An untold number of otherwise law-abiding professionals in New York are having their pot delivered to their homes instead of visiting drug dens or hanging out on street corners.
Among the legions of home delivery customers is Chris, a 37-year-old salesman in Manhattan. He dials a pager number and gets a return call from a cheery dispatcher who takes his order for potent strains of marijuana.
Within a couple of hours, a well-groomed delivery man — sometimes a moonlighting actor or chef — arrives at the doorstep of his Manhattan apartment carrying weed neatly packaged in small plastic containers.
"These are very nice, discreet people," said Chris, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition only his first name be used. "There's an unspoken trust. It's better than going to some street corner and getting ripped off or killed."
The phenomenon isn't new. It has long been the case around the country that those with enough money and the right connections could get cocaine or other drugs discreetly delivered to their homes and places of business.
But experts say home delivery has been growing in popularity, thanks to a shrewder, corporate style of dealing designed to put customers at ease and avoid the messy turf wars associated with other drugs.
"It's certainly been the trend in the past 10 years in urban areas that are becoming gentrified," said Ric Curtis, an anthropology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in the drug culture.
The corporate model — and its profit potential — were demonstrated late last year when the Drug Enforcement Administration announced that it had taken down a highly sophisticated organization dubbed the Cartoon Network. DEA agents arrested 12 people after using wiretaps and surveillance and making undercover buys.
Authorities estimated that since 1999, the ring made a fortune by delivering more than a ton of marijuana, some of it grown hydroponically — without soil — in the basement of a Cape Cod-style home on 10 acres in Vermont, where an informant reported the smell of the crop was overpowering.
The dealers, working out of a roving call center, processed 600 orders a day — from doctors, lawyers, Wall Street traders — even on Christmas, investigators said. Authorities refused to give names, but in one conversation overheard last October, a courier boasted about the ring's upscale clientele, according to court papers.
"We know comedians. We know celebrities," the courier said. "So you might meet a rapper, a singer. We go to a lot of people."
One former customer named Lucia, a 30-year-old employee at an entertainment cable network, recalled blatant deals done at the company's Manhattan headquarters. Executives and employees alike would pool their orders as if they were buying lunch together, then await the arrival of a courier, Lucia said.
The cost was $60 for one plastic case holding two grams of marijuana — a steep markup, but worth it because of convenience and quality, she said.
"It was kind, kind bud," she said. "Yummy stuff."
The emphasis on customer service and satisfaction was evident at one stash house, where agents found more than 30 pounds of marijuana in plain view, already packaged for holiday delivery, court papers said. The packages featured the drug ring's cartoon character logo and the greeting, "Happy Holidays From Your Friends at Cartoon!"
The operation's alleged mastermind, John Nebel, "should have been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company," said his attorney, Steve Zissou.
Instead, Nebel, who is awaiting trial, could get a minimum of 10 years in federal prison if convicted. Prosecutors also are demanding the forfeiture of $22 million in cash, homes, cars, motorcycles and a boat owned by him and his cohorts.
At Lucia's workplace, employees were "bummed" by the news of Nebel's bust, Lucia said. But worries that the office might get raided evaporated, and other dealers stepped in, though "their product does not hold up to Cartoon," she said.
Investigators seized customers' names and addresses from the drug operation's computer logs. But those people face little risk of prosecution, authorities said.
Authorities conceded the home delivery trade will probably survive because of the high demand for marijuana and the low penalties for dealing it.
Under state law, most marijuana offenses "are not treated as very significant crimes," said Bridget G. Brennen, the city's special narcotic prosecutor. "That is why you see the marijuana delivery services proliferating. Their exposure is slight."