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Black Market Street: Inside a Thriving Open-Air Drug Business 

Wednesday, Oct 24 2012
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Photo by Josh Edelson


"You need some weed?"

The hustler asks it with a nonchalant air, neither friendly nor imposing. Smooth. Like a pro.

The customer is startled, shoulders stiffening beneath his gray v-neck.

"Huh?"

"You need weed?" he repeats.

The customer, a thin man in his 20s walking down Market Street, stops and looks around. Through his aviators he notices the dozen or so young men in loose jeans and hoodies lingering around the corner of Market and Jones. Some keep to themselves, leaning against the walls of a Western Union check-cashing joint. Others huddle in groups of two and three beside parked cars.

The hustler, 6-foot-2 and lean with a beanie pulled to his eyebrows, is perched on a chain railing near the intersection.

The customer stutters, searching for an adequate response, before mumbling, "How do you know I'm not a cop?"

"I can just tell."

"How much for an eighth?"

"Thirty for a regular, 50 for a smoker's eighth."

"What's the difference?"

"Fifty's little more than an eighth."

"Okay, yeah," says the customer, slowly nodding. "I'll take the regular."

As he reaches for his wallet, the hustler leads him back up Jones. It's a one-way street, so the hustler only has to peek forward to catch any incoming police cruiser. The customer crumples two bills into his fist and slaps it into the hustler's palm. The hustler whips his backpack around, unzips the top, and fishes out an orange prescription pill container.

He doesn't keep his product in Ziploc bags or plastic wrap. And he never carries more than an ounce on him. When he needs a re-up, he just walks to his supplier's apartment on Seventh Street. If he ever gets stopped by a cop, he can pull out his medical marijuana card (he has mild scoliosis) and go on his way; the card lets him legally carry the ounce. He's been frisked without being arrested more than 10 times over the past few years.

Tilting the container sideways, the hustler taps out several nuggets into his own palm, measuring out 30 bucks' worth with his eye. The customer nervously glances around, both hands stuffed into skinny jeans pockets. This is a strange place for a drug deal, he thinks to himself, this corner along the city's busiest downtown thoroughfare, two blocks west of the Westfield Mall, two blocks south of the Tenderloin police station, five blocks east of City Hall.

The hustler pours the green buds into the customer's hand, stray stems and leaves fluttering to the pavement. Seconds later, with the buyer disappearing into the Market Street flow, a fiftysomething man with bills folded between his calloused fingers shuffles up to the hustler. It feels like a busy day.

The hustler goes by the name Bishop. He is 27 and has been commuting to Market Street to slang weed for nearly a decade, often posting up at the epicenter of the street-level pot business on Jones and Market. He started dealing at 15, as a high schooler in the Lakeview neighborhood of San Francisco. He knew a bunch of his classmates smoked weed and saw a business opportunity. Some older friends told him about the weed rush on Market Street. When he checked it out, he found a market that was more profitable and less risky than his native neighborhood. The police harassed him more in Lakeview than they do on Market, he says.

On Market, there is a deep-pocketed, built-in consumer base and little tension among the many dealers. With the constant stream of foot traffic, there are more than enough lungs to go around. Bishop sets up shop three or four days week — though never on Sunday — and works from morning to sunset. He usually grosses upward of $100 an hour, $200 during an especially busy day, like on Pride Weekend.

From his spot on the corner on this late summer morning, Bishop watches the remnants of the off-to-work crowd bustle by. Some march past a fenced-off lot filled with construction workers and loud machinery. New and exciting things are coming to Mid-Market, this enigmatic stretch of porn theaters, family businesses, and art galleries between Fifth and 10th streets, crunched between downtown, SOMA, and the Tenderloin, where techies, winos, hipsters, suits, and tourists collide.

"San Francisco's up-and-coming neighborhood," they've been saying for decades. Only this time's gonna be different. Eager to turn the area into San Francisco's — no, America's next business-technology-culture hub, city leaders are tossing around tax breaks like tennis balls at a dog park. "A total resurgence is coming," said Mayor Ed Lee. Twitter is here. And Zendesk. Dolby, too. Real estate moguls from Dallas and financiers from New York City just plopped down major cash to construct a five-story glass-walled retail center called Market Street Place. "We're on the move," Lee said in May. "This is all for real. No more talk."

But these development plans are riding into a neighborhood that's already had a booming industry for years. And that infamous drug trade has only benefited from the recent vacuum created by contradicting local and federal marijuana policies. While city policy orders law enforcement to be lenient to smokers and street dealers, a federal crackdown has closed seven San Francisco medical cannabis dispensaries over the past year, driving more customers to the corners.

These Mid-Market blocks are home to perhaps the most lucrative open-air weed market in the city. A few guys sell harder stuff too — ecstasy and opiate pills, mostly — but this neighborhood specializes in reefer. People from all over the Bay Area do business here. More than a dozen hustlers might be working the corners at any given time, making transactions every 10 to 15 minutes during a rush. Each day, thousands of dollars change hands along this five-block stretch.

Nathan Dowd, a 29-year-old family attorney, sees it most mornings. He passes the Jones and Market corner on his way to the office. He knows what's going on.

About The Author

Albert Samaha

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