Marijuana dealers around the country are combining forces with the unwitting employees of UPS, the postal service, and FedEx for fast, reliable—and undetected—delivery of their product.
By Matt Caputo • Illustrations by Jon Proctor • Photographs by An Rong Xu
It’s a few days after the Fourth of July, and Americans are riding the holiday high into the long weekend. Behind a tiny house in Queens, New York, a backyard grill is flaming and folks are drinking beer and talking over hip-hop pumping out of a portable iPod dock. Summer smells mingle in the warm air.
The front doorbell rings, but no one out back can hear it, including the head of the household, who’s manning the grill and head-nodding to the music. Later, after the last beer has been downed, and the embers beneath the grill are dimming, he’s mildly concerned that a family member has signed for a package—a
rectangular box from the United States Postal Service—that isn’t addressed to anyone who lives there. The label says it’s from Santa Cruz, California, but a quick Google search reveals that the return address doesn’t exist.
Curiosity getting the better of him, our grill master slices into the side of the cardboard, using a steak knife stained with A1 sauce. He gently tears away the flaps at the top of the box and finds … a smaller, heavily taped box underneath a layer of shredded newspaper.
Did his wife buy something online and the package got mislabeled?
After cutting into the second box, our man discovers not a new necklace and purse, but six pounds of high grade marijuana, each pound individually vacuum-packed and delivered direct from the green pastures of Northern California by an independent agency of the U.S. government. The piney, perfume-y smell of potent bud overwhelms the remnants of the cookout.
Shipping marijuana across the country via the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, or UPS has become one of the easiest, most popular, and surprisingly safe ways for growers and large suppliers to reach pot dealers and distributors around the country. While arrests related to receiving such shipments are made on a fairly regular basis, there’s truly no accounting for how much marijuana is transported via legitimate shipping services. Smart packaging and a discreet course of action are essentially the only requirements.
“It’s been going on forever and they’re always going to get away with it, especially with FedEx. It’s virtually impossible to find the drugs before they are delivered,” says Michael Levine, a former DEA agent who once was called America’s top undercover cop by 60 Minutes. “Investigators are often satisfied with arresting the receiver, but it’s usually not a large quantity,” says Levine, now an expert witness in many cases involving drug trafficking via postal services. “There is no effort made to arrest the person who may be sending 1,000 packages a day.”
In the case of our grill master, the package was intended for an acquaintance of his, who thought he’d timed the delivery for a period when no one would be at the grill master’s home. The box would be left outside the house, he reasoned, and he could swoop by and pick up his supply. The day after the cookout, the intended recipient arrived and apologized for putting his friend at risk for a possession charge. He promised not to do it again—at least not using the grill master’s address.
Across the country, in a family-friendly section of Los Angeles, Guero Palma (not his real name) is parked outside a medical-marijuana dispensary. Unlike the beachside spots in Venice, there is no flashy neon-green sign outside, nor is there a stoner in surgical scrubs waving you in the door with a flyer for a discounted evaluation.
It’s a good place to meet the guy nicknamed “Brett Favre” for his ability to launch marijuana packages to far reaches without having them intercepted.
Football nickname aside, Palma dresses like a soccer dad—polo shirt, sweat-stained baseball cap. Just shy of 40, he looks like he spent this Saturday morning washing his car and watching fishing on TV. Though he often handles an unfathomable amount of pot, he has a prescription for easy access to small amounts of bud and for the ability to legally grow marijuana, according to California law.
“My preppiness, and being a Catholic-school kid plays a role,” Palma says. “That helped me understand how I could get by the man. I knew I could get through.”
Born into an Italian family from Kansas City, Palma says he and his mom drove out to Los Angeles “Karate Kid–style” in a station wagon in 1988. He says older cousins were already selling drugs when he reached high school, and he fell into “the camp” as a youngster eager to make his own money. In a few years’ time, Palma says, he was regularly shipping 20-pound condensed bricks of Mexican marijuana back East. He once took 18 pounds of pot with him on a flight to Charlotte. Needless to say, this was pre-9/11. The shipping game—much like air travel—has changed since then. (More on that shortly.)
In the nineties, Palma befriended a Colombian drug dealer who was looking to unload a large amount of cheap Mexican pot. At the Colombian’s request, Palma rented a house where he stored and prepared the inventory prior to shipment.
“I started taking in three trash bags full of Mexican the size of a love seat, at least 100 pounds in each one because they are bricks; they’re compact,” says Palma. “This is where I started learning about the wrapping and the packaging. I’d wrap for hours a day, doing easily 80 or 100 pounds.”
By 1996, Palma was being paid $1,000 per installment to prepare shipments for West Coast growers. Through the years, the market for cheap Mexican and British Columbian bud has shrunk, but demand for high-end designer pot grown in California has exploded—and Palma’s techniques for transporting it safely have barely changed.
In the tidy living room of his family’s home, Palma demonstrates his system, which he claims has a 98 percent success rate. He uses gloves during the entire procedure, even when buying packaging materials. From there, it’s a two-box process, requiring packing tape, Styrofoam packaging peanuts, and a long spool of plastic sandwich wrap. “If you make one mistake, you’re going to mess up,” Palma says. “It’s all about the steps and procedures that you take in preparing it.”
Typically, a package will contain five to eight pounds of exotic bud in individually vacuum-sealed bags. Palma follows his proprietary procedure to a “T” for each shipment, stacking, wrapping, and sealing his cargo precisely the same way each time. “I think the reason [I’ve never been caught] is because I take the extra care,” Palma says.
Palma seals off the interior of the container, covering anything that might create ventilation and let loose
the funky aroma from inside. This also prevents damage during shipping—as do the Styrofoam peanuts he loads in next, before sealing the outside of the box carefully. Now, box No. 1 is ready to be loaded into box No. 2.
Palma executes a similar procedure with the outer container, and he’s ready to ship. More than anything, he says, the second box needs to look discreet and neat. Large “TV boxes” should be avoided. Everything from the address labels to the way the box is taped could set off suspicion from a shipping-store employee. “You don’t want it all dented up. Everything should look like Grandma’s Christmas gift,” Palma says.
Palma usually chooses a return address that is near the post office. He might pick a house that is for sale or under heavy construction. In theory, there’s a chance that if the package is undeliverable it will be left on the doorstep of the return address. He uses a fake name and changes carriers frequently. “I consistently used UPS and [then] I went with FedEx for a while,” Palma says. “You rotate and go through different locations so there’s not one area you sit on too long.”
Once the shipment is properly packaged, a successful delivery usually follows. But there have been exceptions, especially since 9/11, when security became tighter and packages began facing more scrutiny. In January 2011, Palma says a package he shipped to Maryland was intercepted after a bomb threat on the statehouse. Palma says using a shipping service to send marijuana cross-country has become slightly riskier, but he continues to do it—and get away with it.
He won’t get specific about how much he ships, or how much income his shipments generate, but his only other line of work is as a deejay, and he seems to live pretty comfortably.
A quick Google search will show that people are being arrested every week for accepting packages of marijuana. Most of them are low-level dealers from places like Clinton, Connecticut; New Rochelle, New York; and Fayetteville, Arkansas. In April 2012, an Arkansas man was arrested for shipping 20 pounds of pot and some marijuana barbecue sauce to himself from California. FedEx employees
became suspicious of his packages and his mail was monitored for four
months before he was arrested.
“All of the cases I have knowledge of originated in California,” says Levine, the ex-DEA man. “They’re growing it there in big numbers, and some of the medical-marijuana people are really in the business. It’s a huge cash crop in California.”
The six pounds of bud delivered to the grill master’s address had an estimated value of $24,000. Anthony Lawrence (not his real name), a man with direct knowledge of marijuana operations on both coasts, says the volume of pot that’s being mailed from California and Colorado has hurt the value of East Coast weed. But it’s also providing supplemental product for East Coast dealers during dry spells. He says domestic-marijuana mailing is keeping dollars in the United States that would otherwise go to suppliers in Mexico or Canada.
“There is a lot of risk involved in driving bud down from Canada, so having it shipped to New York is seen as a safer option,” Lawrence says. “And there are rural places where they just can’t get weed so easily. There are smokers everywhere that want bud.”
Lawrence has packed sealable buckets with pot and used insulation foam to secure it within the shipping box. He, too, sees little that would stop the flow of weed via mailing services, and agrees that detection comes down to the details. “It’s tricky: If the package is paid for in cash and no signature is required, it’s getting picked off,” Lawrence says, adding that repeated shipments requiring no signature will quickly raise suspicion. On the other hand, if you follow normal shipping procedures, your recipient can successfully sign for and receive pounds of weed—even if the delivery guy is a narc. Levine says he worked on multiple occasions with undercover units posing as delivery guys.
In July 2012, another Arkansas man, 65-year-old Robert Walker, was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to shipping more than ten pounds of pot via FedEx from California to his home in the Ozarks. Walker had recently taken over his deceased brother’s firm, Flying Possum Leather, which sells
Birkenstocks, custom sandals, boots, belts, and guitar straps to Fayetteville locals—so he may well have been looking to goose the business with another product that appeals to the Flying Possum clientele.
Experts assume that successful postal or carrier deliveries of pot greatly outnumber those that are intercepted and result in an arrest. There are simply too many shipments, and it’s too easy to properly secure the packages. Barring some significant advance in detection technology, law enforcement can’t possibly keep up.
“It’s a commodity; I think it surpassed corn last year,” Lawrence says. “If there were ever a depression, I think pot would be worth more than gold.”