Back Pedaling: Inside New York’s Illegal Cannabis Bike Delivery System
New York City’s growing cannabis bike delivery industry is sustainable, convenient, full of life-threatening hazards and operating completely underground.
Finding a cannabis bike delivery person in New York City willing to answer a few questions, even anonymously, can be a bit of a challenge. Customers are afraid of divulging their herb-supplying saviors, and the bike messengers themselves are apprehensive about being connected with the particular delivery organization they work for, of which there are several in the city. After some fruitless leads, a friend eventually put me in touch with a gentleman I will call Andrew, but he required that our conversation move to the encrypted texting app Signal just to send me Andrew’s phone number. As a recent transplant from California, I was flabbergasted: Was I looking for a pot dealer, or attempting to join an underground resistance movement?
That sense of paranoia stems from the fact that New York’s state cannabis laws are still quite restrictive and cannabis bicycle delivery remains technically illegal. Less than 1 percent of New York’s 20 million inhabitants are medical marijuana patients, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, and the state has not yet legalized cannabis for adult use. Once you consider the fact that New York City has over 1,100 miles of bike lanes and that everything gets delivered in the city, it makes perfect sense that the cannabis bike delivery industry is thriving in New York.
“In 2018, when you can have a 30-pack of beer, a pint of ice cream and a pizza delivered to your door in under an hour from a smartphone app, there is no reason we shouldn’t allow consumers a similar convenience with marijuana products,” says Erik Altieri, the executive director of NORML.
However, not a single state in America that has legal cannabis delivery allows those deliveries to be conducted by bike, out of concern for the security of the products and the messengers in transit. So, New York City has emerged as the most environmentally friendly underground model in the United States for cannabis delivery, demonstrating a sustainable means of furthering the cannabis economy as cities continue to grow across the country.
Cannabis bike delivery isn’t exactly new and untested. Cannabis messenger services have been around New York City since the 80s, when Greenwich Village’s notorious “Pope of Pot,” born Michael Cesar, was busted repeatedly for delivering cannabis to customers who dialed his 1-800-WANT-POT phone line.
Another high-profile distributor, who eventually served five years in federal prison for conspiracy to distribute, Rene Soto, recalls using beepers to send a team of five cyclists around Manhattan.
“We’d sell 1.5 grams for $50 — you do the math on that,” he told me with a boyish grin on a boiling hot afternoon at the site of his new venture, Skintrade Tattoo in midtown Manhattan. “We’d hit the music industry, actors, people from out of town, all kinds of clients. Snoop Dogg, Cypress Hill, you name ‘em.”
For more from Rene Soto, LISTEN HERE.
Back on the other side of the East River, I eventually met Andrew in a Brooklyn skate park on a muggy summer afternoon. As hyperactive teenagers practiced their board skills around us, his pride in his work as a bike delivery man, as well as in the inventory itself, became immediately apparent.
“The first dispensary I went to in Colorado, I was beyond underwhelmed,” he explained in a soft voice. “They have maybe eight more strains than we carry [in a backpack].”
Andrew explained that a typical day as a cannabis bike messenger, he rides between 40 and 50 miles per day in a predetermined region of the city, makes roughly one delivery per hour and has lots of downtime built into his schedule.
“I have a lot of friends that work in bars, so I’ll make the rounds and drink a seltzer,” he said. (He also reads a lot between deliveries, but asked me to omit the name of the book he is reading).
Andrew lives in a city with almost 2 million cars, which, in 2015, accounted for 29 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to government data released in 2017. By riding his bike instead of driving a car, Andrew is able to move across the city without a carbon footprint.
Much like The Guy in HBO’s hit show “High Maintenance,” a pseudo-fictional account of a cannabis bike delivery man’s adventures in the Big Apple, Andrew has crossed paths with New Yorkers of every walk of life during his two years on the job.
“I’ve been in some shithole apartments of people who are fine living surrounded by to-go food containers, and also in the penthouse of one of my favorite buildings in New York,” he said. “I was definitely taken back by seeing a MAGA hat on a shelf.”
Among the clientele of two-wheeled cannabis deliverers are New Yorkers unable to reach a dispensary on their own, particularly those people who are not able-bodied.
“Delivery [businesses] not only provide a useful service, but often a very necessary one for individuals consuming for medical purposes who may have trouble getting to a physical storefront,” said NORML’s Altieri.
It’s easy to romanticize Andrew’s lifestyle, but it certainly has its drawbacks, too. Although he doesn’t seem terribly daunted by the potential legal repercussions of his career, he is still breaking the law in New York state. Carrying over $4,000 in inventory at a time, he’s a prime target for thieves who know he can’t call a cop. Fortunately, he says he’s only been robbed once. And while New York is much safer for cyclists than other cities, he’s still been doored — meaning someone opened a car door on him while he was biking. His bike frame was destroyed, but he walked away from the accident unscathed.
He said his least favorite part of the job is being tethered to his phone, which his company uses to tell him where he’s headed next. “If I miss a call, that’s when you’re pissing dispatch off. You don’t want to piss dispatch off,” he deadpanned.
While nothing gives Andrew a headache like customers who ask too many questions — “People treat it as important as naming their first-born child sometimes,” he says — the growing numbers of canna-curious New Yorkers speaks to a nationwide trend towards legalization and decriminalization. And it baffles old-school distributors like Soto, who’s delighted to see that current delivery organizations note distinctions as basic as the difference between sativas and indicas on their menus.
“I always keep my ears to the streets,” he said. “Yesterday I saw a menu of what these delivery services [offer]; it’s great. I love that they tell you the effects [of each strain].”
However, despite the developments that cannabis bike delivery has made over the years, it appears unlikely to find itself legalized any time soon. As New York politicians consider decriminalizing, legalizing and expanding their state’s medical marijuana program, it is doubtful the state will become the first in the nation to legalize cannabis bike delivery.
But, as for Andrew, don’t expect him to be giving up his career anytime soon: “I’d honestly do it for the rest of my life,” he said.
Originally published in Issue 33 of Cannabis Now, on shelves soon. Subscribe HERE.
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