In This Episode
As the lockdown enters its fifth week, people across the country are looking to escape the chaos, fear and anxiety of a global pandemic. Anything that can offer comfort or relief is in high demand—and that includes drugs. In this episode, Alex examines how people are buying drugs in social isolation, and the ways in which their dealers are managing the supply and demand of both regulated and unregulated substances. First up is the marijuana industry: Alex talks to Dean Arbit, founder of bud.com, about skyrocketing demand and the specific highs his customers are looking for during COVID-19. Then she talks to “B,” a dealer in Los Angeles selling cocaine, mushrooms and MDMA and learns how you move illegal drugs from six feet apart. This is an episode that will shed new light on the most intimate—and illegal—dimensions of human fear and loneliness.
Alex Wagner: The deep fear about what’s happening and how this ends, the grief and sorrow over losing someone, the endless hours under lockdown, the social isolation, the boredom, the anxiety— the pandemic is driving us to find ways to soothe ourselves, to calm our nerves, to try and sleep better or easier or longer and maybe just simply to feel less. So we’re eating donuts and we’re drinking wine. OK, we’re drinking a lot more wine. And we are, in many cases, getting high. That’s the focus of our episode today: drugs. Welcome to Six Feet Apart. I’m Alex Wagner.
Alex Wagner, narrating: How do you get recreational drugs in the middle of a pandemic? For legal drugs in states like California, how do businesses manage the infrastructure of drug use, the supply and delivery of smokeable, vapable, edible goods with a quarantine in place and crazy demand. For illegal drugs in the same state, how does a dealer stay safe, legally and physically, in a moment where everyone is supposed to stay six feet apart from everyone else? Who is buying the drugs and what drugs are they buying? And most urgently, are the drugs working? Is anybody out there feeling better? We want to know. I want to know. First, we’re going to hear from Dean Arbit, the CEO of Bud dot com, a legal online retailer for cannabis dispensaries in Northern California. And then we’re going to hear from a dealer who will refer to as B, he’s working illegally selling drugs that remain decidedly outside of legal business regulation, but very much inside the scope of federal prosecution. But first, here’s Dean.
Alex Wagner: So, Dean, you run an essential business according to the great state of California. Were you surprised that the sale of marijuana was deemed an essential business in this pandemic?
Dean Arbit: You know, I wasn’t. I think it’s hugely important to hang on to any semblance of normalcy. Being in this industry for about eight years in California, we know how much folks rely on cannabis. So, no, we very much expected that in this state it would be deemed essential.
Alex Wagner: For people who are unfamiliar with Bud dot com, can you give us a sense of your operation, just how many people you employ, you know, how many people you service on an average month? Just the scope of operations would be helpful.
Dean Arbit: Sure. So we’re actually a software and services provider. We work with local regional dispensaries and essentially enable delivery for their retail operations.
Alex Wagner: So the dispensaries work with you guys to get basically a virtual-facing storefront.
Dean Arbit: That’s exactly it. Alex, yep.
Alex Wagner: Can you give us a sense of of what’s selling and where people are putting their money in terms of marijuana and cannabis?
Dean Arbit: So that’s a great question. And actually, we have seen a shift in buying habits since the onset of of COVID-19 and shelter in place. Flower was far and away the biggest seller on the platform and then followed by vapes, vape products and then pre-roles and edibles.
Alex Wagner: OK.
Dean Arbit: And then since the pandemic, we have seen a drop in both flower and vape sales, and so and a significant rise in edible sales, which have almost almost doubled from the levels they were at.
Alex Wagner: When you say flower, what do you mean?
Dean Arbit: So flower is what one would call like bud, so what you would roll your joint with or stick in your bong.
Alex Wagner: What’s the narrative there? At the beginning, people were buying a lot more of the actual bud and vape pens. Those sales are declining, and you’re seeing an increase in edibles. What does that tell you about, you know, consumers and what does that behavior tell you?
Dean Arbit: I think everybody’s really, really conscious of respiratory health.
Alex Wagner: Oh, right. Of course.
Dean Arbit: Yes. So they’re not trying to smoke, and I think just generally, folks are really, really conscious of respiratory health right now. The other factor is, I think it’s the fact that, and this is kind of more anecdotal, but we all are sort of sitting at home with our kids and I think the fact edibles are really a discreet way to take your cannabis dose yourself, I think that’s a big part of it.
Alex Wagner: Was there ever a concern about I mean, is there a concern the longer this lasts about a shortage? I mean, I do, there is a whole production side of this, a harvesting side for flower. You know, is that a concern in the cannabis industry?
Dean Arbit: It looks like right now supply is there. If you were to ask me that two weeks ago, I would probably answered differently, just because it was such a staggering rush in orders and the orders were also 2x the amount of our normal orders. The average ticket was about 2x of our usual ticket.
Alex Wagner: Can you give me a sense of how much money people were spending two weeks ago at the height of the demand, the surge?
Dean Arbit: Yeah, it was about like 220 bucks.
Alex Wagner: Wow.
Dean Arbit: Yeah. Whereas it’s a little less than half that normally, it’s a little over $100.
Alex Wagner: I wonder what kind of cannabis products people are purchasing because obviously different times call for different highs. Is there a kind of product, have you been doing better on like the CBD, is the sour diesel, like give us a sense of what kinds of cannabis are appropriate for a global pandemic?
Dean Arbit: So I think we’ve seen a lot of indicas being sold as far as the flower or the strain types of pre-rolls or whatnot that folks are purchasing. Indicas are sort of the more calming strains. The sativas are the uppers, right. So we have seen a trend towards indicas, but really the kind of overarching trend has been the sale of edibles. And THC, CBD, I will say that people have, I think it’s more about THC than CBD. I think CBD is kind of more of a wellness product and people have wanted to get high. You can, people want to sort of, you know, get out of their heads a bit. So gummies have been our biggest seller, like as far as product category, it’s been gummies. People are just eating the shit out of some gummies.
Alex Wagner: Let’s talk a little bit about the business itself. I mean, you’re in California. California is one of the states that had some of the earliest outbreaks of COVID-19. Was there a point at which you thought this is going to start affecting my business? Do you remember if there was?
Dean Arbit: Alex, we had a day where, you know, we had about a 1,000 and we couldn’t service them all. And so, you know, we’re all just humans and we all have families and kids and we think about things in our future, and so I think personally, I was thinking about, you know, the health and safety of my parents and the people I love. And I wasn’t really thinking a whole lot about the business, like what’s this going to do to the business? And then just all came really, really fast, because when everyone was ordered to stay home, it happened on its own and it happened really, really fast. And I see the orders coming into our system, and it wasn’t like anything I’ve seen before, frankly. So it was very overt and it was huge and it was sudden.
Alex Wagner: When, do you remember when that was?
Dean Arbit: It started on, you know, almost immediately after shelter in place. And so this would have been like March 14, 15, 16th, around there. And so, you know, in a couple hours, in an hour, we would, the whole day would be booked out. And a couple of days into this, we were booked out two and a half weeks.
Alex Wagner: Wow.
Dean Arbit: So every delivery slot taken for two and a half weeks.
Alex Wagner: So you must have just been fulfilling orders from that big surge just like last week or the week before. You were probably still catching up to that big surge.
Dean Arbit: Yep, until last week. Yes.
Alex Wagner: Wow. I know you guys aren’t running the delivery services themselves, but do you know about how the workings of those delivery personnel? I mean, your website says that, you know, you have to deliver the packages. You can’t just leave them on the doorstep. Do you know a little bit about how that’s working in the age of the pandemic?
Dean Arbit: We did get waivers from the state that do allow us to sort of place a product on a tray, have the customer come back and pick it up and then put their cash into that same tray and then our driver pick the cash up. And folks are leaving tips and you don’t see a whole lot of change going back and forth.
Alex Wagner: How have you been dealing with it? Have you been partaking of the things you sell with greater frequency since this all began?
Dean Arbit: You know, I can’t say I have, Alex.
Alex Wagner: Really?
Dean Arbit: Yeah, I don’t consume a whole lot during the day right now. I, my head goes places I don’t want it to. I use it really for relaxing more in the evenings. I’ve actually started smoking a little less and I have started eating edibles maybe a little earlier in the evening. I’ve got a couple of kids and my parents thankfully are still around, but they’re both compromised and so just a lot to worry about and think about. And personally, it’s, I don’t sort of get into something that it’s going to help me block that.
Alex Wagner: Can’t divorce yourself from the fact that the stakes are really high in this moment.
Dean Arbit: They are, they are.
Alex Wagner: Dean, thank you for your time and thoughts, and, you know, all you’re doing behind the scenes to keep people calm in a moment of crisis. And good luck with everything out there.
Dean Arbit: Thank you so much.
Alex Wagner: So that’s the view from the legal side of things. Now we’re going to hear from an illegal drug dealer, a man named B.
Alex Wagner: Give us a picture of the business that you are in and how it operates when there’s not a global pandemic.
B: Well, I first started selling things to my friends because we all party together and, you know, if they didn’t end up getting the substances for me, then I know that they’d be getting them from someone less reliable. And we’re all broke people in the service industry, so, yeah, it started off as a way to fund my own habits and help out my friends. So day to day would be driving around and waiting for my friends to hit me up looking for substances.
Alex Wagner: And what are those substances, what kind of drugs primarily are we talking about?
B: Well, mushrooms are my drug of choice. I suffer from depression so I micro-dose mushrooms almost on a daily basis and it literally has cured by depression. So that’s what I started selling. And occasionally I would do cocaine with my friends on the weekend and so that was something that I started buying. And turns out that’s pretty much what most of my clients want. I didn’t plan on becoming some coke dealer, but that’s, it literally fuels a big part of Hollywood. So that’s what my life turned into eventually.
Alex Wagner: So mostly mushrooms and cocaine.
B: Yeah. And some Molly and I’ll have a little acid here and there.
Alex Wagner: For people who don’t know what Molly is, what is Molly?
Alex Wagner: Primary ingredient in ecstasy.
Alex Wagner: So in a normal day or in a normal week, how many people are you seeing?
B: I would say Fridays and Saturdays are my biggest days, so anywhere from 8 to 15 people on the weekdays, maybe 2 to 5 people.
Alex Wagner: Has that changed? Has have those numbers changed since people went into lockdown and quarantine?
B: Oh, 100%. I’d say my profits are maybe down only like 30%, but the people that I’m seeing has, that number has gone down a lot because most of my friends are, you know, paycheck to paycheck, weekend warrior people that are in the service industry. But then there’s some people that have a lot of money and or still have their jobs and it seems like they’re buying cocaine as if it was toilet paper, like doomsday stocking up. So I’m doing like fewer deliveries, but sometimes it’s like bigger, bigger quantities.
Alex Wagner: Give us a sense of what a bigger quantity is today versus before the pandemic.
B: Well, instead of one or two grams, so they’ll get five grams at a time.
Alex Wagner: Let’s just talk about how this unfolded for you. I mean, there’s a moment at which everybody I’ve spoken to realizes this virus is going to affect the work that they do. Did you have that moment? Was there a pivotal point?
B: Absolutely. It was whatever day they shut down the bars in L.A.. Yeah. So I worked security at a bar and we had like a big End of the World party on the final day that bars were allowed to be open and, yeah, people were very worried. I mean our boss like pretty much said that we’re all laid off indefinitely. So yeah, everybody knew that they were going to be broke and it’s pretty wild. It’s kind of hard to see my friends go through all that. It’s like a lot of my friends had the the mindset of, yeah, this is like the end of the world. Fuck it, I’m just going to, you know, like party, party my sorrows away, like escapism. And then some people are like, well, I guess I can’t afford to do this. I need to be smart with my money. And it’s like, yes, of course. So there’s both sides of that.
Alex Wagner: But you’re saying your profits are down 30%, but you have people you have a smaller number of clients who are buying in greater amounts. Yeah?
B: Yes, but so we’re speaking now before the stimulus checks arrive. So if this conversation was happening, you know, weeks from now when people started getting $1,000 checks, like, yeah, it could be a totally different, different scenario, so . . .
Alex Wagner: So you think people are going to feel more comfortable about their pocketbooks when the stimulus checks arrive there? Have people told you that?
B: Yeah, yeah. Quite a few people have.
Alex Wagner: Are you are you surprised that people, that the coke is the drug of choice, or it sounds like coke is the drug of choice in all of this, in terms of sales? Does that surprise you?
B: No, not at all. I mean, it’s a good drug for escaping your sorrows, it numbs the mind in a way and kind of makes you happy and excited about something.
Alex Wagner: For people who have never purchased drugs illegally, can you just walk me through how it usually works when there isn’t a raging global pandemic requiring everybody to be locked down in their houses?
B: Well, usually the person will have my phone number and they’ll text me, asking me if I am around today and I’ll tell them, yeah, after 8:00 p.m. and they’ll yeah, text me in the evening and I’ll give them an ETA, drive to their house and tell them I’m here, and they will Venmo me and I will hand them drugs and have a small conversation and everything’s good, and then I’ll text somebody else my ETA and it’s pretty, it’s pretty efficient.
Alex Wagner: And you know everybody that you’re dealing to?
B: Yes. I don’t consider myself a criminal because it’s all friends or friends of friends, people I trust. And I really follow my intuition when it comes to crime.
Alex Wagner: So now that people are under quarantine or they’re in isolation and they’re not supposed to be having those handshakes and conversations, how is the process working for you?
B: It’s very similar, except for now we’re wearing masks and I don’t give them a hug and they don’t sit in my car and talk to me for five minutes.
Alex Wagner: And do you meet them outside of your car, you know, on a corner, in a park or something?
B: No, they come up to my window and I drop it into their hand.
Alex Wagner: Are you worried, though, that sounds like it’s less than six feet apart?
B: No, I’m not worried, I do carry hand sanitizer on me and I’m wearing a mask and I do wear gloves now when I’m, you know, packaging the product. So, yes, I do hand it to people.
Alex Wagner: So and for the most part, people are OK with that process?
B: Yes, we’re all trusting friends.
Alex Wagner: So there are two things you have to be considerate of. One is just actually the exchange of, you know, germs. And then there’s the legal part of it, right? Like, do you worry about being visible to cops on the street or I mean, is that not even so much a consideration in the moment of a pandemic?
B: That’s not too much concern. You know, I also technically work for Uber Eats, so I could always act like I’m delivering food if I were to get pulled over or anything like that.
Alex Wagner: You’re operating outside the law. And what’s interesting in this moment is that marijuana dispensaries, cannabis is deemed, you know, very much within the bounds of the law and not only that, it’s an essential business and so they’re able to get all kinds of regulations relaxed. You don’t get any of that. Is there any amount of, I don’t know what the right word is, envy that weed is so much more, you know, it’s above board, weed dealers, they’re seen as small businesses, and you’re not?
B: Now, there’s no envy. I mean, I used to be in the weed game before it was legal, and as soon as it became legal, it was less exciting and boring. So I switched drugs.
Alex Wagner: Is that why you’re in it? Because you find it exciting?
B: I am an adrenaline junkie, first and foremost.
Alex Wagner: Well, then being a coke dealer in a pandemic would seem to be like the right role for you, huh?
B: That’s yeah, that’s why I’m doing, I’m doing just fine.
Alex Wagner: When we talk about, you know, all the things that are getting disrupted in this moment, the supply chain is a huge question when it comes to everything from carrots to cannabis. And I would assume cocaine is in the mix, too. You have a source and I’m not asking to divulge anything about that source, but do you worry that the supply chain is going to get disrupted and all of this?
B: I don’t think, I mean, unfortunately, all the cocaine comes from the cartels.
Alex Wagner: But, you know, they’re human beings that are harvesting and processing the coke and then there are global supply chains that are getting interrupted on every level by a virus that knows nothing about the law, you know?
B: That’s not even a fact that I want to meditate on. But you really just got me thinking about it. Nothing’s been able to stop the cartels before, I don’t think a virus would.
Alex Wagner: The people that you’re, you know, they’re your friends. You know, these people you’ve dealt to them before. Have you noticed a change in their behaviors since this all started? I mean, people are in lockdown so presumably, you know, life is different for them. Have you have you seen any evidence of that?
B: Yeah, I mean, you know, things aren’t easy for anybody. It’s crazy, and I guess I am glad that we’re all in this together, but it’s more just, I’m sad and I want to party, doom and gloom on the mind.
Alex Wagner: I guess I wonder how you’re dealing with this? You know, like how are you thinking about your life right now?
B: Well. So I eventually want to get into acting, believe it or not. And I always kind of felt bad about my life that, you know, I wasn’t putting in the real work to become an actor and had ended up selling drugs most nights. And now I don’t have to feel bad about not acting because acting is canceled.
Alex Wagner: That’s, that’s true.
B: I actually feel a little more comfortable just doing this. Like, I’m not missing out on other opportunities because there’s less of them now.
Alex Wagner: Do you feel like you’re helping people?
B: Always because they would be getting it from a less reliable source, if it wasn’t for me. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.
Alex Wagner: So I sort of wonder, you know, I feel like dealers because of the relationship you have with your clients, you guys have this super intimate relationship with people and you, you know, people have to trust you on a number of levels, and I guess I wonder if in this moment, you know, when you have these intimate relationships, people are kind of emotionally naked in a way when they are dealing with their dealers. Is there anything that you’ve learned in this moment about humanity?
B: I mean, I guess I’ve learned of how deep some of my friend’s fears actually go, and who really is like reckless when it comes to, you know, drinking and partying and who is actually a germophobe.
Alex Wagner: Well B, we hope you stay well and healthy. And to the degree that people are finding some measure of comfort, I hope that they’re able to continue to find some peace in a moment of chaos.
B: Thank you so much for having me.
Alex Wagner: That’s all for this episode of Six Feet Apart. Our show is produced by Alisa Gutierrez and Lyra Smith. Lyra Smith is our story editor. Our executive producer is Sara Geismer. Special thanks to Alison Falzetta, Stephen Hoffman and Sidney Rapp. Thanks for listening and stay safe.