The Weed Trail: From California’s Medical Market to New York’s Underground

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Meet Chuck, a San Francisco marijuana dealer. (That’s not his real name. We agreed to keep that to ourselves because, otherwise, he wouldn’t talk to us.) Chuck came to New York from California to sell weed because, here in New York, where his trade is 100% illegal, he can make more money. 

He spends pretty much everyday dealing what he calls ‘farm to table’ marijuana. On a recent afternoon in his dimly lit New York apartment, he was just about to complete a daily ritual: loading about 50 baggies of marijuana – 3.5 grams each – into his backpack so he could head to the subway and begin making deliveries.

“We’re helping keep people stoned on a Friday night in New York City,” Chuck said on his way out the door. Since he moved from California to New York, Chuck says he’s quadrupled his income.

Welcome to the contradictory-seeming economics of the nation’s fast-changing marijuana laws. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now rebelled against the federal government to legalize marijuana, either for medical use or for fun. And, it turns out, when one state brings an underground market into the mainstream and another doesn’t, there are economic consequences in both places: the rise of medical marijuana in California is, strangely enough, what drove Chuck to New York.

Now meet Special Agent Roy Giorgi, with the California Department of Justice and a multi-agency task force called the Mountain and Valley Marijuana Investigation Team. His job is to stop the illegal flow of marijuana in his State. That can mean crouching in the brush in some remote part of the mountains. Or it can mean heading to a FedEx or UPS in California’s pot country to take a look at all the outgoing parcels and try to detect marijuana inside.

“I don’t know the exact percentage,” Giorgi said from an unmarked SUV on the highway, “but about one out of every 15 going by is a good one.” 

Marijuana has been heading east from California for decades. Here's what's new, Giorgi says: many of the State's exporters have permits to grow marijuana legally, for medical use in California, but they sell it on the black market anyway. Like Chuck, they can make a bigger profit outside California.

“It’s mind-blowing how many from one hub we can identify,” Giorgi said.

To join Chuck on his trip through Manhattan – and hear about Special Agent Roy Giorgi’s efforts to stop people like him – listen to the story, above.

LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW: If you are one of the thousands of users in our region, do you know where your marijuana comes from? Does it matter to you?

Thanks to the Planet Money team and Julia Furlan for help on this story.