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Meet the Dealers 

The bud men of Haight Street

Wednesday, Apr 24 1996
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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.

About The Author

Matt Melucci

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