How I worked my way through college peddling pot

In a memoir stranger than fiction, a recent university graduate describes the shady morality and shadier population of the world of marijuana users and sellers — a world where he lived for four years. His story was told to David Lewis Stein

January 4 1964

How I worked my way through college peddling pot

In a memoir stranger than fiction, a recent university graduate describes the shady morality and shadier population of the world of marijuana users and sellers — a world where he lived for four years. His story was told to David Lewis Stein

January 4 1964
MARIJUANA was as much a part of my university education as text books and lectures. I not only smoked pot, or vance as it was known to Toronto hipsters, I sold it to anyone —well, anyone with the right connections — who had the money to pay for it. I had no feelings of guilt at the time and I have no sense of remorse now that I am a graduate and holding down a respectable job. In fact I still turn on, smoke, whenever a few good joints happen to come my way. Besides helping to pay for my education, my adventures in the marijuana trade taught me a great tolerance for all kinds of people that the good churchgoers I grew up with tend to turn up their noses at. I also decided to make my own distinction between what is against the law and what is morally wrong.

I didn’t just stumble into the marijuana trade the way characters in pocket novels always seem to. I set out deliberately to put out pot because it seemed a good way to make money and in my first year at university I needed to make as much money as I could as quickly as possible. I had come down to Toronto with barely enough to pay the first installment on my first-year fees and move into a crumby downtown rooming house. A few weeks later, one of the fellows who lived in the rooming house took me to a new after-hours jazz club in midtown Toronto. It was so dark you could barely see someone sitting across the table from you and the stage where the musicians played was so small the drummer for a quartet had to set up on the floor. The owner was still serving coffee cafeteria-style. I went up and told him, “Hey man, you need a waiter.” He said “You’re hired, a buck and a quarter an hour and you work theweekends.” I didn’t know it then but I was on my way into the marijuana trade.

It didn't take me long to realize that people came to the club for more than good jazz and bad coffee. Whenever I approached certain tables, conversation would drop until I had put down the cups and left. This was the fall of 1958 and beatniks were still the big fad although they were just one of the factions in the club. The beat uniform was the now-familiar shaggy sweater and beard for men and black tights and long hair for women. But there were also folk singers who were big on blue denim and jazz hipsters who went in for dapper suits with narrow lapels and button-down shirts. Within a few weeks I had become a sort of fixture around the club and all the factions accepted me. Then I found out that people who wanted to buy pot came to the club to find out if there was a shipment in town. They didn’t smoke or carry any in the club though. It was considered too valuable as a meeting place to give the police any excuse to close it down.

I must admit that when I found out what was going on, it scared hell out of me. After all, like the classic innocent in the big city, l had myself been a choirboy in a white gown and blue skullcap, and later the president of the young people’s club in my hometown church. I emembered, too, the voice of Dana Andrews from some long-forgotten radio program telling people. "If you know, or even suspect that one of your friends, even one of your own family is smoking this horrible drug, notify the authorities immediately. These people are less than human.” But the people who hung out at the club seemed normal and friendly enough, despite their outlandish clothes. Besides, I reasoned, if they were that interested in pot. there must be a lot of money in it for someone. At the university library,

I looked through the pertinent sections of Drugs and the Mind and the report of the Mayor’s Committee on Marijuana for the City of New York. I discovered that although the law still places marijuana smokers and drug addicts in the same category, marijuana is not addictive in the medical sense. It comes from a weed that can grow just about anywhere — even in Canada — but most of the commercial marijuana comes from Mexico and South America. The medical writers seemed to consider it less harmful than tobacco and alcohol. It produces, as one of them put it, “a mildly euphoric effect." My conscience cleared, I decided to get in on what was obviously a good thing.

From a couple of buddies who were working part time in drugstores I got a supply of dexidrene pills — we called them “jumpers” — and gave them away like candy in the club. This put me in good with the right people, mostly the musicians and their fans, and I was invited to a party given by some artists who liked to play jazz in their spare time. They had some pot and turned me on as casually as other people might have offered a bottle of beer. Since then, of course, I’ve turned on literally hundreds of times and I've become a sort of layman's expert on the effects of pot. Only a couple of times did it leave me with any kind of hangover. Mostly, it just seemed to intensify the mood I was already in. If I was depressed, I’d just get more depressed, but if I felt reasonably good to begin with, I'd keep getting happier. It also seemed to heighten perception and do strange things to the sense of time. Once at my girl friend’s house when I was high, I stood in front of a painting for two hours. It seemed like only five minutes. The painting had something to do with the jungle and I stared at it so hard it seemed to grow and continually take on new patterns with a special significance.

Before long, I became a kind of middleman at the club. People asked me if there was a shipment in town and I put them in touch with the people who had it. In turn, they would occasionally lay a joint on me and I became known as a viper, or regular user. I let the word get around that I was interested in doing business and pretty soon one of the musicians approached me to put out for him.

This cat had half a pound of marijuana which works out to thirty bags. A bag is a two-for-a-nickel matchbox filled even with pot and poured into a payroll envelope. Each bag sells for ten dollars and I was to keep thirty percent of what I sold. He had rented a room with a telephone and had a list of people for me to call. I also spread the word at the club that I knew where a good shipment was. Then I moved into the room with my books and worked on essays while I waited for customers.

At first business was slow, but then word got around that there was some good pot, dynamite as particularly strong pot is called, in town, and things started to pick up. I kept most of the pot in a polyethylene bag hidden in a hollow space under the sidewalk near my college. If the police pick you up with a bag or two, that’s simply a possession charge. But if they get you with a whole load, they might be able to convict on the much more serious charge of selling marijuana. By the end of the week ! had sold all but one bag, which I kept for myself, and I had made eighty dollars. I used my bag of pot to give a little party for the friends I had made at the club.

I have heard marijuana parties described as sex orgies and “drunken” brawls. In my experience they are more relaxed and infinitely more friendly than parties where alcohol is supposed to be the catalyst. Although I’ve smoked pot for years, I've never been drunk in my life. I don’t like to lose control of myself. Pot makes me gregarious and heightens my appreciation of people I happen to be with. At a party, we'd usually throw some cushions on the floor and roll the marijuana tightly into some cigarette papers. The trick is to roll it tightly so that there is little air and it burns slowly. The joint is passed around slowly with everybody taking three or four puffs until they are high. The butt, or roach, is stuffed into a cigarette butt and passed around again. Since the fumes have filtered through the roach, it's the strongest and best part of the joint. It's called the cocktail.

I was happy enough about the eighty dollars but I didn't much like the seventy-thirty split, especially since I was the one who had taken most of the risks. I got a couple of offers to go in on similar deals but 1 turned them all down, waiting for something better to come along. It did, at a party when this chick announced that she was looking for money to buy some wholesale pot. Along with four or five other cats who were there. I put up fifty dollars. It was all I had left from a bursary the university had given me. While we were still at the party, the chick made a call to New York and a couple of days later, she phoned me at home to say she had the shipment and everything was cool. For my fifty dollars, I got fifteen bags of pot.

This time I didn't bother with rented rooms and phone calls. I held out until everybody else in town had sold their supply and then I peddled my stuff a bag at a time to regulars at the club. Besides a clear profit of one hundred dollars, I had established myself in the jazz-folk-beatnik set as a cat who can usually get.

I was always careful about the people I sold to. I never put out for university students unless they were already users — undergraduate thrill-seekers tend to talk too much — and I never dealt with junkies. You never know when a junkie is being tailed by The Man, as the police are called in these circles. I am still amazed by the variety of people who bought marijuana. They ranged from lawyers and doctors to fairly big shots in radio and television to teenagers. As far as I know, not one of them has ever gone onto any stronger drugs. My customers, on the whole, were ordinary people who used pot to make their social life a little more interesting. They didn't see anything wrong with smoking pot and I didn’t see anything wrong with selling it to them. Sure, we were breaking the law, but if 1 believe a law to be bad or foolish, I don't feel any guilt about ignoring it.

I did have one offer to get in on the heroin traffic, though. A slim, elegantly dressed character who used to make the jazz scene at the club asked me if I wanted to push horse for him. I said, “No thanks man.” and walked away. He was supposed to have connections with the syndicate in Toronto and once you get in with those people, you never get out. The syndicate people must have known what I was doing but they never bothered me. As far as I know, the syndicate in Toronto isn't interested in marijuana because the profits aren't high enough to make the risks worthwhile. Most of the people who put out seemed to he independent operators who had made a wholesale connection in Buffalo or New York City. The police never bothered me directly either. They must have known what was going on at the club but apparently they never connected me with it. A couple of plain - clothes detectives whom we quickly came to know on sight came by every weekend and just sat and looked at people. I'd serve them coffee and they'd ask me how my studies were coming along and I'd tell them, “Just fine.”

About the time I was finishing my first-year exams I met a willowy, blonde chick, I'll call Barbara. Barbara was in her early thirties and worked in a downtown office, and I began to hang around with her after her work. Days, I just hung around my room reading all six volumes of Winston Churchill's history of the Second World War.

Barbara always seemed to have enough pot to go around but I tactfully refrained from asking where she got it. or how much she paid for it. From her, I learned that besides the hipster scene at the club, there were two other scenes where pot was common in Toronto. One was the east-end race-track crowd and the other was the downtown strip where the prostitutes and rounders, small time gangsters, hang out. People from all three scenes and some just plain folks dropped in almost every night to Barbara's apartment. She served them pot the way another hostess might offer coffee and cake. It was an idyllic summer. But everybody spoke the same hipster jargon, and after a while I found it getting on my nerves. For instance, someone would pipe up, "Man, that cat is really something else,'' and somebody else would answer, “Yeah, he’s really into his own bag.” They both may have meant that the person they were talking about was an individualist. But on the other hand, they may have meant nothing at all. The hipster jargon struck me as a fancy way of saying nothing. About all it was good for was talking about marijuana in such a way as to keep outsiders from knowing what was going on.

Occasionally, when I ran short of cash, Barbara would give me a few bags of pot to sell to people I knew at the club. But that was all the stuff I handled until mid-August when Barbara asked me to come with her to New York to pick up a big shipment of wholesale pot. It was going to cost one thousand dollars. Barbara got the money from the bank as a home-improvement loan. We flew to New York and as soon as we had arrived she called her connection and we took a taxi to a loft on the west side. The connection turned out to he a Negro drummer who had nine pounds for us. We broke open the brown-paper bags of pot — it looks something like tea leaves — and we all turned on just to make sure everything was on the up and up. It was; the pot turned out to be real dynamite. I believe it was probably Panama red, which comes from central America and is one of the most potent strains of marijuana you can get. We stayed in New York for a couple of days seeing the shows and listening to jazz. Then Barbara flew home to Toronto and I flew to Buffalo with the pot. Nine pounds was a little too much to take across the border ourselves so Barbara had arranged for a courier to bring it across for us. I checked the pot into a locker in the Buffalo airport, and an hour later a truck driver met me in the airport bar and picked up the key. For one hundred dollars he was to bring the shipment to Toronto for us. There wasn't much chance of him crossing us up and trying to sell the stuff himself. He knew and we knew that in Toronto it costs only about fifty dollars to have someone’s arm broken. And although I was still pretty green, Barbara was a very hip chick.

The truck driver delivered our stuff to Barbara’s apartment the next day. I rented a room under a phony name and I recruited half a dozen retailers from the club. It was the old seventy-thirty split but this time I was the one getting the seventy percent. Barbara and I also sold a little ourselves but we didn’t work too hard at it. At the end of three weeks, we had disposed of everything except the little we wanted to keep for ourselves. We had taken in $4,500 but our expenses — the trip to New York, the courier, the rented room and retailers — came to $2,550. Still, we had cleared $1,950. My share of this was only $500 but I was, after all, the junior partner in the deal.

My first venture as a wholesaler had been a roaring success. I was ecstatic. My second venture was a disaster. Early in the fall. Barbara and I went down to New York again, but this time, when we tested the pot, it turned out to be lemonade. It had hardly any kick at all. Either it was no good to begin with or someone along the line had diluted it with alfalfa or parsley. From another of Barbara’s connections, we managed to get twenty bags of good quality pot, which was just about enough to cover our expenses. This time, I carried it across the border myself. I had it in two manilla envelopes in the inside pockets of my sport jacket. I tried to look casual when we went through customs but my throat was so dry I could barely squeak out where I was born and how long I had been in the States. I wasn’t cut out to be a criminal.

Back in Toronto, we ran into worse trouble. We packaged the pot but put less in each bag than we ordinarily did. We were, in effect, raising our prices, but there was a shortage of pot and the vipers had to buy from us or not at all. I started spreading the word around the club but then I got a telephone call telling me that two of the cats I had sold to had been busted only two hours after they’d been to me. I think they got off with six months each. But I'd had it. The police had moved in on them when they were having a private party in someone’s apartment. The police must have been tailing them for some time and for all I knew, they were hip to me too and just waiting for the right moment to pick me up.

That was my last try for the big time. School had started anyway, and 1 played it cool around the club for several weeks.

I kept on putting out pot right through my remaining three years at university, but now I was content to take my thirty-percent cut from anyone who had enough nerve to make the connection with a wholesaler. Over the years, I earned enough to pay my tuition and clear about twenty-five dollars a week. That, plus my regular wages at the club, was enough to put me through university in relative comfort. The best part of it was that neither job took up too much of my time and I was able to concentrate on my studies.

I’m out of the trade completely now. I stopped the week after my final exams. Putting out marijuana was something I did to help me through school. I never had any intention of making it a career. I have a steady job now. Occasionally I run across some of my former customers at the new jazz clubs. I don’t know if they still turn on, but I do. I enjoy marijuana and I see no reason why I shouldn't continue to enjoy it for the rest of my life. And I see no reason why I shouldn't experiment with other drugs that are non-addictive. Like a few weeks ago I dropped in at a party and found the cats I used to know as vipers all chewing morning glory seeds. The seeds contain one of the hallucinogenic drugs, and they’re supposed to have much the same effect as LSD. They look like grape pits and a handful is enough to turn you on. I've never been so high in my life.