Madison, WI – One recent afternoon at the Brass Ring – a billiards bar on Madison’s east side – “Buddy,” a Wisconsin-based marijuana trafficker, talked the pros and cons of his business. He suggested that a rash of heroin-related high jinks across Dane County over the last year has stifled its growth as authorities step-up their interdiction efforts.
“Anytime you get into a period like this – and I’ve noticed waves of it happening in the past – people become a little more insular about who they work with,” he said, nursing a Bloody Mary. “There’s no new faces and you don’t strike up business conversations with people.”
In a trade where people and their freedom tend to have short shelf lives, Buddy has been in business, without interruption, for a remarkable 10 years, making him something of an old-timer. And a lucky one at that. Unlike most who draw a living from black market commerce, his criminal record is squeaky clean.
But he’s had some close calls. Once, he said, he and a friend were pulled over with two-and-a-half pounds of weed and $2,500 in cash.
“We were pissing ourselves, saying ‘We’re so fucked! We’re so fucked!” he recalled.
At the station, his friend – the driver – was issued a ticket for driving without a license. Then, something unexpected happened.
“We get released,” he said, as if still in shock. “And we’re walking out wondering, ‘What the fuck is going on?’”
Their car was still parked where they left it on the side of the road, but the money and product were gone. “There’s nothing quite like getting robbed by a police officer,” he said. Then, as if weighing the alternative, he grinned. “It’s my favorite dirty trick.”
Buddy began selling pot in college, and was soon couriering pounds of marijuana to Madison from California, where he had a hand in establishing a medicinal marijuana farm.
Over the years he’s occasionally pushed harder stuff, like cocaine and opiate painkillers – the kind local authorities blame for the recent spike in heroin use. Buddy agreed with this theory, explaining that, for dedicated pill poppers, heroin inevitably becomes a cheaper, more accessible alternative. But over time he developed serious moral qualms about enabling his customers’ journey down that road.
“[The] pharmaceutical stuff is destroying everything,” he lamented. “That stuff involves so much more crime and deviousness.”
Still, the nature of his trade brings him in regular proximity to the hard stuff. “It’s like if you go to a whorehouse looking for a blowjob, there’ll be a guy next to you getting laid,” he explained. “You’re always running into it.”
Surely there’s more money in the hard stuff, especially heroin. But he can’t reconcile making money by pushing a product that causes death. “I saw a close family member destroy his life with it. And I’ve had three or four customers kill themselves with it,” he said. “I care about quality of life.”
Buddy wouldn’t disclose his age, but said he becomes more risk averse the older he gets. Marriage hasn’t helped, either. He admitted that he and his bride “have had some conversations.”
Looking back on colleagues who’ve died or been imprisoned, Buddy reflected on his own anxieties. “It’s a constant nagging thing,” he explained, referring to the day-to-day pressures of dealing drugs. “I’m sure it’s a lot like what stuntmen feel when they go to work every day – it’s part of the job.”
Most nerve-racking, he said, are the drives from California with marijuana loads large enough that, under federal sentencing guidelines, would land him in prison for five years or more. “For three or five days all you do is hope your vehicle doesn’t break down and they bring in the dogs.”
Chasing his Bloody Mary with a beer, Buddy continued, “The sheen disappears quite quickly… When I started out in college it was breaking up an ounce; then I found myself doing the trafficking, or unpacking and guarding it somewhere here in town and dealing with many different people. It’s a helluva lot less fun as you go on.”
But in the calculus of risk-benefit analysis, Buddy, who earned $60,000 last summer, said the money is an obvious draw. He estimated his earnings over the last decade have approached $1 million, most of which he’s spent.
“You can make a lot of money just hanging out with your friends – until things go bad,” he said.
Things went bad last fall when armed gunmen raided his California farm ahead of the harvest and stole his crop, which he valued at around $170,000. “[We] didn’t realize at that point that [we] could’ve been insured,” he said, regretfully. “There are insurance companies out there that will insure your product.”
But this wasn’t the only misfortunate to visit him in 2011. The precariousness of his trade has put strain on his marriage. And apart from losing a ton of money, he also lost his business partner to a heroin overdose.
In response he’s scaled back operations, opting to work with people on the medicinal, rather than the recreational, side of the trade. “I’m no longer dealing with smokables, either,” he explained. “I’ve moved to the edibles and oils, and that makes the shipping easier.”
He sees his business as a community service, helping those afflicted or those who just need to means to unwind. He believes public opinion is shifting in favor of marijuana’s legalization, even among some within law enforcement.
“I’ve run into so many cops, especially around Madison, that understand certain things are not a problem,” he said. “We have really great cops in Madison.”
He envisions one day there being a consortium of sorts between drug dealers, addiction specialists, authorities and other stakeholders to discuss strategies on preventing death and criminality.
“I’d love to give them suggestions,” he said, finishing off his drink. “But people like me are not going to step forward and offer suggestions on how to improve this for fear of the retribution.”