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New York City Is Shut Down, But Its Black-Market Weed Is Booming

“There’s a morgue with refrigerated trucks down the street from me,” says one West Village customer. “If I could live in my bong right now, I’d do it”

A smoker indulges in some weed on April 14, 2020 in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

For the second year in a row, New York has abandoned legalizing marijuana — but that’s not stopping New Yorkers from smoking a lot of weed. A 2019 study found that 1.3 million New Yorkers reported using cannabis in the previous year, and consumption has spiked during the coronavirus pandemic. For many living in the center of the pandemic, cannabis is essential. “If I could live in my bong right now, I’d do it,” says Caroline, a daily weed smoker who lives in the West Village. “There’s a morgue with refrigerated trucks down the street from me. Weed is keeping me sane.” 

According to black-market cannabis vendors we spoke with, business during COVID-19 is brisk. Transactions are conducted in masks and gloves, or through a mailbox exchange: customers leave an envelope of cash, trusting their delivery service to drop off product. One dealer we’ll call Larry, who spoke to Rolling Stone on the condition of anonymity, says that he’s doing good business because his NYC clients are accustomed to paying a premium for high-end weed delivered to their door.

Larry operates out of the Bronx, but he started growing pot in the 1990s in a loft above a pizzeria in downtown Manhattan, using the pizza-oven exhaust to hide the smell of his flowering plants. At that time, he says, he could get up to $6,000 for a pound of an in-demand strain like Strawberry Cough. Now, the black market is flooded with good, cheap cannabis coming from states with legal weed, and pot prices have plunged to less than $2,000 a pound. Despite market saturation, the going rate for a quarter ounce hasn’t changed during COVID-19: $100.

Larry stays afloat by catering to a loyal group of customers who are willing to pay top dollar for high-quality cannabis. He makes his rounds by motorcycle, and as an extra precaution during COVID-19, hands off product at the door while gloved and helmeted. “I can charge $400 an ounce,” he says. “My clients are more or less family. I have two women in their seventies — they don’t want anybody but me to bring it to them. They’re not paupers, so they don’t mind paying a few bucks for drugs, you know?” Stay-at-home customers are spending more than usual on weed during the coronavirus crisis, Larry says: “One guy that used to call me every three weeks is calling me every 10 days.”

As cannabis from Oregon and California floods New York’s illicit market, supply has outpaced demand, says Jonny, a Russian dealer from Coney Island who asked to be identified only by his first name. Even so, he’s seeing people impacted by the coronavirus crisis selling marijuana to make ends meet. “Everyone and their mother is a cannabis dealer,” Jonny says. “A lot of my customers are dealing on the side.”

During the pandemic, some consumers who rely on home delivery are having to find new ways to procure their pot. Williamsburg resident Andrew Thomas says he can’t buy weed from his regular service because his waterfront highrise has mandated that deliveries have to be left with the doorman. “My guy can’t come upstairs,” he says, “so I had a friend buy it for me at his house.”

One enterprising delivery service was offering a “quarantine survival kit” containing two pot brownies, a pack of THC gummies, an eighth of flower, and rolling papers. The company uses an e-commerce platform to take orders, and delivers to your mailbox on a set date. “They text me when they’re here, so it’s completely no contact,” says Jordan, who usually buys weed from a friend in Manhattan. “Picking up flower in the city is out of the question. My boyfriend was super spooked the last time he went to buy weed — there were a lot of people in and out of the apartment, and someone was coughing.” She prefers edibles right now because she’s trying to take care of her lungs, plus it’s a nice way to microdose, she says: “Getting super stoned can feel like too much, with everything going on.”

In the West Village, Caroline buys infused treats from an edibles maker who goes by the alias Joan Claybourne. Joan makes vegan, gluten-free edibles in her Brooklyn kitchen and delivers them anywhere in the city on her bike, riding in a mask and gloves. Fifty bucks gets you a doorstep package drop of 20 weed-infused gummies, six peanut butter cups, or six peppermint patties — “the yummiest, dankest edibles in town,” Joan says. She relies on friends and word of mouth for her fledgling business, which is getting her through the pandemic. “People are being super cool about passing on my name to support me right now.”