Seasonal labor at the intersection of boom and doom.
Detroit’s a watering hole for all types of criminals,” says a friend we’ll call Z last weekend at the Penthouse Club. Z is 25. He’s lived and worked in Detroit’s burgeoning weed industry for five years now, pulling an easy six figures annually. He’s no stranger to the strip club.Fetty Wap’s “679” bumps, one of two songs the city has on repeat right now. Baby girl you’re so damn fine though… Two chopper motorcycles levitate above the stage. Girls bounce, G-strings glowing in the black light.
“This city’s a major American hub of organized crime.” Z speaks in my ear, not over the music, motioning from the smoking balcony toward different factions gathered below us in the glittering purple room. “Those gross Russian-looking guys are in human trafficking.” He takes a sip of a six-dollar beer. “And those Middle Eastern dudes are Chaldean. They own a lot of the dispensaries.”
A group of iced out black guys in a far corner talk on money phones (stacks of cash they pretend are phones). “Those hood dudes definitely hustle crack and heroin, and any young white kids who came in a cargo van are growing weed.” Z smiles, referencing how we’d arrived 20 minutes prior.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” I hear this a lot in Detroit.
Detroit functions as a glaring example of what happened to American industry, a magnified dose of the reality of our economic collapse. Since 2005, more than a third of Detroit properties have been foreclosed on. The city lost 240,000 residents between 2000 and 2010. Billboards alternate between YOU KNOW WHO KILLED ME, asking for leads to one of the city’s countless unsolved murders (a fail rate of 70 percent) and ADMIT IT, DRUGS COME BEFORE YOUR FAMILY, with a number to call.
I wake the morning after the strip club and walk a block from my motel, the Viking Inn, to a liquor store at the corner. A group of men congregate around a broken down car. “How you doin’ today, young lady?” Their crack head friend leans out of the car’s broken window and politely asks for a cigarette.
There seems to be an understanding. A vibe of we’re both here; so let’s just make the best of it bypasses any racial tension I had expected in Detroit. However, Midwestern charm can provide a sense of false security.
The man behind the counter acts shocked that I’ve walked. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I hear this a lot in Detroit. He leans in, hands me the bag, and whispers very seriously, “Be careful.” It’s sunny, just past noon. Nobody walks in Detroit.
My friends who had just gotten paid pick me up in a freshly rented 2016 Dodge Charger. We meet up with Y, a trimmer who’s flying back to California that evening.
Trimmers are one of the many legally vague facets of this controversial weed business. Growers harvest their crop a few times a year. After cut down, the plant matter must be pared into buds. A few weeks of harmless gardening work can earn trimmers into the five figures.
“This isn’t Humboldt,” Y tells me, reluctant to talk at all. While trim work itself is benign, trimmers are on the front lines of danger. After the weed is fully grown and cut down, robberies and raids spike. “Take the hardest dude in Humboldt, bring him to Detroit, and he ain’t shit. Cali grows have—tops—ten scary guys with guns and some tweakers to look out for. Here, everyone’s a criminal.”
The trim house sits in a neighborhood where roughly 40 percent of the houses are abandoned. The rest are trapping crack and heroin. Kids on bikes circle the empty blocks slow, hollering at anyone passing to sell.
“At least if someone’s getting in trouble, it’ll be them!” Y laughs. The windows of the trim house are completely blacked out, frames charred from a fire years prior. Arson’s a huge problem in Detroit. Many have resorted to burning their own homes and businesses to collect insurance. The house blends perfectly; you would never look twice.
Trimmers are not allowed in and out during their working weeks due to fear of the neighborhood catching wind and robbing them, or the police, who basically do the same.
“It’s like a boys’ camp or something. Once you go in, you stay in until you’re done,” he explains. “We eat microwavable hot dogs and play video games when we’re not working. Lots of bullshit like watching Alaska State Troopers. Lots of lying around like pieces of trash,” he laughs. “Time goes by fast because without sunlight you completely lose track of it. And the weed is free.”
It starts getting hot; so we move toward the highway. Everywhere we go people follow us. Old cars with tinted windows, a hooded figure in every seat.
Maybe it’s me taking pictures out the window with my iPhone. Maybe the shadow crews think we’re undercover. A Charger in Detroit just looks like an undercover cop car. Or maybe the shadows think we’re just white kids looking for drugs. We cut down side streets to lose them.
Buildings formerly covered in wild, colorful graffiti are now painted with a thin veil of white, part of a huge anti-graffiti initiative instated by the city’s new mayor, Mike Duggan. With the nation’s highest unemployment rate, 23 percent, and 37 percent living below the poverty line, there are virtually no jobs existing outside the criminal economy. A couple of years ago, people scrapped the copper pipes in the sewer system, flooding the city and its drinking water with raw sewage.
However, an ember burns in the ashes of Detroit. Since the state’s blurry decriminalization of marijuana in 2012, the number of dispensaries has ballooned from a handful to a staggering 150, roughly one for every square mile of the city. Abandoned warehouses, carcasses of American industry, are being bought up, renovated, and in months turning profits that can exceed millions.
While in Los Angeles, the highly monitored dispensary scene gears toward discretion, Detroit takes a flashier approach. Names like G-Spot, Star Buds, and House of Dank light up drab stretches of nothing with shades of green, flashing lights and $200,000 Bentleys. Some even offer drive-through services. Currently, a number of Detroit dispensaries are operating without licenses, awaiting impending legislation that will drastically change the landscape of the industry.
The Detroit City Council is set on regulating and limiting the number of dispensaries. Basically, it aims to wipe out the existing independent model and build from the ground up by renaming all dispensaries Medical Marihuana Centers, banning butane hash oil, forcing all to reapply for licensing and zoning, and insisting all owners undergo background checks with an evaluation of criminal history.
Zoning modifications include 1,000 radial feet from schools, parks, and churches, with 4,000 radial feet from other dispensaries and any bar, topless bar, or liquor store. This requirement could even include restaurants with a liquor license. In a city that thrives on liquor, lotto and sex, basically everywhere in Detroit is less than a radial mile from one of the three.
Patients and caregivers growing in their homes will have to register with the city, and any caregiver license (the license Detroit growers operate under) will undergo inspection within 30 days, which includes tracking quantities, inventory, floor plans for the building, and security plans.
The legalization of weed is an extremely touchy subject for growers. Once the government gets its hands in the industry, everything will change. “My guess is we have probably five years tops left of making money,” said a young grower we’ll call X. “It’s a question of continuing to let the people grow weed or changing the laws so the government and corporations end up growing it for us.”
Images taken by the author.