Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What is it like to be a drug dealer? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread. Thank you to the team at Quora for making this happen!
In a single word, being a drug dealer was exhilarating. Immense rewards, more than I realized at the time, but also unbelievable stress, unavoidable paranoia, and most difficult of all, an existence in a world that does not ‘exist’ by traditional standards.
I can’t speak to what it’s like peddling product on the street or life as a cartel kingpin, but I can tell you what my experience of being a mid-level trafficker was like. My entry into trafficking came about suddenly and ended just as quickly, turning those years into blazing memories, grandiose and traumatic. It’s not easy to put into words and probably best said through experience.
Towards the end of my freshman year at a California college, I found out that you could successfully ship weed. But that was only part of the puzzle. What made this all possible was a friend at a prestigious Ivy League school on the East Coast.
We eventually scraped together enough money to buy a quarter pound before the end of the school year. Roughly 1200 dollars at the time and I sent it to my counterpart. It was enjoyed by a small group of friends and that was it. While the profit margin on selling a QP wasn’t bad, several hundred dollars, it wasn’t enough to make clear that putting in the work to build the infrastructure could be more than worthwhile. It was one of the critical move that led to me and this best friend and partner spending the next few years of our lives fine-tuning our trafficking craft.
That summer, I spent in New York, where I was working for a prominent plaintiffs law firm. Already my third summer of working at a law firm, I was dedicated to going to law school and becoming an attorney. But another critical experience put me on the path towards trafficking. While out with my friends one night, we were hassled by police after a fight. Having weed on my person meant I would be spending the night in NY’s central lockup.
The only white person booked that night made for a lot of conversation. Mostly revolving around the unfortunate circumstances that led to our arrests. But more importantly, the discussions over weed prices in various states, sealed in my mind an opportunity too good to pass up.
Fast-forward two years. I had made enough connections that I was able to secure a “front”. For those who don’t know what that means; you give me a pound, I give you the money two weeks later. This is how most weed is sold, as small-time distributors or beginning traffickers don’t usually have the cash to pay for product upfront.
While I now had the connection to get product without paying upfront, I still had to convince my friend that he could sell a pound. At that point, neither of us had any idea. And the idea of sending $3500 worth of weed, through the mail with no guarantee that it would get there or any guarantee that it would sell, was nerve-wracking to say the least. But I was young and foolish, eager to make money, and willing to take the risk.
With much relief, the pound arrived at our address back East and while it took twice as long to sell than we expected, the profit margin was some 35% of the investment. Giving us a taste of what was to come.
By junior year, my friend and I were basically supplying the entire school with our weed. We were selling three pounds a week minimum. But we were starting to exhaust our residential mailing addresses and struggling to return cash to California in a timely manner. Our sales were limited only by our trafficking infrastructure as opposed to our capital, because at this point, my connections were happy to supply the product.
Sometime around the end of the first semester junior year is when we started losing product. We lost our first package, a three pack worth roughly 12 grand, which was a substantial hit and easily cut our cash on hand in half. Common sense might have told us to quit while ahead. But we (by this point) were still willing to take astronomical risks because how else can two unemployed colleges students make three grand a week? So after letting any heat die down, we went back to business.
Coming back to the second semester, we caught two fairly large breaks in both intelligence and connections. Not only did we find a way to pass commercial shipping security tests, we secured an “in” at the Law School mailroom where we could send literally any amount of packages – and for the next several years, we never lost product to this location.
Towards the end of our Junior year, we had solved a lot of our risk issues and had been able to increase our shipments to 5 pounds a week (sometimes more). Saving up enough cash so that our prices in California allowed us to make some 2 grand on average per pound.
We were eager to make the rest of the school year count and knew that several major events were coming up. This is when cocaine came into the picture. Mostly through luck, we had stumbled upon an excellent cocaine connection. Not only was the product top-notch, it was cheap as hell. It was, however, in Texas, not a convenient location, but that didn’t stop us from packing our bags and driving overnight to Texas to buy our first kilo.
That first purchase made for a risky investment, having to spend 22 grand on a kilo of cocaine for only a few events we knew were prime for that product. Why risk didn’t factor into the investment, I’m not really sure. We were so determined to squeeze every ounce of profit out of this school, we lost sight of what reasonable risk, even by drug dealing standards, was. We were on a path and there was no turning back. Once you’re in the game, there are no easy exits.
Buying the cocaine turned out to be a huge mistake. One, we didn’t allow ourselves enough time to build a clientele or distribution. And on top of that, it tied up all our capital in product meaning that we went back on front for weed and our prices suffered. We had to discount our cocaine just to move it before the end of the semester, meaning our investment didn’t play out quite as we had expected. Caveat, Ivy leaguers buy a lot of coke before finals.
So while my friend, a finance major, for the investment, blinded by the potential returns, reality played out quite differently. We made a scant profit on a 20 thousand dollar investment. Hardly worth the time or risk.
By the end of junior year, we had done well but made some critical mistakes. We had established a viable trafficking system, but lost considerable product. Not a dealbreaker, but substantial. Money packages had been replaced by expensive flights that were taking a toll on my health and academics.
We had built a distribution network and made our connections a lot of money, having moved upwards of a million dollars worth of product over the school year. We calculated that over 100 thousand was spent cumulatively through living and business expenses mostly in the form of flights, shipping and prepaid cell phones. But we had lived lavishly that year and were able to split some 50+ grand going into the summer. I spent the first month of the summer working in a law firm, my last stint in the legal profession after some four summers. I spent the next two months in Bali.
When senior year rolled around, I was feeling ambivalent, but still very committed. But stress was starting to take a toll, my grades were shit, and while I wasn’t overly paranoid, the sight of a cop would make my heart skip a beat. I was 23 and my hair was starting to turn grey.
None of those signs caused me to slow down though; our business was flowing smoothly, selling the usual 5 pounds a week, sent to the mailroom of course. We were sending a few additional pounds to various residential locations and had invested in a safe house where we kept cash and product.
We had finally established a distribution network for cocaine, and that quickly started to pay off. The business wasn’t booming, but it was turning more than 50% profit margin. But the toll of operating this business was really starting to add up. What started as a profitable hobby was turning into a full-time profession.
But our business wasn’t without problems. We were losing too many of our cash packages, at a tune of 10 grand apiece. Often times almost a week’s worth of work. But our weed was still getting there no problem, so we moved more and more towards flights. My partner, who was a more serious student, was less willing to fly and more willing to lose cash, while I was the opposite.
Consequently, I spent a lot of time in the air. I’d travel to a location, pick up cash, and fly back with 40 grand strapped to my chest. I had already written off school as a determinant for my future and was disillusioned with education through my experiences trafficking – convinced in part, that I had a future as drug dealer for life.
I was living out of multiple locations around the Bay Area and had bought a new car for 30 grand. Spending money on friends and expensive dinners, lavish purchases and non-business related travel. Life was good. So we expanded.
We started selling weed in Texas. The clientele was there, the market was there, but building the infrastructure was tricky. On a one way flight out of Texas, I was nearly stopped by a TSA agent, and then allowed to move forward only because the line was backing up. In retrospect, it was a very close call, I had a lot of cash strapped to my chest and legs.
Our business at school was going well and as we moved through the second semester, we were poised to leverage any possible profits. On one successful weekend, over prominent school events, we sold a kilo of cocaine and 7 pounds of weed. After a few sleepless days, I flew back to California with 60 grand on my person.
But as school started to wind down, so did our sales. Concerned about our ability to carry on our successfully operations past graduation, we moved into Texas more and more aggressively. Our market was unlimited but we were confined by our shipping limitations and our Texas connection’s cash flow.
Luckily our connection in Texas had close ties with cartel members whose attention we had caught. They requested that we put together a small pack; the only problem, this was outside of our wheelhouse, and we did not have the personnel to transport large quantities of weed.
By now, the business was clearly taking a toll on my person. It was clear that I wouldn’t be graduating this June, and what had started out as general stress had turned into unexpected and full-fledged panic attacks. I had trouble sleeping at night and started relying on over the counter sleep medication to rest.
After much deliberation, we did the unthinkable, putting together a plan to sell 50 pounds in Texas over spring break. The plan was not easy to execute. We had exactly one week to make it happen. My partner flew to California with all the cash we had “out of state”. The plan was to use his parents Jeep while they were away for the week to drive to Texas and drop off the product then he fly back to school while I would then fly to Texas and drive the car and cash back to California.
I greeted my friend at the Airport and we went back to his house. Collecting our cash and heading up to Humboldt where I was meeting our California connection. After many hours, driving around looking at our options, we finally settled on product and spent two hours vacuum sealing the weed so that I could drive it back to the Bay Area. I left just before dark, for a 7-hour drive after eating just an apple for the day.
I was unbelievably nervous. I had never driven that much weed before and the only way from Humboldt to the Bay Area is through a stretch of road called the Gauntlet which should speak for itself. I had one spotter driving in front, and another behind me. The hours passed slowly as I weaved through traffic in the dark, often losing my spotter and trailing car. I left my partner’s house at 7am that morning and finally returned at 1am the next day. But this was just the beginning. I spent the rest of the night and the next morning vacuum sealing the product and packing the car. Then my friend left for Texas.
A few nerve-wracking days later, he arrived at the location, where things got off to a bumpy start. Our connection lost a small amount of product in an unfortunate robbery situation, but the cartel purchased the rest of our product for just over 200 grand. We were more than halfway there. I arrived the next night in Texas at 12am. My friend picked me up at the airport and we went back to a location outside of Houston. For the first time in my life, I held nearly a quarter million dollars in cash. A triumph to say the least, I was 23-years-old.
I left at 4am that morning without sleeping. There was not a single car on the road. Then out of nowhere, a car starts trailing me. Seconds later, lights flash and that car is pulled over. I can only assume that the cop pulling over the only other car on the road, in Texas, in the middle of the night, was coming for my car with California license plates. Without an option, I pushed on rattled, knowing that I very well might have made one of the worst decisions of my life. I drove from Houston to the Bay Area in 27 hours. Stopping only to nap for an hour at a time – so exhausted and sleep deprived that when I would awake from a nap, it would take what seemed like an eternity to figure out where I was and what I was doing. Thinking about it still makes me nauseous to this day.
How did I get here? What was I doing? I do not know. The gravity of the situations I found myself in, the effort that went into planning our deals, was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. My partner and I found ourselves only a few deals away from supplying a major cartel with quality weed from California. There was some talk of turning back, some reflection into our futures, and then the determination that you don’t come this far just to quit. Once you’re in the game, there is no letting go, there are no easy exits.
I arrived in California much relieved and with two shoeboxes full of cash, stashed safely in my parents house. Our business with the school had more or less ended, or wasn’t worth the effort and we settled in for a brief vacation. But we were poised to take over. We had a brief window of time before our California connection was leaving the country for several months. Anxious not to let the prospect die, we orchestrated an even bigger transaction, some 150 pounds for over half a million dollars.
But things had changed considerably, having survived our Texas trip, my friend and I refused to make the journey, arguing that as the main connections between California and Texas, we were too important to be transporting the product. Fortunately our California connections were able to secure transport at a hefty but reasonable rate. It was getting late in the season and prices were less than favorable. But we were able to source product that made the deal worthwhile. And after investing 200 grand of our hard earned money, the pack left California.
But somewhere along the border of Mexico our driver was pulled over. Brandishing a California driver license in a car with Texas plates, he never stood a chance and is still serving time. My only regret is that we were confident enough to put everything we had into the deal. You might say our luck had run out, and after getting one of the worst calls of my life, the deal was canceled. I was broke.
My trafficking business ended just as quickly as it started. Everything we had worked for over the past two years vanishing suddenly. I was lost and scared. Having completely abandoned interest in a professional career or a real job, my resume hadn’t been updated in two years. I was basically unemployable as we headed into a severe financial crisis.
I tried momentarily to rebuild our business but was exhausted and emotionally depleted. It was more difficult for me to accept the finality of this situation that my friend who was more apt for the professional world with good grades and a masters in finance. He had also been receiving considerable allowance from his parents while we had both been living off drug money. Saving considerably over the past two years.
The next year, I claimed only 5000 dollars worth of income. But at the very least, I had bought enough toys to keep myself entertained and I still had my car, for which I struggled to make the final payments, while I lived at my parent’s house. Out of desperation, I confessed to my parents who somehow, had no idea.
What I found remarkable is what we were able to build through hard work and determination. What’s it like to be a drug dealer? It means the things you see, people you encounter, and the life you lead have little foundation in reality. The risks are immense and the rewards, even greater.
We had reached a point, where we couldn’t turn back and to this day, I don’t know whether it was about the money or if it was the rush. After the first Texas trip, I realized that it wasn’t just about money, drug dealing is gambling with your life, a most sadistic rush.
But selling drugs was the best preparation I could have asked for, entering the real world. Now equipped to handle situations that it takes others years to prepare for. More than anything, selling drugs taught me to believe in myself and what I’m capable of. It taught me to trust my instincts and how to make difficult decisions.
I was the kid in high school that teachers and good students wrote off. But looking back, even with my stint as a drug dealer, few people in my past can compare successes to that which I have experienced. Of course with that success came immense failure for better or for worse. And the toll it took on my health and psyche probably wasn’t worth it. But had it not been for those experiences I wouldn’t be where I’m at now.
After some time, I was fortunate enough to land an excellent position at a startup in LA that suits my personality perfectly. My friend and I reminisce fondly, wondering what life would have been like had that one deal gone through.