Two drug dealers are sitting in my living room, drinking a pot of French-pressed coffee I brewed for our interview. With long hair, beards and matching black nail polish, the two could almost be members of a grunge band, except they’re exceedingly well-mannered.
“Even though what we do is illegal, we’re both morally sound people,” Abe says, rearranging his position on my grandmother’s old couch. “We try to do right by people. That’s what I always tell my mom, anyway.”
Abe, who’s in his early 30s, is from an Austin, Texas, military family. His dad, a doctor who served in Vietnam, died a few years ago when a small plane he built crashed into a mountain in New Mexico. Like his father, Abe is a risk taker. He was working on Wall Street before he started an illegal marijuana delivery company with his best friend, Brian, who is sitting cross-legged next to Abe in a pair of beat-up khakis and a dark blue Red Sox winter jersey.
The pair tell me their company, Secret Fleet, hasn’t even been around for a year, but their clientele is growing larger every week. In fact, on a recent night, their couriers made a record 55 deliveries.
Yet there are complications that come with running a black-market business like theirs.
“I tell my family I’m just a regular bike courier trying to make it as an actor,” says Brian, a soft-spoken amateur actor and former pharmaceutical researcher, who’s also from Austin and also in his early 30s. “I don’t like having to hide what I do. But my family is made up of very traditional, conservative people. And I don’t know how they’d react to it.”
Abe’s mom knows exactly what he does. “She worries that I’m breaking the law,” he says, but she supports him nonetheless.
This is why Abe and Brian are letting me write about their business: They want to start removing the negative stigma that surrounds marijuana. To that end, they’ve agreed to let me follow Mason, one of their 12 couriers, for a full day on the job. (The names of the company and those interviewed for this story have been changed to protect their identities.)
It’s a cold, sunny afternoon when Mason arrives at my apartment. At just past 1 p.m., his 10-hour shift has only just begun.
The 36-year-old Texan seems a little nervous to be talking to a reporter. I can’t blame him. I bring him a glass of water and give him a once-over: He’s wearing a windbreaker, slightly frayed blue jeans, wool socks and hiking shoes. His blue eyes, tawny hair and scruffy beard make him look a little like an out-of-work Land’s End model.
While we wait for calls to come in, I ask Mason about himself. His past is varied. Originally from northern Texas, Mason tells me he spent the past decade living in different cities across the country. He started out in Santa Fe, N.M., where he earned a master’s in liberal arts. He then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a photographer’s assistant, and then Austin, where he had an office job in an organic furniture store.
With just a touch of a Southern accent, Mason tells me he gave away most of his possessions and moved to Brooklyn last year after a painful divorce.
“I never would have moved to Austin if it wasn’t for my wife,” he explains. “Everything in New York is the best — the people, the food, everything. It’s the cream of the crop.”
Before long, Mason’s phone goes “ding, ding,” and he tells me we have our first delivery. It’s in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, about a mile away. We put our jackets on and hit the streets. I ride behind Mason, passing housing projects and groups of screaming schoolkids bundled in winter jackets. Sometimes, if the breeze is right, I catch a whiff of the marijuana inside the saddlebags hanging off his bike frame.
Ten minutes later, we are buzzed in to a newly renovated ground-floor apartment and greeted by a young blond woman in a black cashmere sweater and a smiling young man with dreadlocks almost to his waist.
Mason introduces himself with a smile and tells his customers that I’m a Secret Fleet trainee who is shadowing him for the day. “I’m the intern,” I joke, and they laugh.
Mason pulls a high-tech thermoplastic case from his bag and pops it open, letting Dreadlocks peruse the inventory. There are three kinds of weed for sale — each 3.5-gram bag is a flat $60 (no tip necessary) — and some marijuana-infused oatmeal cookies, which cost $10 a pop.
As Mason and Dreadlocks discuss the features of each strain of weed available, Cashmere Sweater tells me she’s a freelance reporter who covers drug policy issues.
“I’d love to write an article about you guys!” she says, and I immediately become uncomfortable. Luckily, the deal is soon over, and we say goodbye.
Mason and I share an “Oh my God!” look and try to stifle our laughter as we exit the building.
When we get back to the street, Mason’s phone dings again. There are more stops to make. By now it’s 3 p.m., and even though it’s only a Thursday, there’s no shortage of people who want to score some bud. Mason’s not the only rider Secret Fleet has working today, either; there are three others working different areas in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
I follow Mason 4 miles to our next stop, in Brooklyn’s historic Fort Greene neighborhood. I am straining to keep up. Mason is in great shape from cycling 15-20 miles a day. He often takes his hands off his handlebars to use his phone. This seems dangerous to me, but I don’t say anything.
When we arrive, a woman in her late 20s (a graduate student, Mason later tells me) lets us into her one-bedroom apartment. She’s wearing a loose-fitting white blouse and red lipstick; her auburn hair is wild in a calculated kind of way. “Nice to meet you,” Mason says, shaking her hand. “Oh, we’ve met before,” she tells him. “I think my bong kind of kicked your ass last time.” She laughs and sits down on a white, furry couch that looks like it’s made of dog hair.
The woman buys a bag of Agent Orange from Mason. It turns out she’s from Austin, too, and she and Mason have some friends in common. They talk excitedly about the South By Southwest music festival and where the best Airbnb deals are in the city. “Oh my God, Austin is so expensive now!” she says, groaning, and Mason agrees. She begins tearing up the sticky weed and shoving it into a glass bong. “Do you guys want to smoke with me?” she asks.
Mason politely declines, and we say goodbye. Getting high with customers isn’t against Secret Fleet policy, but Mason says he prefers to keep a clear head this early in his shift.
As the sun goes down, Mason and I make several more stops around Brooklyn. We visit a group of young, excited engineering students in a high-rise condo downtown, a musician in a poor part of Bed-Stuy who gives us copies of his band’s latest album, and then a hip couple smoking spliffs over their Apple laptops in Clinton Hill.
There’s also a rather awkward incident in which we knock on the door of the wrong Park Slope apartment and are greeted by a perplexed young woman in the middle of cooking dinner. Mason is embarrassed by his mistake.
“This never happens!” he assures me.
Most of our interactions are warm, even cordial. Because Secret Fleet accepts new customers only if they are personally referred by existing ones, the client base is essentially a massive network of friends.
Yet not all Secret Fleet customers are recreational smokers.
“We have patients we deliver to who have undergone chemo and who specifically want indica strains for their body pain,” Abe later tells me. “They want strains that have high amounts of CBD, and they get stressed out if they call and we don’t have any.” (CBD stands for cannabidiol, which is a non-psychoactive component of cannabis that has been shown to provide relief for cancer-related pain.)
Around 6 p.m., Mason tells me he has to return to Secret Fleet’s “office” to re-up his supply. He leads me to an industrial loft in north Brooklyn where we are buzzed inside by Abe.
Secret Fleet’s digs are by no means luxurious. They consist of a single, mid-sized room with a few armchairs and a wooden coffee table. Strewn around us are mini Ziploc baggies, rolls of Saran-wrap, Tupperware containers, a digital scale, a huge freezer bag that’s spilling about a quarter-pound of bright green buds onto the table, and a Macbook Air laptop open to a graphics-editing program. (Secret Fleet designs all of its own labels.)
I take a seat and pull out my notebook. Abe, who’s also an amateur actor, appears to be busy. He flits around the room like an over-caffeinated bartender, sending text messages and taking calls from three or four different BlackBerrys. At one point he seems to remember something important and power-walks out the door, returning a moment later with a baking sheet full of fresh cannabis cookies.
Eventually he gets around to re-stocking Mason’s case with little baggies of weed, and he marks how many he gives him.
A few days later, over bacon and egg sandwiches at a Bushwick cafe, I ask Abe and Brian how much weed Secret Fleet sells a month. At first they equivocate, telling me that it “varies,” and then they confess that the business usually sells more than 3 pounds of the stuff every week.
If they were caught selling that amount, state law says they could each go to prison for up to 15 years.
But so far, the pair say, things have gone smoothly. Once or twice they’ve lost money on a shipment of bad weed. A couple couriers have suffered injuries in bike accidents. But no one’s been robbed, and no one’s been arrested, and Brian and Abe are very happy about that.
“Part of the beauty of our operation is that we’re never holding onto that much weed at any given time,” Brian tells me. “It’s like a restaurant. In and out. In and out,” he says, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
“Working for our former boss, I saw around a dozen people get arrested,” Abe says, referring to the three years he and Brian spent as couriers for another New York City cannabis delivery service. “I don’t think we’re going to have that problem. We screen our riders and our clients really well.”
The pair’s former boss was a recovering crackhead who’d occasionally relapse, Brian explained. He could be unpredictable and manipulative.
“Sometimes he’d make us bike all the way to his apartment just to bring him a bottle of Gatorade,” Abe said. “Or he’d cut us halfway through the day and only give us a half-day’s wages. He wanted to make sure we couldn’t save any money.”
Their boss’ cruel behavior was a major motivator behind the duo’s decision to branch out and start their own business. Abe and Brian aim to keep Secret Fleet comprised of good, smart people. The pair won’t hesitate to drop customers they deem “not respectful.”
“We want our company to represent a certain lifestyle,” Abe urges me to understand. “That you can be a successful, active, social person, that you can affect people positively and that you can still smoke weed.”
Brian seconds this, saying it can be difficult to find couriers who fit the mold. “We look for riders who are also doing something positive with their life, that they’re passionate about, and who just do this on the side to make money. That’s what we did. Selling weed paid for our acting classes for years.”
Another way the pair avoids getting caught is by always staying within state lines while purchasing bulk amounts of ganja. Although their weed comes from other parts of the country — mostly New England and Northern California, they say — Abe and Brian don’t have to leave Brooklyn to get it.
“We don’t get involved with crossing borders. That’s the other guy’s job,” Brian says. “We don’t f**k with that.”
Secret Fleet uses a number of different suppliers, both growers and middlemen, to ensure the company’s business won’t be disrupted if one of their sources were to suddenly disappear. “We have one guy who’s like a Rolodex, and he just knows people all over the country,” Abe explains, adding that having a variety of suppliers also means having a variety of strains to offer clients.
The weed comes to New York on many modes of transportation. “It’s like prohibition,” Brian says. “You ever seen that show ‘Moonshiners’? It’s like that. They’re hiding it in VW vans or putting it in trucks and covering it in manure. Anything they can f**king think of.”
The pair get a little cagey when I press for specifics on the company’s monthly profit, but Abe eventually tells me they split their money “pretty evenly” with their employees. “They don’t work every day like we do, but on a day-to-day basis our riders are making pretty much what we are,” he says.
Secret Fleet’s couriers make $20 for each delivery they complete, and they get a couple grams of complimentary marijuana for every shift. (Mason happens to think this is a great perk.) The day I rode along with him, we made 11 stops, meaning he made $220.
But just as tricky as the logistics of running a black-market business, is figuring out what to tell the government at tax time, Abe and Brian say.
Every year, Abe tells the IRS he’s a freelance web consultant. He even submits 1099 forms from a bogus web design company created by his old boss. He says he doesn’t think he’ll be audited, but he admits it would be scary if that were to happen. Brian doesn’t pay taxes, though he says he is trying to figure out a way to do so.
Complications like these are only part of why the weed-dealing duo is so excited about the prospect of legalization. During our interview at the diner, Abe and Brian spoke enthusiastically of the recent news that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo would be starting a medical marijuana program in the next couple of years.
“That’s just great for society in general,” Brian exclaimed.
“It’s a pretty limited program that Cuomo’s proposing, but the PR aspect of it alone really relaxes the stigma, I think,” Abe said.
“But won’t the trend toward legalization eventually put you out of business?” I asked.
“I don’t even care if it puts us out of business,” Brian said. “I’m more concerned with overcoming the negative stigma. Just knowing that that’s changed.” “Yeah, and it would make my mom really happy,” Abe said.