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'Business is good' for Seattle's black market pot dealers

Drug dealers in downtown Seattle say there has been an increase in customers since voters approved recreational use of marijuana in 2012. With some legal pot stores struggling to keep a steady supply, there is still plenty of business for the black market. (KIRO Radio/Brandi Kruse)

This "On Assignment" investigation airs Wednesday at 3:37 p.m. and 5:37 p.m. on KIRO Radio's Ron and Don Show.

In Seattle's Pioneer Square, a man paced back and forth on a dimly lit corner near First Avenue and South Washington Street.

Less than a block away, two Seattle police officers in uniform patrolled Occidental Park.

Unfazed by the police, the man and a young woman dipped behind a nearby building. In the shadows, he slipped her a baggie containing an eighth of an ounce of marijuana.

"I took $30 because business has been good tonight," he said with a laugh.

Nearby, a man dressed in jeans and a faded black sweatshirt said he has been dealing pot in Seattle for almost nine years, rotating between Pioneer Square and the Pike-Pine Street corridor. He said sales have gone up since Washington voters legalized recreational use of marijuana in 2012.

"Business is real good," he said with a smile.

He deals a variety of drugs, but said he sells more weed than anything else.

"I sell 'Purple', 'Black H', 'Deuce of Spades'. My bud has green leaves and red leaves," he said. "We have a lot of people from different states that come here to buy bud."

Dealing marijuana is still a felony in Washington, but new freedoms surrounding pot use have created a booming market for dealers who are no longer afraid of getting arrested.

A dealer we talked to said officers usually confiscate his supply and then send him on his way. "They don't ever take me in. They just take my bud."

"It's hard to turn (pot) into a big priority when the state has legalized personal use of it," said Capt. Chris Fowler, who heads the Seattle Police Department's West Precinct, which includes problem areas like Third Avenue and Pine Street, Pioneer Square, and the International District.

Captain Fowler said it is unlikely that his officers would arrest someone for dealing a small amount of marijuana, called a "personal use transaction."

"Unless, of course, this person is known to the officers over an extended period of time and really is dealing at a much higher level," he said. "That becomes a different type of enforcement. A lot of times they won't make the arrest, but they could build a case for a future arrest."

Seattle police referred only two cases of misdemeanor drug traffic loitering involving marijuana to prosecutors so far this year, according to numbers provided by the Seattle City Attorney's Office. Drug traffic loitering occurs when officers witness three or more hand-to-hand drug transactions.

When it comes to low-level dealers, Capt. Fowler said his officers have higher priorities.

"We have a heroin issue going on, we have a meth issue," he said. "Marijuana isn't an opiate, it's not on the same level as some of those other drugs, so that's where we really want to concentrate our efforts."

As police focus elsewhere, illicit marijuana dealing has run rampant.

I walked from Pike Place Market to Westlake Park and was blatantly offered marijuana seven times and was able to solicit pot from four separate dealers within the same time frame. One of the dealers told me to follow him from Second Avenue and Pine Street to a nearby strip club, where his "associate" could provide an eighth of an ounce for $40.

"It's frustrating to have any type of illegal drug market entrenched in your neighborhood," said Jon Scholes, vice president of advocacy and economic development with the Downtown Seattle Association.

Scholes said illegal drug markets - including marijuana - are contributing to other issues downtown, including violent crime and general street disorder. He applauded Mayor Ed Murray's commitment to public safety, but said there needs to be a concrete plan to address the problem.

"We all know it's going on," he said. "We can walk up to it, as you did, and quickly engage with somebody that's out there dealing drugs and probably has been out there for a decade dealing drugs."

Captain Fowler said enforcement could ramp up once the legal market gets on its feet and the problem is more defined.

"If we can get the illegal sales of marijuana to the point where people are rolling up a joint and selling them individually in a couple different spots, then that's probably a victory," he said. "Because then we can focus on those people, whereas right now the volume is so high."

To date, 38 retail pot stores have been licensed statewide, with only two in the Seattle-area.

Cannabis City in South Seattle has so far struggled to maintain supply, warning customers on its website that, "due to severe supply issues at the state level we often do not have marijuana products."

Stores that have managed to maintain supply still charge far more for product than dealers on the black market.

At Herbal Nation in Bothell, spokesperson Lauren Downes said grams of marijuana are sold for anywhere from $17.99 to $28.99, depending on TCH content.

After tax, an eighth of an ounce of marijuana at the store would cost anywhere from $68.95 to $111.09.

"When we find product for less, we charge less," she said.

Brian Smith with the Washington State Liquor Control Board said he expects marijuana prices to go down soon.

"When the supply kicks in, it's going to drive down the price," he said. "Our supply system will be very robust."

Smith said it is too soon to tell how the legal marijuana market will impact illicit sales, but stressed the importance of law enforcement agencies cracking down on black market dealers.

"We do expect to make inroads on minimizing the black market," he said. "The laws have to be enforced if that element is going to be minimized."

Back in Pioneer Square, a dealer said he expects his pot sales to take a hit when more stores open.

"The minute they start to open up stores and the bud people start to get their growth together, then we'll pretty much be out of business," he said. "We'll just wait for the youngsters that can't go into the stores and get it."

"KIRO Radio On Assignment" features in-depth, investigative reports on a variety of topics including government accountability, consumer advocacy and the criminal justice system. To send a KIRO Radio reporter "On Assignment," email or use our online form.

About the Author

Brandi Kruse is a reporter for KIRO Radio who is as spontaneous and adventurous in her free time as she is on the job. Brandi arrived at KIRO Radio in March 2011 and has already collected three regional Edward R. Murrow awards for her reporting.


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