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

How legalization is changing the marijuana landscape

Monday, May 06, 2013

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.

Produced by:

Karen Frillmann


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Comments [34]

jumpinjackflash from nyc

looking for trees in NYC? email - great selection, timely delivery, wax, shatter, hash e-cig, edibles, etc.

Aug. 15 2013 02:52 PM
Skunk Train from Norcal

This article is about 18 months out of date. Obamas' DEA and AG Holder have been fast and furious about putting
Californias' dispensaries out of business. Hundereds, maybe thousands, have closed. It's not just greed driving cannabis out of state, it just goes where the money is. Driven back underground. Where the Pharmaceutical and Alcohol companies prefer it.

May. 24 2013 01:00 AM
The Pie-eyed Piper from MAINE

Chuck is a dirtbag plain and simple. As a maine caregiver I still strongly believe weed should be legal. Chuck went to NY instead of a legal med state because he is greedy! Plain and simple and no it cant be justified.


May. 23 2013 11:14 AM
KP from Cheese, hole

Agent Roy can suck my tallons

May. 09 2013 07:12 PM
Chip Douglas from Long Island

Enough with the ignorant folks out there! Legalize it already. The misconceptions and taboos surrounding marihuana are insane. Know the facts before saying its bad for people. There is a time and place for consumption & being responsible is important too. Alcohol takes away ones inhibitions & causes great grief and misery. That doesn't mean that responsible users aren't out there. Yes it can be called mind altering however its most likely a positive alteration. It is NOT addictive to the body as claimed. You might miss its positive effects but you WON'T have withdrawal symptoms! Know the FACTS. I can't think of one person who smokes that hurt someone in ANY way! Alcohol consumption has ruined MANY people in my life & I rarely drink. LEGALIZE IT!

May. 09 2013 12:04 PM
Dr. Funkenstein

Re: Pablo Escobar from Hell
Your comment is way off base. To say there is no difference between the marijuana market and chaep products from Gap and Walmart is totally false. And it is because I am concerned about the death and misery from the black market that I have been an advocate of legalizing marijuana for more than 20 years.

Re: Miscellaneous from Brooklyn; Please, get off your high horse!

May. 09 2013 10:56 AM
Quasimoto from Auckland


May. 08 2013 03:03 PM
UBhapE2 from Boulder CO

Miscellaneous from Brooklyn you mis stated marijuana has more carcinogens. You are 100% wrong. Marijuana in fact, reduces the risks of lung cancer and other cancers. IF smoked WITH tobacco, it is more harmful. Alone, it is not. I don't know where to start with you, you are so wrong. If you will read all the quality publications so easy to access these days on the internet, you will see the actual facts and stop spreading the insanity of bull that has been sold to folks like you in this country. The big money men lied and you bought it. I do not promote the use of drugs but I sure do have a choice what I put in my body and the first thing I'd want is this plant that has so many excellent uses with a record of superior products,(meds and other wise) over any pill prescribed because the detriments of man made drugs are real as well as the benefits. The pain relief alone I witness daily should be an anthem from all in the country. It hurts to hear one so wrong about the facts when you wish to make a legitimate stand. Find out your facts then tell us why not. I do not condone the use of drugs. And I find it hard to believe you are that "pure" of body. What comes in your meats and veggies and water alone have you contaminated and I assume you have teflon in your blood like the rest of us, too. Granted, I claim these are assumptions. Calm down. Read the facts. Come back and tell us about the truth. Thanks!

May. 08 2013 02:57 AM
Gabe from Bronx

I take issue with this piece and comedic portrayal of Chuck and his business. It is too close to the subject and additionally the use of sland throughout makes it seem less than serious. Additionally, I couldn't help but feeling that WNYC was advertising for Chuck's business.

P.S. CParis is right - this guy probably is able to deal in tons of volume with impunity because he is white.

May. 07 2013 03:22 PM
Annalee from Denver CO

Wake up NY: Make it legal.

May. 07 2013 02:29 PM
CParis from New Jersey

I'm guessing that "Chuck" is not a person of color. It's pretty ironic given the NYPD's stop & frisk policy picks up numerous young men (mostly African-American or Latino) with a few scraps of weed in their pockets and drags them through the criminal justice system. Yet, "Chuck" is free to sell thousands of dollars of the same stuff without a care.

May. 07 2013 11:31 AM
TI from NYC

Pot is for drum circles.

May. 07 2013 10:05 AM
Cali Chuck from North Jersey

Hi, I am like Chuck. I moved back here about five months ago. I find I fill a real need. And make a lot more money than I ever have before delivering medicine. And speaking of medicine, I'd like to offer a divergent point of view. The officer in the story makes a distinction between medical and recreational weed. To him, and many others, only medical is okay. People who "just want to get high" are NOT okay. I beg to differ. Marijuana relieves many ailments and has during the thousands of years before it became illegal--and since. If a person is willing to take the time, trouble, risk, and spend the money for weed, it must be filling some need.

Many of the needs it fills and ailments it relieves get treated with other substances that are called medicine. So the depressives, those who suffer from glaucoma, cancer, MS, spasms, seizures, those who use weed to get off of booze and other truly dangerous prescription and non-prescription drugs are using it as medicine--whether or not they are aware of the reasons they like it. They just know it makes them feel better. They are self-medicating their way to a better state.

May. 07 2013 04:21 AM
Jblaze from NYC

Being from New York I can suspect there is something really big under all this marijuana hate. Maybe it can be that they want the drug dealers to flourish it hasn't been the first time a state or country has drained an economy of its money. The higher people in the New York State legislature must see a pretty penny from someone whether it be major corporations or conservatives. New York a seen as a cultural landmark so it needs to be about legalization so everyone else will follow.

May. 07 2013 02:59 AM
Bob berbowski

For those of us who smoke regularly, it is becoming undeniably clear. The prices in California, Washngton, and Colorado are dropping rapidly since legalization. People who used to make money dealing have quit because they can't make more than $5 a bag in legal states. High prices, the black market, and crime which accompanies it remain in places like NYC.

In five years research will probably confirm this, and twenty years after that Congress will think about making it legal Federally.

May. 06 2013 10:49 PM
Bill from Manhattan

This was a phenomenal story.

May. 06 2013 10:22 PM
vee from lawnguyland

Don't do drug tests but think about where drugs come from. Our national forests should not be appropriated by gangs. There is a solution and it is called legalization. I heard this report while flipping through and was disappointed to hear weed growers referred to unilaterally as "bad people". One is not "bad" because they refuse to obey arbitrary, capricious and unjust laws.

There is a need for product and it should be homegrown. Regulate, tax & export. Put the gangs out of business

p.s. WNYC should look at where the more dangerous heroin comes from...Afghanistan. Or talk about how crack was born...CIA invention to fund Reagan's contra wars. How about the legal drug epidemic that results in over 30,000 deaths a year in this country alone?

May. 06 2013 09:59 PM
Jon from Manhattan

The City of New York has made heroic efforts to reduce the number of tobacco smokers amongst its citizenry, an effort that will result in nothing more than thousands of saved lives. Nothing indicates smoking marijuana is substantially safer. While NPR's attempt to portray Chuck as a charming local hero, his product is considerably more deadly than he'd like us to believe. Eventually, these facts will catch the public's perception and like the thorny issue of climate change and its attendant global warming deniers, eventually, the science will win the day.

And why NPR decided to paint Chuck as a warm and fuzzy underdog, a modern day David fighting the good fight against the governmental Goliath, is a question I have for the reporter. Or does NPR's corporate sympathies lie with a product that is nothing less than harmful?

May. 06 2013 07:01 PM
Madeleine from Brooklyn

How may potheads have you seen get into bar fights? They usually never make it out of the house to get to the bar. In the meantime, drunk peeps have one too many and break bottles over each others' heads and jump in their cars and hopefully not kill themselves or anyone els on the way home. Alcohol is was more dangerous socially and physically. It's really a head scratcher that legislators in some places can't understand the monetary and safety benefit of legalizing marijuana; less crowded jail cells, taxes and more importantly education.

May. 06 2013 04:50 PM
Elizabeth from New Jersey

Tsk tsk. All this commerce going untaxed merely because of Hearst's hysteria when he wanted to grab some of Mexico's forests to supply his paper needs. Silly government -- legalize and tax it!

May. 06 2013 04:32 PM

With that voice, the MBA logic, and all that finnnne bud -- safe to say that WNYC's current CEO better LOOK OUT!

May. 06 2013 01:43 PM

To Miscellaneous: You are SOOOOOOO "pure!" But, how do you avoid the vehicle and power plant exhuast in those pristine lungs of yours? I wager that people like you are in a very small minority.

May. 06 2013 01:27 PM
Hugh Yonn from Florida

If marijuana were treated like lettuce and tomatoes, this debacle would end. After all, it is plant.

Take the government out of the equation. It does not belong.

I spent 5 years in Federal Prison for a marijuana offense.

I wrote about the great times I had before my arrest.

I became a dealer of ounces, then pounds, then multi-tons. Later, I became an importer. I and my friends were living free and harming no one.

My book: Shoulda Robbed a Bank

I would be honored by your review.

May. 06 2013 12:47 PM
m from brooklyn

right, the quality and variety here in the east coast has always paled in comparison to what's available in california. consumers are very thankful to the "unauthorized exporters!"

May. 06 2013 12:07 PM
Josh Manuel from Florida

Ask "Chuck" if he wants to buy off me.


May. 06 2013 11:38 AM
Pablo Escobar from Hell

Dr. Funkenstein, the thoughtful pothead. Uh, "you think". Hmm. And what about for the past 10, 20, 30+ years? Where has the pot been coming from? Did the death and misery associated with drugs just start last year?!

The drug market is no different than the market for cheap Gap clothes and Wal-Mart goods. We all have blood on our hands for the misery our sick consumerism causes exploited and poor people throughout the world. It will make no difference as pot becomes legal on a wider basis.

May. 06 2013 11:32 AM
Miscellaneous from Brooklyn

WNYC: Seems like you've got all the heads in your listening audience oozing out of the woodwork. Can we please get back to REAL news and stop appealing to the druggies in your audience.

Heads: Constant repeated use of marijuana, alcohol and tobacco makes you ADDICTS, just like people who constantly use heroin, cocaine, meth, LSD, caffeine and all the other mind-numbing drugs out there. In addition, marijuana, smoked, has all the carcinogens of tobacco except those added by the cigarette manufacturers. How you choose to treat the only body G-d gave you is a personal choice, but please don't use and drive, or smoke in public or otherwise endanger the lives of other citizens. And please don't depend on public resources or funding for addiction treatment or any medical costs incurred by your use of these substances. Those of us who eat properly, exercise regularly, and don't indulge in the use, misuse or abuse of harmful and illegal substances are not interested in subsidizing your use of these substances or the medical costs resulting from them.

May. 06 2013 10:54 AM
Dr. Funkenstein from Brooklyn

Although I can't be totally sure, I think the cannabis I buy is either from California or grown locally. Yes, I do care. I don't want to buy anything from Mexico because of the misery and death there, and I don't want to support criminal cartels.

In my opinion your story underscores the logic of legalizing marijuana. The symbiotic relationship of Chuck vs. Georgi recalls the period of alcohol Prohibition, 1920-1933, in which there was a booming business in bootlegging and jobs for the Treasury Department's prohibition agents. It didn't work then and marijuana prohibition does not work now.

May. 06 2013 10:17 AM

That was merely the tip of the iceberg.

May. 06 2013 10:03 AM
Christine from nj

You mentioned that "Chuck" described his bud by name, type and variety as if he were a fine wine connoisseur. Grapes pale in comparison to the deep and rich strains of Cannabis that have been developed in the last 30 years of study and genetic manipulation. Also, the tactile nature of bud allows the connoisseur to enjoy it on so many levels. When was the last time you examined a bunch of grapes, lifted them to your nose and inhaled, pulled them apart to look at their interior, before you took a sip of the wine?

May. 06 2013 09:36 AM
samuel from Uganda

Back home in Africa here we use the extract for treating Roosters related deseases and the fowls cure quickly.It is undocumented treatment for the birds.

May. 06 2013 08:20 AM
beef steak from money making manhattan

watch this while getting zooted NYC

May. 06 2013 07:43 AM
johnny locks from brooklyn

ay, it's johnny locks here!

I'm so baked right now...

johnny locks, if you need some locks unlocked you go to him

May. 06 2013 07:36 AM
santanu from jersey city

wow an infomercial for weed !!! what next wnyc ? sponsorship by BIg Weed ??

the drugs don't work anymore....never really did...

May. 06 2013 06:58 AM

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