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The New Dealers

Family, kids, minivan—and drug dealing. How the recession has driven average Americans into the game.

He points to a shuttered auto dealership. "You see that?" he asks. "These are the times we live in. You could say I had a fallback career, but there are so many people with degrees. I'm past 30. If I start another career now, what am I going to start? A couple of years have gone by, and my résumé in my own field is not what it used to be."

Througout our drive, Colin engages in a conflicted self-dialogue. "I'm not a bad person," he says. "I wouldn't get into other kinds of crimes. It's pot. It's practically legal out here now. This fit my morals: We needed money; I did something. I feel proud of that. I really do."

"There's a whole lot of people with lives and families depending on what I do."

To avoid arrest, he does his homework, scouring police profiling manuals and keeping current with the Office of National Drug Control Policy's High Intensity Drug Trafïcking Areas program, which helps local authorities target stretches of highway where they think growers are moving weight. The feds are focused on the Mexican cartels, Colin figures, not people who look like him. If he were arrested, he could face up to 5 years in federal prison—or up to 30 in some states, like Louisiana. So far, though, he's never been stopped. "You have to figure out how you're going to do your plates and not stick out," he says. "I don't like Texas; Texas always has a ton of cops. I don't like it, but—all right, here's the truth: It's scary. You've got to build a pretty good veneer around yourself."

As if to prove it, he won't specify how much money he's made ("a lot") or what he does to his license plates. ("I gotta keep that to me.") He's also selective about which jobs he'll accept. ("Sometimes I get a feeling, 'I'm not going to do it this time.'") And yet he finds it hard to say no. "I definitely think about taking time off, but make everybody mad?" he says. "There's a whole lot of people with lives and families depending on what I do."

Late the following night, my plane touches down in Austin, Texas. The rental-car desks are closed, so I call Charlie. "Not a problem, bro," he says. "I'm on my way." Soon, I'm riding with him in a minivan full of car seats and baby toys.

Like my other sources, Charlie doesn't mention the names of funky pot strains, doesn't romanticize the drug. Unlike them, he's a bit of a stoner, but he's in this game solely for the money. A Frisbee-golf fanatic, he's the friendliest of the traffickers I've met so far. He's married, with two kids, and he repeats like a mantra the notion that everything he does, he does for them.

"I felt like I was going to throw up," he tells me the next morning, as we sit watching Parks and Recreation. He's talking about his latest layoff, in May, from an IT job. The family's unremarkable suburban two-bedroom house is packed with stuffed animals and picture books. As we talk, his toddler wrestles on the living-room carpet with the family dog—an Akita. "My wife had just quit her job to focus on going to school."

Charlie's recession story begins in Louisiana, where he ran a business producing records and promoting bands, taking home $80,000 to $90,000 a year. "When the recession came, people couldn't afford to pay us," he says. He lost the business, went into debt, and decided to move. "I thought we could have a good shot here in the music capital of the world, but we just became another small fish in a large pond."

"The first pound took less than five or six hours to sell. After that, it started getting bigger and bigger."

In 2005, he gave up and looked for other work, figuring there would be a market for a guy with two bachelor's degrees in the sciences. "All I could find were minimum-wage jobs," Charlie says. He sold retail electronics for almost three years. After the store folded, the family resorted to food stamps on and off. Things changed in early 2009, when a California friend offered to front him a pound of weed. "If other people were presented with the same gift of opportunity, a good percentage would do it," he tells me later. "We couldn't turn to our parents or anybody. If that wouldn't have happened, I think we would be homeless."

A gregarious type, Charlie had a large circle of stoner friends. "My wife and I thought about it for a good month," he says. "There were heavy cons, but once it got here, it exceeded everyone's expectations. The first pound took less than five or six hours to sell. After that, it started getting bigger and bigger."

Charlie buys wholesale for about $3,000 a pound. Selling by the quarter-pound, he more than doubles his stake, clearing $8,000 in a good month. "Austin has lots of weed festivals," he explains. "Then I can't get it fast enough." He spends the proceeds on "diapers, clothes, gas, rent, lights, food," and college fees. He and his wife, Kim, both still owe on student loans—in Kim's case a $600 monthly payment for a "useless" culinary-arts degree that a promoter convinced her would lead to a high-paying career as a chef. Charlie's drug dealing freed her up to quit waitressing and pursue a bachelor's degree online. Plus, she explains, "To give our kids the life I feel they deserve, you have to have money."

Charlie recoils when I ask him about expensive toys. "God, no," he says. In fact, he hasn't given up searching for legitimate work, recently "shuffling around spas for $7 an hour." He worries about the prospect of a two-year Texas felony sentence: "That's always on my mind. If you don't watch everything you do, you're going to go away, lose your kids to Child Protective Services." But robbery is Charlie's most immediate concern. After all, he delivers. "I'm having to transport it all the time," he says. "When people catch on to that, you're done. That's what I fear. Luckily, I've never had a gun in my face."

"There are lots of people with the same experience competing for the same jobs," he adds as we say goodbye. "If I could find the way to get out of this, I would. But it's gotten me by so far, and I'm not going to stop."

Back home in Florida, I drive to a low-income, mixed-race neighborhood near Tampa to meet Tegan, a single mother and part-time restaurant hostess in her mid-20s. Like Charlie, she's been selling California weed to survive the recession. "I only deal with marijuana," she says. "I don't feel like a drug dealer."

Tegan's side job has allowed her to get off food stamps, spend more time with her daughter, and attend college full time. But recently, she had a major scare. Hard up for a driver, her suppliers said they would FedEx the next shipment. They'd been doing this for months, they reassured her, and the package would bear false names. "So it came to my address," she recalls, laughing nervously. "And yeah, the cops came."

"The recession came, and I started looking for other options. Everyone's an amateur in the beginning. And then you're not an amateur anymore."

She'd taken her daughter to the supermarket that day. When she pulled back into her driveway, an unmarked SUV sped down the street, and two burly undercover agents leaped out. "They were screaming, 'Do you speak English?'" Tegan says. (She's white but has a dark complexion.) The men asked if she was expecting a package, and she said no. "I was really surprised by how cool I was, because I was scared shitless," she recalls. Spotting her toddler in the back seat, the men lightened up and told her they'd detained a Latino man who ran when they approached. "They said he was saying, 'I just do the lawns!'" Tegan says. "They assumed because he was an immigrant, the package was for him." She let her suppliers know the delivery was a bust. Between hers and another abandoned shipment, Tegan estimates they lost $35,000 worth of product. "But nobody went to prison."

Later, the agents returned to say they'd released the man for lack of evidence. Criminals regularly send drug shipments to the homes of innocent people, they warned. But courier services flag suspicious packages, and agents stake out the deliveries. "We don't tolerate the illegal use of our network, and [we] work closely with law enforcement," explains FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey. When I ask how the company detects weed in its packages, he snorts incredulously. "We don't disclose that!"

On the way home from Tegan's, I'm struck by how, despite such a close call, she doesn't seem at all eager to get out of the business. It reminds me of something Colin told me as we barreled down the interstate in his car. "Maybe I'll go back to school," he said when I asked how long he planned on doing this. "I don't know. These are scary times. The recession came, and I started looking for other options. Everyone's an amateur in the beginning. And then you're not an amateur anymore."

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