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Meet the Dealers 

The bud men of Haight Street

Wednesday, Apr 24 1996
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I first spot William in a crowd of people hurrying along Haight Street. I am moving with the stream of pedestrians, and he is working against it. He could be any young person coming home from school or work except for the word mumbled under his breath.

"Buds," he says, uttering the most common expression among dealers in the Upper Haight. "Got buds," he adds, sounding like a secret agent carefully passing along a coded message.

William -- a pimply, freckle-faced 19-year-old with short-cropped bleached-blond hair and spanking new black-and-white sneakers -- is just one of the legion of teens and post-teens who maintain this strip's reputation as a farmers market of marijuana. When I tell William I am a reporter, he stops, backs away nervously, and reaches to pat down my black leather jacket, probably looking for a badge or gun. He is in the middle of a deal, I learn later. A customer wants an eighth of an ounce of marijuana and William is going to sell it to him for $60, thereby making a $10 profit. It is his second sale of the day, and he is feeling good. The way police have been cracking down on dealers on this street recently, it's no wonder William doesn't run like hell from me. But after a nervous interchange, I assure him I am just interested in a few minutes of his time.

I follow him around the corner of Belvedere Street to the bank machine at First Interstate and wait as his customer withdraws enough cash to complete the sale. The transaction is done quietly, in the open, as if the two are exchanging phone numbers. Hands pass green for green, and they part as casually as might acquaintances who'd stopped to chat on the street.

"How do you like my shoes?" William says, pulling his pants leg up to display a pair of black Adidas with white stripes. "I spent 38 bucks on them. I'm proud of myself, you know. I could have just as easily spent it on something else."

The sneakers replaced an old, beat-up pair that were full of holes, and that William had worn night and day since flying out here from New Jersey three weeks ago. Like most young dealers on the street, William is a transient and a drug user. He shoots heroin and smokes crack but claims that he quit three days earlier and is trying to put his life back in order. For him, the sneakers are a sign of progress. He wants to attend Academy of Art College and study theater, and he plans to get there by dealing marijuana. It's obvious from the tic in his neck and the nervous shuffle of his eyes that most of his earnings are coursing their way through his bloodstream. He lives on the street most of the time, he says, and, when he's lucky, lodges with friends in cheap apartments and motels. Like many dealers who do business here, he says he came to the Haight hoping to find something of the easygoing, carefree lifestyle imagined in so many Grateful Dead songs.

"All I know is that these kids typically score their drugs in the Mission," says Mark Sabin, director of the youth program at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics off Cole Street. "They are selling so that they can use, and usually make just enough so they can cover what they need on a particular day."

The clinic has for decades provided a haven for runaways, outcasts, and the addicted who wander these streets, appearing and disappearing like shadows in a dream. Among the young, there are few regulars, says Sabin. Many move on to other towns in a matter of weeks, sometimes days. While they are here, though, the clinic opens its doors to them, offering free condoms, clean showers, hot food, and someone to talk to.

"Things have definitely not gotten better," Sabin says. "A lot of these kids have chosen to live on the streets, instead of with their parents. For most, it's better than being home."

SFPD narcotics detective Capt. Gregory Corrales says officers from the Park Station Drug Task Force are in the Haight every day making buys from dealers.

"The kids are drawn to this place because of the history," Corrales says. "They are the young hippie types selling marijuana. Some have apartments. Some make money to earn a living. Some are addicted. There's a wide range of them."

Phil, 21, moved out of his mother's house in Pennsylvania when he was 18. He says he never met his father. While traveling the Dead circuit, he saw much of the country (and says that he has 19 states to go). He moved here last summer when Jerry Garcia died.

Phil deals on Haight Street to have fun and stay alive.
"I earn just enough to get by and eat and maybe sleep in a motel," he says, breaking from a circle of friends getting high on the Panhandle. "It's stressful at times, but usually I'm hanging out with my buddies. It's cool."

Phil shot heroin regularly a few years back but says he has kicked the habit. He only needs to make about $50 a day dealing to get by, he says. In some ways, he's a kid: He's wearing a baseball cap with an "EXTC" logo parodying an "Exxon" logo and dressed in oversize jeans and sweat shirt. In other ways, he's very much an adult: smart, insightful, candid, aware of the people around him. As long as he's smoking pot with his friends, making a few bucks on the sly, and doing his own thing, he says he's OK.

It's not the drugs, Phil says, that are the allure. It's the lifestyle.
"We get stoned together and have fun all over the place," he says. "When things get rough financially, my mom helps me out a lot."

Police say that it's common knowledge that the Haight is the place to buy marijuana in the city; elsewhere, the drug of choice is crack cocaine. Because Haight dealers know that their customers are willing to pay the price for top-quality smoke, most of them split their eighths in half to create what is commonly known on the street as a "Heighth," which they sell for the full price, typically $50.

Others, like William, say they just jack up the price $10 to $20, knowing someone will pay for it.

"The streets are filled with people who have disposable incomes," says Kevin, a 34-year-old dealer raised in Chicago who says he has been on these streets for some 15 years. Like the others, he came here to find life and music among the Deadheads. But like most, he found himself needing dope and the money that feeds the habit.

"Some of the best buds in the world go through [the Haight]," he says, swigging a beer, his dirty hair hopelessly tangled in dreadlocks. He looks older than his years -- the creases in his face telling many silent stories. "It's the real green stuff, the Indica. And you can make up to $200 to $300 a day with it. But you have to be careful out there."

Kevin tells the story of an 18-year-old girl he had just met who was partying late one night with friends in the Haight. They were drinking and smoking crack. Some were shooting heroin. They ended up crashing at someone's house after everyone got too wasted to even move. When the girl awoke the next day sprawled out on some floor, a guy she'd met that same night lay motionless beside her. He'd overdosed and died during the night, Kevin says. He adds that he's heard of at least three other overdoses in the last few weeks from heroin.

"The longer you're out on the streets doing this, the easier it is to get hooked," he says. "I've seen it before. They come out here looking for a new life, a way out, a place to have fun. They start making money that they don't know what to do with, and they end up shooting it up their arms."

When he was in his mid-20s, Kevin stopped dealing to launch a remodeling business, he says. After the first of his three children were born to his then-girlfriend, he started selling again to support the family. Making friends with dealers, living the lifestyle, soon he was consuming as much as he was making. One day in 1989, undercover drug officers caught him in the Haight with 50 sheets of LSD. Kevin says he spent his savings and sold his remodeling business to fight the charges in court.

Then it was back on the streets, dealing buds to pay the fines and getting high to forget his troubles. His wife left for Miami with the kids. Today, Kevin says he buys his stash on Market Street from a guy who grows his own. Sometimes he goes as far as North Oakland or Berkeley for his supply. On a good day he can make $50 profit selling Heighths. With all the young kids looking to just make a few dollars, Kevin has to keep moving to earn a decent living.

Kevin sees his former self in many of the young people who come to the Haight with the hopes and good intentions he once had. Heroin use is skyrocketing, he alleges, and the kids are wild for methamphetamine, which is passed around like candy among schoolkids.

"Me, I just drink now. But every few months you see a different set of faces on the streets here," he says. "They're always coming and going. They hang here to make their money and then go to the Mission to score their junk. Then they get right back up and do it again."

Greg Hayner, a pharmacist at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, says he mostly treats heroin and methamphetamine addicts from the neighborhood. Many are teen-agers, or in their early 20s, but there's also a group of die-hard 30-year-olds who keep coming back, he adds. He rarely sees anyone older. They are desperate for something to ease their need, and he refers them to rehab or suggests therapy.

Hayner doesn't approve of the dealers' lifestyle, but he understands that when it comes to the street, dealing drugs can be the difference between survival and total desperation.

"It's one of the least repugnant ways of their raising money to support a habit," Hayner says. "It's the better option to street hustling and certainly a lot less dangerous. Most people who are in the drug-using culture see dealing as an honest, and pretty innocuous, thing. It's as if they are making a real living."

Hayner, who has worked at the clinic for 17 years, says word-of-mouth drives the local drug market: "They have a very high quality and good product out here. Sometimes I think this is the closest thing to a free-market economy that we have in this country anymore. These people are competing by price and quality every day, and nothing more."

SFPD Sgt. Charlie Koehane, who walks the beat almost every day, says there are fewer transients on the strip today than when the Dead were touring. Still, every day his officers make between five and 10 busts. Recently, Police Chief Fred Lau proposed a new policy that would require officers not to book juveniles arrested for selling drugs or committing burglaries. Instead, they would be issued a ticket and let go to ease overcrowding in Juvenile Hall. The measure has raised some controversy among law enforcement people, who feel that the city is fostering an environment in which young dealers can do their business with little fear of jail time.

William says he has been lucky, earning up to $100 a day and never getting caught. Then again, he's relatively new to the Haight.

"I have $696 saved as of today," he says, adding that he collects SSI benefits from the federal government every month because he has been diagnosed as clinically depressed and is prone to nervous breakdowns. "If I can save a little more, I'll be on my way."

The names of the Haight dealers have been changed.

About The Author

Matt Melucci

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