How much marijuana was sold in America last year? The answer is not a number; it's a blinding flash of revelation. It's the sort of brilliant light-bulb burst that led young men - in their late teens and early 20s -- in Coeur d'Alene and Spokane on a Fantasy Island journey lined with the pleasant greens of weed, cash and adventure.
It has revealed a much-wanted drug lord around here to be a smiley, cow-licked pizza delivery kid who looks like he'd mow your lawn and help old ladies cross the street. It has revealed that B.C. Bud, originally planted by draft-dodging hippies rebelling against corporate culture, can become just as big a commodity as McDonald's cheeseburgers and just as about as profitable.
It has revealed the War on Drugs is not about winning; it's as much about money as weed is. And it reveals the cost of doing business can be death.
The revelations, like a good high, build and sink in over time.
All Chip remembers from the meeting three years ago are the homemade visual aids. And the question.
Chip (not his real name) had just finished college and was kicking around Coeur d'Alene. Like many of his friends, he smoked weed, buying an ounce here or there.
There was this kid everybody knew -- Nate Norman, always eager, always hanging around, wanting to get off the fringes and be part of the crowd.
"He was this fat little dough boy that everybody laughed at," Chip says, "but I liked him."
One day late in 2001, Norman showed Chip a flowchart he had made. It was a marker-and-posterboard business model for smuggling marijuana across the border from Canada: little boxes leading to bigger boxes leading to the biggest one in which he had written $1 million. And he said it out loud with the same sort of crazy delight as the Dr. Evil character in Austin Powers. "One million dollars."
This is not a side of the drug business they tend to show in movies or on TV. It was like friends of friends of your parents suddenly hijacking a dinner with Amway charts and showing you a stairway to riches.
"He had it figured out that you could do it like 32 times and you'd be a millionaire. I was in disbelief," Chip says. "I'm like, riiiiiggghhht..."
But then Norman popped the question: How much marijuana was sold in America last year, Chip?
Chip, in the basement of his Coeur d'Alene house last week, squirmed and shrugged and flailed his arms, making funny faces as he relived the moment. "I'm saying, like, I don't know ... two million pounds?"
No, Norman told him: Every bit of it.
It was the brilliant pop of the light bulb going off. Sure there was a number out there somewhere, but who knew it? Who cared? The larger truth is that anybody selling marijuana in America is unlikely to get stuck with a product they can't move.
Chip was in.
"I sold a shitload of weed around here," he says. "The market here [in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene] is huge. I like to say it's as big as beer."
THIS BUD'S FOR YOU
Nate Norman remembers sitting around one day with his pal, Topher Clark, toking a little weed and reading a High Times magazine. He was just out of Coeur d'Alene High School, working two jobs -- doing auto body work by day, delivering pizzas at night -- and daydreaming about something better.
"Me and Topher were sitting on the couch and there was this big article -- it was like four or five pages -- and it said if you want good weed, go to the Canadian border with a backpack," Norman recalls.
It sounded insanely easy. Buy good-quality weed at Canadian prices, take a short walk through the woods and sell it to Americans. There had to be a catch.
They drove north, and in a couple hours were on a gravel road at the international border. It was an eye-opener. No guard towers, no barbed wire, no German shepherds straining against their leashes. Instead they found a little cemetery, a weathered wooden fence, an obelisk. Norman and Clark took a breath and, in more ways than one, stepped across the line. No sirens went off, no helicopters came swooping out of the sunny afternoon sky.
Pretty soon they were in Creston, British Columbia, and bumped into a guy smoking a joint out on the street. "We said, 'We're Americans. We'd like to buy some weed,' " Norman says.
They needed about $1,500 to buy a pound, and a week later they were back with the money. Norman borrowed about $800 from a relative. Clark, working maintenance at Silverwood, had salvaged a sunken boat from Twin Lake and sold it off a trailer on the side of U.S. Highway 95.
"They came back with some shitty weed," Chip remembers. "It was all musty and brown. It had probably been sitting in some dude's basement for three years."
Tourist weed. Still, it was a start. They managed to sell it for enough to buy two pounds of better stuff, and soon there were about two dozen friends organized into a tight little group of runners, scouts and wholesalers -- all ripping through the boxes in Norman's flowchart at a pace that showed his calculations were woefully inadequate. They hit the million-dollar box long before the 32nd step.
"Holy moly," Norman says. "All of a sudden after about four months, we had $100,000 to $150,000 saved up."
Terry Morgan, an Idaho State Police investigator who spent the last couple of years chasing down and dismantling the bud-running ring, agrees.
"It was the biggest. Nothing else came close to this. This was $38 million and 18 tons," Morgan says.
TAG IN THE DARK
The ring got so big in part because smuggling marijuana across the border was fun.
"I love playing tag out there in the dark," Norman says. "I tell you, it's not the drug that is addicting, it's not the money that's addicting. It's not the free pot. The adrenaline rush of walking in the woods at night -- the thrill is addicting."
"Nate made a joke out of that border," Chip says. "Nate would say you have no idea how easy it is."
When a runner was hired, the first stop was always at an outdoor outfitter's for good hiking boots, dark clothing, camo, big cans of bear spray and other gear.
"Everybody was decked out in about $800 worth of gear," Chip says. By the end, there were even third-generation night-vision goggles. There was the practical: food, first-aid kits and sleeping bags stashed along some of the runs. Morgan, the detective, says this preplanning may have saved a life when one of the runners was caught in a snowstorm. And there was the weird: an aerosol found on the Internet that runners sprayed all over themselves in the belief it would mask their heat signatures from anyone using infrared spotting scopes. (Morgan says the spray works about as well as that other fine aerosol product, instant hair for balding men.)
Along with the preparation came luck. Norman remembers one early smuggling run. He was leading a file of three runners coming across the hayfields at the border one night. They were staying low, following contour lines so they wouldn't be skylighted against the open horizon.
"We were walking real quiet," Norman recalls. As he reached the end of the field and started up the bank to the gravel road on the U.S. side, "I froze. There was the butt end of a Border Patrol SUV. We all ducked down."
With eyes shut they waited for the searchlights, the barked commands. "I was ready to pee. Then I heard a snoring sound," Norman says. Like characters in a Saturday morning cartoon, the runners, one by one, tip-toed across the gravel behind the sleeping agent and vanished into the woods on the other side of the road.
Another time, Chip says, Norman was able to convince agents that the group of camouflaged young men in the woods were just out playing paintball games. It helped that Norman looked like the over-eager 12-year-old from next door.
Morgan remembers the phone call when Norman -- on the run for several months after the ring was busted -- finally surrendered. "I told the attorney, 'Don't take him to jail. Bring him here first.'" Finally, he thought, he would see the shadowy mastermind he had been chasing for two years. "I couldn't believe it. In walks this pudgy kid who looked like he was in high school," Morgan says.
Canadian cops fared no better. Norman was still buying weed in Creston when he was pulled over by a city cop who had been hiding behind a bush. "[The cop] comes up to the window and the first thing he says is, 'So, are you guys smuggling?' " Norman says. His heart stopped for a moment, and then he decided to go with the joke, Norman says. After delivering a warning about seatbelt use, the cop added "You're not going to get any weed in Creston, it's just a bunch of loggers around here. You should go to Nelson."
Norman took the tip, went to Nelson and found a Garden of Eden: hippies and weed, tolerant cops and high-quality Bud.
Soon he was hooked up with the big growers. The operation took off.
IN THE GARDEN
Frankie (not his real name) is a migrant worker of sorts who recently spent a season in the Bud gardens around Nelson. The grow ops, like any ag business, need migrants at various high points during the season: planting, pruning, clipping, harvesting, baling. Many are young people who live a seasonal, cyclical life: working for a ski hill in winter, getting the Bud crop going in spring, fighting wildfires in summer and fall.
Frankie says he was astonished at the high degree of friendly cooperation among the growers around Nelson and up the remote stretches of Kootenay Lake. Most of the grows were out in the bush, on Crown land. Outdoor plants were sunk into fertilizer-filled individual holes to help avoid detection; growers shared boats, ATVs and sturdy backs to move tons of the popular Sunshine mix fertilizer -- a 70-pound bag at a time -- into the grow sites.
He guesses there may be as many as 600 growers who all cooperate to keep an eye out for Hells Angels or "ripper crews" who show up around harvest time and can clean $1 million worth of weed out of a grow op overnight. The growers also help each other find brokers, markets and runners (the Nate Normans of the world). They also set prices, just like any farm co-op.
It's all wide open. Frankie marvels, adding that there was hardly any attention from Mounties.
"It's the new boom up there," he says. "There was the mining boom and the timber boom. Now it's the bud boom."
THE CALL OF THE PROFIT
B.C. Bud is not a variety -- it's more like a brand name. It's become the toke du jour, riding a crest of popularity in recent years on a reputation for potency. The truth is, B.C. Bud is no more or less potent than any other weed. It can be sativa, it can be indica, it is grown both outdoors and indoors. B.C. Bud is merely far more available than anything else around here, largely because of more tolerant attitudes toward marijuana in Canada and because the provincial economy would be toast without it.
Law enforcement officials estimate that B.C. Bud has grown into a $7 billion-a-year industry (in U.S. dollars), with an estimated 20,000 grow operations in the province. Washington state, by contrast, reports that its annual agricultural earnings, for all crops, are about $5.4 billion.
Most of British Columbia's grow operations are around Vancouver and have well-documented ties to organized crime -- Vietnamese gangs, Hells Angels, Russian mafias. North of Spokane, the grow is more agrarian, at least for now. It has roots in draft-dodging and hippie times where growing the herb was done more for Rastafarian prophet motives than anything as crass as money.
But that's changed. A $7 billion industry -- one that has no legal protections -- attracts the attention of people who hear the call of the profit.
"Too often it does get fraught with violence around it. The cops are not exactly wrong, there is an element of organized crime, and bikers are just moving in here,'' says Paul DeFelice, a legalize-marijuana activist who helps run the Holy Smoke Culture Shop in Nelson. ''So many of the ills are prohibition-caused, not pot-caused. If a person can't protect what they've got, someone else is going to take it.''
Nelson is a small place, DeFelice says. Everybody pretty much knows who grows weed and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to scan the landscape for south-facing slopes with access to water to figure out where people grow weed.
The growers, because Nelson is a small place, tend to be equally aware of who the rippers are, noticing local teenagers with new threads or new toys shortly after a grow op has been cleaned out by thieves. This leads to traps, alarms and episodes of intimidation all around the grows, DeFelice says. And it's been getting even worse than that. In Canada, where gun ownership is strictly regulated, any crime-related shooting death is big news; in early March, the nation was shocked when four Mounties were shot and killed as they searched for a marijuana growing operation in Alberta.
Just as B.C. Bud is not one kind of weed, the growers also come in varieties. There are the medical growers, members of compassion clubs who grow for registered users. There are the bikers and other mysteriously wealthy outsiders who buy land or houses, set up grows and hire locals to do the work. There are political activists like himself, DeFelice says, who believe hemp and cannabis should be grown for valid agricultural reasons -- "It's a nutritious food, it's the strongest fiber" -- and then there are what he calls the hipster-tripsters, old hippie types who "like it the way it is. They think it's kind of fun with all the cloak-and-dagger and the codes."
Out of all these groups, it's the eco-activists who catch the most grief, DeFelice says. "I can't grow any more. I'm too much of a target -- a target for the crooks and a target for the cops." Outbuildings around his house are regularly broken into by thieves looking for cash or stash, and cops are often lurking around the Holy Smoke hoping to catch a sale.
There's a strange irony to bearded guys in tie-dye getting hassled under their wall-sized Bob Marley mural while quieter sorts pile up illegal profits.
The Holy Smoke owners find themselves with unlikely allies -- including old-line logger and miner types -- who take a look around a town where the university branch campus has closed, the hospital may be moved to Trail, the railroad is out of business and the plywood mill is shut down. Letters to the editor and occasional columns in the Nelson Daily News, as well as impromptu speeches at City Council meetings, call for growers to spread a little of the tax-free money around the city by donating to various budgets or programs.
"I argue with my friends sometimes that here are these guys who buy properties in Mexico or take vacations in Belize. I mean c'mon, what about your community?" DeFelice asks.
"My impression is the war on drugs will never be solved by arresting people," says Roger Peven, head of the federal defense attorneys in Spokane -- especially, he says, when the source is in Canada. "Meth is a domestic issue. The government can attack it by arresting a low-level person and threatening them to rat out somebody higher. It works because you can reach them.
"When the higher levels are Canadian, all you can do is intercept the money and drugs transported by 20-year-olds. You can arrest people all day long and still find people to transport the drug," Peven says. Legalizing marijuana, he adds, "Won't cause more people to smoke it. Study after study has shown this. It will allow you to get rid of the people you want to get rid of -- the entrepreneurial growers."
Selby Smith, the resident agent-in-charge for the Spokane office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, disagrees. He concedes the illegality of weed has created the shadow economy that attracts organized crime, but says it all comes down to where you draw the line.
"Take Prohibition," Smith says. "The Mafia came in and made money off of liquor. When Prohibition was repealed, did organized crime go away? No, they just transitioned to different crimes."
If organized crime is dealing in weed, that's where the fight is, he says.
The war on drugs has become a growth industry for the government as well as the growers, Peven and other attorneys around Spokane say. Numbers are crunched, reports circulated, budget requests submitted. The Border Patrol gets more agents and more gizmos, drug task forces are beefed up, federal prosecutors and defenders get more money to do their jobs, the federal prison system hires cooks, guards, administrators.
And the prisons are filled with the 20-year-olds far down the food chain who get busted for moving the weed from grower to smoker, says Carl Oreskovich, a Spokane attorney who sometimes takes on federal defense work. "I think we're missing the boat. People who have the least role are getting caught and doing a substantial amount of the prison time."
"It's cynical," Peven says, but it's become a system that feeds on drugs. He hopes the federal justice system will eventually adopt the diversion programs, such as drug court, that have been used with demonstrable success in state courts.
SMOKE, IT'S ALL SMOKE
Already, around Nelson, the hardware stores and garden centers are unloading semi-truckloads of Sunshine mix, hydroponic grow mediums, lights, timers and misting systems as growers begin work on this year's crop of B.C. Bud. It's all part of the "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" economy where nobody asks too many uncomfortable questions, DeFelice says.
Undoubtedly, around Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, there is already a 20-year-old with a flowchart. But it's not Nate Norman. He's serving 12 years in federal prison in Arizona and all his pals are serving lesser sentences in other federal prisons around the West.
Chip, one of the last to be sentenced, had a plane to catch at 6 in the morning this week -- the sunrise flight to Denver, where he caught the Hound to Florence, Colo., where he walked past razor-wire while self-reporting to begin a three-year sentence for selling what the feds say is 868 kilos of B.C. Bud.
"It was all a fantasy," Chip says. "It was all a fantasy I had to be somebody and to have people look up to me."
Within months of selling that first pound of cruddy weed, Chip, Norman and everybody else had seriously upgraded their lives with money they couldn't put in the bank. Chip bought a five-bedroom house in Hayden, a boat and a car. Norman had a seven-bedroom house in Hayden and a fleet of rigs including a Cadillac Escalade paid for with $43,000 cash.
There were lavish dinners, vacations to Cancun and Whistler, killer sound systems and plasma TVs. They were so out in the open with so many toys and so much cash, Chip was certain they were going to get caught.
But just like the nudge-nudge, wink-wink in Nelson, nobody seemed to ask uncomfortable questions about young men with huge wads of cash.
It took a murder, the Shakespearean death of Brendan Butler, for homicide cops to finally start asking those uncomfortable questions.
Butler was another 20-year-old who had done the Bud math. The adopted, Korean-born son of a prominent Hayden family, Butler attended Gonzaga Preparatory School in Spokane and didn't mix much with Norman and his pals.
But he shared a fondness for weed and adventure and, even before Norman, had put together his own smuggling ring. He came to believe he was getting squeezed out by this highly organized and aggressive new crew from Coeur d'Alene.
Butler had his own fantasy; that he was a ruthless drug lord. In a moment of hubris, he arranged to meet a crew of enforcers from Southern California and, according to the police investigation, began negotiations to have Nate Norman killed.
After months of planning and delay and at least one aborted kidnapping of Ben Scozzaro, one of Norman's dealers, Butler wound up strangled and had his throat slashed by his own enforcers in an argument over money. His body was found along a remote road a month after his death in October 2002.
Kootenai County homicide detective Dan Mattos switched on the cell phone that was still in Butler's pocket. The story it told eventually led federal and state drug police to Norman.
"This never would have happened except for Brendan Butler," Chip says. He was close to having enough money to finance a legitimate business pursuit and, conceding that it is a cliche, says he was making his last run when the drug ring came crashing down in a series of coordinated raids.
"I'm not proud to have been a drug dealer. I was doing this for the money. If I didn't do it, some other schmuck would do it," Chip says. He wanted to have his own business and be the boss of something, he adds.
The problem is, he says, being around so much easy money leads to the desire to be around even more, drowning out the voice in your head that says make $10,000 and quit.
"The problem with Nate is he didn't stop, not even when he got to that million dollars on his chart," Chip says. "It was a fantasy. I wish I never did any of that. Your freedom is priceless."
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Publication date: 04/07/05