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Alert level 420: Weed dealers on how they’re operating in lockdown

As casual dealers retreat but both demand and prices surge, one surprising consequence of the lockdown could be the hastened professionalisation of the underground cannabis industry.

When New Zealand moved to alert level four, most people had no choice about whether to comply with the lockdown. But for New Zealand’s cannabis dealers, who were watching demand soar and are used to operating outside the law, the decision was more complicated.

Due to the risks, most dealers are respecting the restrictions. A small minority, however, are continuing to operate and trying to adjust to a newly infectious world on the fly. In the process, they are hastening a previously gradual transition to a professionalised cannabis market.

For the majority of dealers, the hazards were too large to justify continuing to work. One former dealer pointed to the recent arrest of a man with 5kg of cannabis during a routine traffic stop. “It’s not like there’s a lot of cars on the road any more. There’s a good chance the cops will stop you… It’s really risky now. You’re either going to the supermarket or work, or you’re out selling drugs and doing illegal stuff.”

According to another former dealer, the lockdown prompted fear about more assertive enforcement. “Level four gave police the ability to go into a house without a search warrant, and they were using that to get some of the big players. So everyone freaked out and there wasn’t really any activity at all.”

The chances of being stopped by police are a lot higher under alert level four (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Most dealers are casual operators who purchase from larger wholesalers and then on-sell to friends and acquaintances. For these small-time dealers, the logistical hurdles created by the lockdown are another challenge. Travel restrictions make it difficult to meet with wholesalers. When they can meet, according to a current dealer, many wholesalers are “being stingy. Some of them are really upping the price, so us small dealers are finding it hard to suss.”

These casual operators’ withdrawal has disrupted the market. One regular customer explained that, “I have around three or four guys who always reply… I started off [lockdown] by texting them, and they all responded that they weren’t selling themselves during lockdown because of the risk.” Another complained that, “We contacted all our known dealers. And they all said, ‘We can’t.’ Either because they didn’t have enough or because they literally couldn’t get to us.”

While these casual dealers have retreated, demand has surged. Many cannabis users were unprepared for the alert level four announcement and left without enough to last the lockdown. Even users who had stocked up beforehand have found themselves using their supply faster while stuck at home. A third regular customer explained that “I’ve smoked more, because the nights I would be out at a mate’s place or doing something, I’m now at home. So I’ve been doing study during the day and then after dinner smoking weed to relax.”

With many people desperate to replenish their supply, prices have spiked. An ounce of cannabis typically costs $350 to $400. But those interviewed for this article reported enormous increases. According to one, “We paid at least $120 more than we usually do. A bit of a rip-off. But we kind of didn’t really care at that point.”

Professionalised dealers – who deal full-time, are deeply connected to supply networks, and often have few other employment options – have stepped in to exploit these opportunities. By continuing to operate, these dealers could easily help spread the virus. They nevertheless profess to care about preventing transmission. “The really important thing for me as a dealer is to make sure I’m not the one spreading the virus around to other people,” said one. “I have to really change my ways of selling, to both make my money and keep customers safe.” It’s not just compassion; few customers would be interested without being confident dealers were taking precautions.

This professionalised minority of dealers typically organise their sales through an ecosystem of cannabis communities on online platforms like Discord. According to one dealer, “There’s multiple servers. They span from a couple of hundred [members], to a New Zealand-wide one with about 25,000.” Some servers chose to close after lockdown was announced. Most didn’t. And among those that did, some reopened after just a few weeks.

These servers are encrypted and invite-only. One former dealer explained the process. “I got invited, I had to refer my friend’s username, and send a picture to the servermaster of my Discord name, a photo ID as collateral but with everything scraped out in terms of details, and then a picture of paraphernalia to make sure you’re not fucking around.” Professional dealers’ preference for these relatively secure platforms, and the difficulty of purchasing cannabis from anyone else, is prompting a shift towards using them within the wider illicit cannabis economy.

Having arranged a sale via Discord, these dealers are also using physical distancing and contactless delivery techniques similar to those the legal retail sector is planning to integrate. One current dealer explained his surprising system. “Right now, I’m putting [weed] in my lunchbox. I make sure when I handle cash, I hand sanitise my hands before and after. Same with my weed… I’d put my lunchbox outside my room door, they’d pick it up, put the money in, leave it, and then once I’m free I’ll grab it.” Others are distributing via letterboxes, where customers are instructed to leave money in advance. It’s a significant change, according to one customer. “Usually when we get [cannabis], our dealer will come in and chill out, have a bit of a sesh. But obviously that social aspect of it can’t happen any more.”

Perhaps the lockdown’s most surprising consequence will be this hastened professionalisation of the underground cannabis industry. And, while the rest of the country eagerly awaits the move to alert level three, few in the industry expect the move will affect their new trajectory. According to one former dealer, “The traditional ‘go to your one person’ model, that’s over. Because you have such a broad variety [of services], through such a secure space. You’re not having to go and meet people any more, they’re coming to you.”

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As casual dealers retreat but both demand and prices surge, one surprising consequence of the lockdown could be the hastened professionalisation of the underground cannabis industry. When New Zealand moved to alert level four, most people had no choice about whether to comply with the lockdown. B

It’s 4.20 — How Weed Users And Dealers Are Coping With Coronavirus

The Louisville dealer’s customers were asking for more weed than usual, he said. They told him that they were “stocking up” for the coronavirus.

But, sooner than he had expected, they were hitting him up again for more edibles, flower or vape cartridges.

“I found that they were smoking more, just because they were sitting at home, so they weren’t really ‘stocking up,’” the dealer, a 29-year-old business student, told LEO.

So, he raised the prices — his carts went up by $5 — and he started requiring customers to buy in bulk, so they wouldn’t come by as often. He wasn’t annoyed by the extra business, but he was trying to be safe during the epidemic — experts recommend avoiding exposure to lots of people.

As one of his customers, a 29-year-old laid off restaurant manager, observed, the coronavirus is restructuring society, changing even the “little things” in life — and weed consumption and access are two of them.

It’s creating questions for users that sound similar to health conundrums that the rest of the society is grappling with: Is sharing OK (when it comes to bowls and bongs, that is)? And could smoking or vaping make you more vulnerable to COVID-19?

For some, pot is getting harder to find. Others have reliable access but are facing a narrowed selection and elevated prices.

LEO spoke to a user with less access than usual who said she is rationing her supply. Those who feel secure are using more. For all people we spoke with, it’s a lifeline — a source of fun in hard times and an important medical salve for anxiety, insomnia and more. We are not identifying them in this story because marijuana use and sales remain illegal in Kentucky.

INDULGING

The Louisville restaurant manager has mixed feelings about her increased pot use — she’s smoking half an ounce per week instead of her usual quarter.

On one hand, she’s lost her job because of coronavirus, and she occasionally feels guilty for spending more than usual on weed at a time when she thinks she should be saving.

“But lately,” she said, “I don’t really buy many other things. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke cigarettes, I don’t use any form of medication, so I kind of justify it with, ‘this is my medicine,’ and I’m also using this for, this is my recreational fun.”

She smokes weed for anxiety — anxiety that has gotten worse lately, especially on excursions to the grocery store and in those moments when she worries about her job.

Her dealer is the business student, who has contacts in Oregon and Colorado, where weed is legal, so she’s not concerned with running out. And he’s set up extra safety measures for customers: They have to come alone, and there are always sanitizing wipes on the table.

What she does worry about is whether smoking is compromising her health, leaving her susceptible to complications if she contracts COVID-19. And, her roommate, who she often shares a bowl with, continues to work in a public-facing job — another risk.

“You have people like me that overanalyze literally anything and now I’m stuck at home to do that all day long,” she said.

Experts, interviewed by SF Weekly and The Philadelphia Inquirer, have also raised these concerns. Definitive answers are few, but sharing is universally frowned upon and research suggests that smoking of all kinds could depress the immune function of lungs. Edibles are considered a safer method of using cannabis.

DEALING

Two weeks ago, the business student dealer made his regular trip to Colorado to collect his cannabis haul.

But the trip he’d been planning for several months was different than usual. Many dispensaries were closed under the state’s stay-at-home order, and the ones that were open were limiting the amount of people in their stores.

“They may be essential businesses, but it’s pretty hard to get in the doors,” he said.

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Access to cannabis for everyone is disrupted, whether you’re in an illegal state or not.

For the dealer, it meant that he couldn’t go on his usual rounds from store to store in Colorado. But, he had come prepared. His medical cardholder contact had stocked up on vape carts and concentrate for him.

The Louisville dealer came alone to Colorado — not typical for him — and stayed only one night to collect what he needed and then leave.

For flower and edibles, he had another solution: A friend in Oregon who used to work at a medical dispensary helped him arrange mail shipments.

“If I hadn’t been able to go do it, I’d feel pretty bad,” the dealer said.

Many of his customers use for medical reasons, and, although he would have been able to scrounge up some local supply for them, he doesn’t consider it to be as good of quality.

As it is, he’s not worried about running out, but his selection has taken a hit: He has only a few strains of flower instead of 20 to 30, and he doesn’t have as many edibles as usual.

Another Louisville dealer, a 27-year-old who works in IT, said that his customers have doubled their usage.

“I can’t determine If it’s actually from the quarantine and having to stay home — people are bored, or if it’s more from a nervous factor of people’s anxiety is higher, and they’re trying to calm their nerves,” he said.

Prices have also gone up, he says by 5% to 10%, partly because it now costs more to ship cannabis in from legal states. But, it’s still coming in.

The dealer has been more careful with how he gets his cannabis to customers. Instead of handing it off, he’ll place it in the seat of his car for them to take.

“Outside of that, it’s pretty much like anything else I do once I leave my house: Go out, get it done and come home, wash my hands, pray that I’m safe,” he said.

RATIONING

Not everyone is so sure about where their next ounce is coming from.

A 44-year-old IT data analyst said that weed is getting harder to find. Many people she knows get their cannabis by traveling to legal dispensaries in Illinois, a trip that’s gotten harder to make because of travel restrictions.

But, seeing coronavirus coming, the data analyst, who describes herself as an “old hippie” type, stocked up before Kentucky shut down. She doesn’t use much, anyway — just a few hits from her vape to help with her insomnia. In a month, she goes through an ounce. She has a half an ounce left, so she’s being “conservative” with vaping it, eking out as many tokes as she can for every thimbleful of cannabis.

“I was like, well, worst case scenario, I’m going to have to take melatonin again,” she said.

Luckily, she stocked up on that, too.

If nothing else, she hopes that coronavirus might wake up Kentucky legislators to the benefits of legalization.

“I would think, in a situation like this where you have something that A, could be a cash crop and have us come out of this economic recession… Here is an opportunity where if we were ever going to take some guidance and have some time to do our due diligence and do our research, now is a great time to do it,” she said.

For some, pot is getting harder to find. Others have reliable access but are facing a narrowed selection and elevated prices. ]]>