This is why blacks and raza are arrested disproportionately for drug crimes. They sell in the street for fuck's sake. Tontos!
By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
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.
"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.
"The Gauntlet," he and his friends call it. He's seen some of the more brazen salesmen aggressively solicit bystanders, who speed-walk away, avoiding and ignoring the offers. He's seen some of the folks along the Gauntlet drinking tall cans out of paper bags. And he's also seen the scuffles, and the catcalls directed at passing women.
He's seen so much of this that one day this summer he decided to send an e-mail to District Six Supervisor Jane Kim, and a copy to Mayor Lee.
"Market Street is the face of our great city and is frequented by residents, tourists, and commuters alike," Dowd wrote. "I find myself apologizing and making extra efforts to assist visitors who are obviously shocked and appalled at the conditions on our city's main walking route."
Dowd, a former corporal in the 82nd Airborne who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not one of those Just Say No prudes. To him, the solution is not sweeping low-level drug dealers into jails, but rather heightening the police presence around the corner to discourage the open illicit activity.
"It's not that we can't stop it, it's that we don't make an effort to stop it," he says. "And that's what's crazy. The market exists because we allow it to exist."
Dowd didn't get a response from the politicians, but he did receive an e-mail from San Francisco Police Department Capt. Joe Garrity of the Tenderloin Station. "The Tenderloin Station conducts narcotics operations, stolen property operations[,] Retail Organized Crime Theft operations along the District border along Mid-Market Street and enforcement operations near the area of Market/Jones Streets." The captain goes on to list 15 recent arrests in the area, before noting that "we have elevated the security baseline in the area of Market/Jones."
"Aaaaayyyyooooo!" somebody on the corner hollers.
Here comes the police cruiser rolling down Market, easing to a stop at the Jones Street intersection. "Black and white! Black and white behind you," another man calls out.
The hustlers disperse, leaving the corner barren. Three of them cross Market and enter a Chinese restaurant. Another heads to a nearby bus stop and takes a seat. Many more meander into the Quick-Stop liquor store a few doors down from the corner, or into the Psychedelic smoke shop beside it. One guy wanders into World of Stereo, an electronics store plopped between the check-cashing joint and Psychedelic.
Inside the patrol car, two beat officers slide their hands into paper fast-food sacks.
"We don't eat our lunch inside anymore, so that we can keep an eye out here," says the one with brown hair. (The officers requested anonymity, noting that they weren't authorized to speak to reporters.) He tilts his head back and drops a bundle of fries into his mouth.
"We arrest guys from all over on this corner — Pittsburg, Antioch, Stockton, Modesto," says the one with blond hair, adding that they make at least one arrest a day here. "We get calls from business owners all the time. It's not just the drug-dealing. It's all the stuff that comes with that — the fights, the drinking, the harassment. But we don't see all of it."
"We pull up and they scatter," the brunet observes. "You try not to let it frustrate you."
Without actually seeing the money and the product change hands, they can't just slap on the cuffs — and many dealers are savvy enough to avoid that. The officers mention that budget cuts, and the resulting staff reductions, have reduced the number of undercover police purchases, called "buy-busts," which are often the most effective strategy for catching drug dealers. The City Charter, following a 1994 ballot initiative, mandates that the police force employ 1,971 officers. Currently, the SFPD operates with fewer than 1,800.
"Nowadays, buy-busts and extra foot patrols are a luxury," says the blond. "It's all about what is the most effective use of the officers we do have in terms of public safety." This area borders the Tenderloin district, after all, home to more than enough stabbings and robberies to occupy a precinct. So while the Park Station assigns an officer specifically to hinder the drug-dealing in Golden Gate Park, that isn't as feasible here.
"We do the best we can," says one of the cops.
"We're here every day," says the other, gazing through the windshield at the empty street corner.
From the officers' post, they can see the middle-aged man standing at the doorway of World of Stereo. His name is Marwan Eadeh and he co-founded the place in 1987, nearly two decades after his family immigrated to San Francisco from Jerusalem.
"You watch, those officers will be gone in 10 minutes and all those drug dealers will be right back here," he says.
He strolls back into the store, where Tiger Mertha, a rotund man with an affable demeanor, works the register, and Qusta Naser, curly-haired and in his late 20s, stamps orange price tags onto boxed iPhone cases.
"It's getting much worse," says Eadeh. "This is the place to go to get your weed."
"These guys, they stand out there morning to night," adds Naser. "The police car comes and they leave. The police car leaves and they come back."
"Takes a lot of business from us," booms Mertha, his hands flailing in the air. "When tourists see them, they go across the street. Look, look at those two girls." He points to a pair of young women slowly rotating a postcard rack at a store's entrance. Each holds bulging brown shopping bags. "If those guys were here," Mertha continues, "they'd be harassing them right now."
"It got worse a couple years ago when they started allowing weed," says Naser. He's referring not just to California's 1996 Proposition 215, which legalized medicinal marijuana in the state, but also the city's 2006 ordinance that officially classified marijuana offenses as law enforcement's lowest priority.
"They get arrested with some weed and they pull out a card and the police let it go!" declares Mertha, incredulous.
"They have a license to sell weed in the streets!" Naser exclaims.
"We see them more than we see our family," says Mertha. "Now every day we smell weed." He shakes his head.
"We call the police at least twice a day," he goes on. "We've filed complaints with City Hall. Nobody cares. Everybody at City Hall just cares to take our property tax money."
Eadeh makes his way back to the open front door of the store. He puts his hands on his hips and swivels his head, taking in the surroundings. The police car is gone. Several hustlers are back on the block, posted up in front of the smoke shop to Eadeh's left, and the check-cashing operation to his right. His lease will end in two and a half years.
"We're seriously considering moving to a new location if nothing changes," he says.
The dealers around World of Stereo make it back to the corner in time to catch the end of the lunch rush.
Trey, though, is two blocks away, exiting the Tenderloin apartment where a girlfriend lives. Built like the high school offensive guard he used to be, he squints his eyes as he steps out of the building's shadow. He's a late riser. He resides in Hayward, and that's a long trip on public transit. So he spends many work nights at the girlfriend's house.
"I know I won't be doing this forever," the 32-year-old says, leisurely strolling with hands in his coat pockets. "I know my mama wouldn't be proud of this."
He's made this short walk down Golden Gate Avenue so often that he reflexively veers to the left side of the sidewalk after crossing Leavenworth Street. Along the stone walls enclosing the majestic Spanish Mission-style St. Boniface Catholic church, anonymous civilians lie motionless and blanketless, passed out from their morning fix, arms folded over eyes to block out the brightness. Some have kicked up their legs onto protruding stones. Some bodies curl-up against the wall, backs to the world.
"I didn't, like, decide to become a hustler," he says, unfazed as he glances down at the sleepers. "I just started doing it way back, made good money and it was easy, and just never stopped."
A few yards later, Trey passes a wrinkly man sitting in a lawn chair. The needle is already in his forearm, and he furrows his brow in concentration as he injects.
Soon, Trey is at Market and Jones, where he's done business for more than 10 years. He joins nine other guys there. Not all of them know each other. Not all of them are selling. One stands at the edge of the corner, angled so that he can see down Jones and Market at the same time, serving as a lookout for his partner and carrying an extra stash. Some guys are just hanging out, sitting in parked cars, driver-side doors swung open, bumping music. Among the salesmen here, Trey is the most aggressive.
He spots a pair of college-age girls and approaches, matching their strides.
"How you doin' today? You want some weed?"
He keeps a slight smile on his face, to soften the interaction. The girls don't acknowledge him and continue their stroll. He retreats to the wall between Western Union and World of Stereo and observes each passerby. While Trey doesn't discriminate among pedestrians, he's been in the game long enough to spot the likeliest demographics: young professionals open to the thrill of a street deal, college students happy to get weed wherever they can find it, older folks in ragged clothes. But he's sold to lawyers and executives, too.
Trey's an outgoing person, the type to make small talk on a bus or ask the cute waitress for her phone number. It suits his current vocation.
"It's like being a good quarterback: You throw a pick, you can't go out the next time all nervous, 'cause that hesitation might mean you miss an open man," he says, eyes on the potential customers. "I got a second and a half to make a decision, and each second I'm trippin', I'm losin' money."
When the dispensaries first started popping up, Trey wasn't sure how his hustling would fare. But he kept finding customers. A decade ago, he was selling eighths for $60, profiting $600 or $700 in a day. As growers began producing more crops, though, the prices dropped, setting off a domino effect into the streets. Three or four years ago, Trey recalls, a younger generation of hustlers popped up in Mid-Market, undercutting the competition with $30 and even $20 eighths. Trey, like many other street dealers, had to slice his prices. He buys by the ounce, for $150 to $200 a pop, which means he now makes $15 to $21.25 on a $40 eighth of an ounce. But while the increasing legitimacy of the cannabis business has eroded profit margins, it has also decreased street dealers' risk of getting arrested, by introducing medical marijuana cards to the scene. Trey's is in his wallet.
He paces toward an older man in a Panama hat, walks with him for a few steps. "Want weed?"
The man shakes his head and waves his hand, as if shaking off a panhandler. Trey, shifting his gaze, makes eye contact with a woman in a red shirt and black leggings walking the other way. He reverses directions.
She slows down, and says, "Sorry, I'm broke right now, but you gon' be out here tomorrow?"
"Same spot every day, baby," he replies with an exaggerated grin.
He steps back to the wall for a short break. He doesn't want to attract too much attention to himself.
A deep gash runs down the right side of his face, from temple to cheek. On a late night a few months ago, he got jumped by a group of guys while walking to the BART station after work. He doesn't know why. A knife slashed him as he fought back.
"Woulda been killed, throat slit or something, if the police didn't show up," he says.
Each second he's trippin', he's losing money, though. So the slight smile returns to his face and he's back on the grind.
Success. The customer is a young man in a flat-billed Miami Dolphins cap and loose black jeans. The salesman and customer turn up Jones Street and its one-way traffic. Trey pulls out a $40 eighth balled up in plastic wrap and trades it for the cash.
"'Preciate it," says the customer. Trey tips his head, and the customer heads back toward Market.
The customer turns right, crosses Jones, and finds a seat on a bench, at the base of the Renoir Hotel 30 yards or so from where he made the buy. New purchase cupped in one hand, he tugs his jeans a couple inches downward with the other, forming a makeshift denim table at his lap.
"I wasn't too keen on getting a medical card," the consumer says, crushing two nuggets of weed with his fingers and dusting the flakes onto the denim table. "I mean, ain't like it's hard to find weed."
He grabs a blueberry Swisher from his pocket, unwraps it, and slices open the thick brown paper with his thumbnail, dumping the tobacco onto the pavement. He gently sprinkles in the weed, rolls the blunt, licks it sealed, and lights it.
The benches directly opposite the hustlers are packed, with suitcase-carrying drifters, tourists resting their feet, and smokers eager to sample the high. There aren't many seating areas near this part of Market Street. During the urban renewal days of the 1970s the city installed around a dozen black granite slabs along the sidewalks. But in 1996, with business owners complaining about the homeless people setting up camp at the benches, the city removed them.
These seats are new, built in July as part of an effort to beautify the area. The wooden planks are attached to planter boxes alive with vegetation. At one of them sits Julian Dash, who runs Trailhead, a new, community-focused boutique denim store and café at the Jones and Market corner. From his daily perch at his sewing machine, he can see people dealing their product. He doesn't mind. Dash offers the familiar faces half-price discounts on merchandise, as well as complimentary sewing classes. One 15-year-old hustler, he says, comes in for lessons several times a week.
"They've had their business on the block much longer than I have," says Dash, slapping hands with a few passing locals. "I pay respects where respects are due."
While Dash speaks, he politely turns down the advances of various peddlers. A man in a beige suit offers a watch. A large man in a black hat jingles some $4 bracelets.
The block is full of hustlers. There's the guy selling used VHS tapes on a picnic blanket. The guy selling a laptop. The lady with the plastic bag full of '90s DVDs. The man selling the fixie bike. There's Richard, who is selling moist towelettes and Muni transfer slips, and happily declares, "The police here are real cool. They let people do their thing. Everybody's just tryna make a living, man. Outside of here, everywhere else, it's like a police state."
There's Ron the Cigarette Man, the city's most reliable source for single cigs. There's the pack of elderly women with loaded grocery carts selling goods they got from the food bank.
"Coffee?" one of the women, holding a pouch of grounded beans, asks a pedestrian. "Coffee?"
Bishop smokes a blunt near Market and Mason. When the patrol car showed up on Jones this morning, he migrated a few hundred yards east to Mid-Market's second-most popular weed hotspot, the sidewalk in front of the neighborhood's other check-cashing joint, a Money Mart. Seven or eight other hustlers have congregated here. It's the first week of the month, which means more people cashing checks, their pockets holding more disposable income than usual.
This block's vibe is more social and low-key. Three men stand in a circle shooting dice, ragged bills pinned beneath sneakers. Chess boards have been set up, and modest crowds of onlookers peer over the players' shoulders.
Bishop's heard that the SFPD is constructing a new substation on Sixth Street less than a block south of Market, which could increase their presence in the weed district. He's not worried.
"People are gonna adapt," he says. "Somehow, someway, well find a way around it."
Bishop's gotten good at this. He says things like, "The key to competing out here is developing a solid customer base that keeps coming back," and "When I first got out here I was scared because I didn't know all my constitutional rights." He says he can spot an undercover officer by his "misinformed" slang, his artificial attire, his unusual enthusiasm for the imminent deal. Only once has Bishop gotten busted, when he sold to a police decoy dressed as a culinary school student, before he learned how to spot undercovers. Bishop took a yearlong "Back on Track" class to get the felony reduced to a misdemeanor. He didn't want to keep dealing that year, but had trouble finding a job.
He doesn't consider himself a career drug dealer. Over the years, he's washed dishes for a retirement home and held various customer service posts. He didn't sell weed when he worked those jobs. But now he's unemployed. He says he's sent out more than 25 applications in the past month. He's attending barber college, too. His weed profits go to tuition and feeding and clothing his 8-year-old daughter.
"I wouldn't even call this a plan," he says. "This is something I can resort to when I have nothing else in life."
The streetlights are on now. It's past midnight at Jones and Market. Wide corrugated-steel doors, tagged with illegible graffiti, shield the closed shops like eyelids. A dozen or so people chill out, leaning against walls, cars, garbage cans, and signposts. A few girls are here.
A man in a gray hoodie leans against a car, talking with two friends. "We do business just like they do business," he says, waving an arm at the lit-up windows that pepper the high-rises around him, a handful of cherry-sized weed baggies in his left fist.
The people here are relaxed, laughing and flirting. But the group quiets down when a tall, bearded man in a Giants hat and Chuck Taylors walks up. "I got it," says the guy in the gray hoodie. He steps toward the visitor.
"Need some weed?"
This is why blacks and raza are arrested disproportionately for drug crimes. They sell in the street for fuck's sake. Tontos!
When you have dope addicts and crack heads openly selling and using hard drugs on the block of Turk and Jones, which is a block away from the police substation, why you chose to write a story and give the front page to a bunch of nickle baggers selling weed is beyond me. Dont encourage them by letting them think what they are doing is actually news worthy.
"Crapshootin' , "Back on Track".. District supervisor and mayor unresponsive..allowing
the trade to happen [ as a way to thumb their noses at the Federal level of gov't.]. What a
terrible mess this once beautiful city's become...and the parties responsible will get
re-elected or reappointed.. City voters elect them so they can champion the causes for
dope dealers 'from outside' the city and county of S.F..