and she relaxes in the park for a while longer. What grandmother wouldn't want that?
Chris Colin was a writer-editor at Salon, and before that a busboy, a bread deliverer and a bike messenger, among other things. He's the author of "What Really Happened to the Class of '93," about the lives of his former high school classmates, and co-author of The Blue Pages, a directory of companies rated by their politics and social practices. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the New York Observer, McSweeney's Quarterly and several anthologies. He lives in San Francisco.
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