Austin has been out of weed for four days. It's Sunday evening, and today he's gotten 14 calls from customers looking for bud.
"You got tree, bro?" they ask.
The drought ends with a call from his "plug," one of the people who sells him marijuana in large quantities. Austin catches a ride from a friend. They drive from Northeast Alberta Street down to the Mount Scott neighborhood, where he disappears into a one-story house. He emerges with 7 ounces of weed—worth $980. The stash fills a plastic turkey-basting bag like a pillow.
For the next two days, Austin, age 18, will sell the pot to high-school and college students across Portland.
Austin was 8 years old the first time he smoked weed. He picked up a pipe in his grandparents' basement, loaded a bowl, and lit the greens.
At 16, he began dealing. Two years later, he makes upward of $800 cash every week riding his bicycle around Northeast and Southeast Portland selling weed strains like Golden Pineapple. His price per gram can be as low as $5, about half the typical price at a medical dispensary.
Austin's phone lights up five to 10 times an hour with texts or calls asking for bud. His customers come to his house, or he meets them in city parks.
âBut at the end of the day, they want the weed, so they come to me,â Austin says. âAnd I have so many customers. They need me more than I need them.â
Austin is the worst nightmare of Oregon's new overseers of legal weed. When state lawmakers set the rules for recreational marijuana this spring, their top priorities were eliminating the black market and ensuring that teenagers don't use drugs.
âI believe that we need to protect kids,â says Rep. Ann Lininger (D-Lake Oswego), who co-chaired the House-Senate committee on marijuana this spring. âAnd we protect them by shrinking the black market, talking candidly to young people about why marijuana use is a bad choice for people under the age of 21, and making policies that allow young people who have made a mistake to move on with their lives.â
Austin defies these aims. He has a huge advantage over the legal system. Recreational marijuana shops won't open until next year. Medical dispensaries will likely be allowed to sell to anyone over 21 starting Oct. 1. Austin's open for business now.
And he has no plans of stopping.
During the past month, WW spoke to four black-market weed dealers. (They agreed to speak to us if we didn't identify them, so the names of dealers in this story are aliases.) All of them say they will keep selling.
Their sales are the single biggest threat to Oregon's new legal marijuana marketplace, which officially began July 1. They threaten to undercut the prices of regulated and taxed marijuana, and they could trigger crackdowns from the federal government.
Austin says legalization will only increase his business, because most of his customers are under 21.
"These kids can't go to the store and buy it," he says. "They have to call me."
Oregon's marijuana black market is large. Oregon State University sociology professor Seth Crawford estimated that 316,336 Oregonians bought pot illegally in 2013—nearly 8 percent of the state's population.
A study last year by Portland economic consulting firm ECONorthwest estimated that only 40 percent of those people would move to the legal market by 2017—and that more people would still be buying from the black market than either recreational or medical outlets.
The line between the black market and the existing legal market is often hazy.
Sarah has been selling to both for years.
Originally from Colorado, Sarah, in her mid-30s, has 24 pot plants growing legally in her home that she supplies to medical marijuana dispensaries, and she sells to friends and family on the side.
Sarah graduated from Portland State University with a degree in public health. Shortly after graduation, she was convicted on drug charges. (She says friends of her roommates brought psychedelics to Thanksgiving dinner.) Sarah credits the arrest with changing her life path.
âI couldnât get a job in my field as a felon, so they pushed me into a life of crime,â she says.
Sarah makes $800 a week—and estimates she pays income tax on just 35 percent of that income. "I make pretty good money not doing nearly as much work as an average Joe in the workplace," she says. "I work two hours a day instead of 10."
She considers herself a gardener, and says growing weed, like growing vegetables, is spiritual for her.
Sarah says her customers will be loyal, even with new competition, because of the care she puts into her plants. She expects that "corporate weed" production will incentivize quantity over quality. "It's like artisan food versus fast food," she says.
But Sarah is worried that the new legal market will lead to new government regulation—and make it a hassle for her to grow marijuana. If regulators can search her house and require her to keep her plants recorded and accounted for, Sarah says she'll quit.
"If I have to sign a waiver that says they can enter my house at any time, I'll stop growing," she says. "It's a plant. It's a natural thing. Anyone should be able to grow."
The risks for people selling pot on the black market remain steep, even in the new era of legal marijuana.
Penalties for illegal sales range from a $2,000 fine for selling more than 16 ounces, to a $125,000 fine and five years in prison for selling to a minor.
State lawmakers want to stop black-market dealers so they don't undercut the prices at retail stores or draw the ire of the U.S. Department of Justice—which warned in 2013 that leakage into the black market and teenage use could trigger a federal crackdown in states that legalized pot.
"It's just basic economics," Lininger says. "Shrinking the illegal demand means shrinking the illegal supply."
But people have been getting away with selling marijuana for years—decades, even.
Christopher moved to Portland in 1977 and sold his first bag of marijuana. His girlfriend at the time would send him bags of shake (small buds and cuttings) from Hawaii via the U.S. Postal Service.
As long as marijuana is outlawed by the federal government, Christopher expects his customers, who are mostly older Portland professionals, will keep coming.
"Doctors, lawyers, judges—they appreciate the discretion I can offer," Christopher says. "People come by, visit, chitchat, smoke some pot. It is social, safe."
Christopher, now 59, has never gotten caught selling weed. He usually buys enough weed to last him months of selling, so he doesn't have to interact with his growers in Southern Oregon very often.
"I never thought I was breaking laws," he says. "Now everybody else realizes what I realized
a long time ago.â
Max, 19, has been caught. And he's gone to jail. But he doesn't care.
"I am just living in the moment," he says. "I am just doing what I can to make quick money. Making marijuana legal wouldn't make me want to stop."
Max graduated from Grant High School, where he started selling marijuana his freshman year.
He says police have driven by during his deals and he's been searched. But he says that comes with the territory of dealing drugs, and the $1,200 he makes every couple of weeks overshadows the risk.
Max buys large quantities from Austin, and then sells to high-school and college students, parents of high-school kids, and strangers. He doesn't fear a police crackdown.
âEveryone in high school smokes weed,â Max says. âEveryone knows about smoking, wants to smoke, and thereâs no way they can X out that entire population. Itâs just not going to happen.â
Austin sets up shop at 9:30 Sunday night at a wooden picnic table in a Northeast Portland park. His first customers bring a jar of coins.
"Y'all really brought some quarters?" Austin asks. But he accepts the deal: "I'm gonna go to the nickel arcade."
The next group, three teenagers who arrive on skateboards, ogles Austin's 7-ounce bag of pot sitting on the table.
"Damn, Austin, you've got so much tree right now," one of them says. "Can I hold this in my hand?"
Austin agrees. "You can take a picture of it and pretend it's yours."
The three boys pass the bag around. They look awed.
âI sell at least a quarter pound a day,â Austin says. âI probably wonât even have it tomorrow.â