The art of the (street) deal: More honest than Trump
In this Aug. 31, 2108, photo Leaf Logix offers Cannabis Dispensary Software to support the entire supply chain from seed to sale at the Big Industry Show at the L.A. Convention Center. The show displayed some of the industry's leading smoke, vape, cannabis and grow products in a business-to-business setting. Richard Vogel | AP

In Donald Trump’s capitalist self-help tome The Art of the Deal—a book he, of course, did not write, and which has since been disowned by its ghostwriter—the “great man” outlines his rules for getting ahead which include “Think big,” “Maximize options,” “Use leverage,” “Fight back” and “Contain costs.” In Trump’s hands, as we’ve seen, these translate to swamp and blackmail the competition, smear them in the press, and refuse to pay your employees.

A more honest and humane approach to the nasty business of business under contemporary capitalism can be found in journalist Matt Taibbi’s account of the code of ethics and practices of “Anonymous,” an African-American marijuana dealer, in The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing: An Almost True Account.

Taibbi is most famous for his reporting around the 2008 mortgage and financial crisis and the subsequent waves of homelessness that crisis engendered, for which he won the National Magazine Award. His description of Goldman Sachs’ behavior in helping to foster the crisis, as “a giant vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” was widely quoted.

Here, Taibbi participates in a well-structured, co-written narrative of a dealer, who calls himself Huey Carmichael, after two Black revolutionary icons—Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton and civil rights organizer Stokely Carmichael—which recounts how Huey both builds a thriving business but then also is forced out of that business at the moment of legalization, where, as is true with every other business, it is taken over by hedge funds. The book has a crime novel mystery element as the dealer realizes someone in his network is betraying him and he and we don’t discover until the end who it is.

“Huey” has Trump-like rules in his trade as well. These include: “Minimize your risk” and “A loss isn’t a loss, it’s a lesson.” But he also must adapt his code to life in white America: “In business, racism is your friend if you master the nuances.” Prominent among these is his articulateness, in abundance in the writing of the book, and which he uses as a camouflage: “If a black man can put a sentence together it throws everybody off. Teachers, cops, business partners, everyone.”

He goes into business with a Northwest white “organic” grower whom he calls a “lumbersexual,” playing off the more domesticated urban term “metrosexual.” He has no illusions about his place as a Black businessman in the U.S.: “I believe in money. So does America. Beyond that, we have no relationship.” And he takes full advantage of the devastated economy after the 2008 mortgage crisis, so bad that “people don’t look at drug dealers with disdain anymore: they just think of him as someone who is lucky enough to have a good job.”

His cover is a service job in a Marriott Hotel in Cincinnati and he notes the general unhappiness of those around him who are mostly employed in meaningless tasks: “No society that has an interest in maximizing its human capital would dream up a system like this. All it does is turn normal people into crazy people. Sick people.” He is also present and tries to stem the tide of one of the most egregious processes of dislocation in the U.S., the massive forcing of African-American peoples by police harassment out of the soon-to-be-profitable, gentrified area of the former German section in Cincinnati, Over The Rhine, the subject also of a chapter in UCLA historian Robin D.G. Kelley’s new book.

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva shows one of the 150 illegal marijuana cultivations found in Puzzle Canyon in L.A. County, during a flight reconnaissance, part of the Antelope Valley Marijuana Eradication Operation at a news conference July 7, 2021. Authorities seized tens of millions of dollars worth of illegal marijuana grown in the high desert as part of an effort to curtail the black market’s grip on Southern California. Twenty-three people were arrested in the crackdown in the Antelope Valley, 70 miles north of L.A., and officials planned to bulldoze 500 illegal grows. Damian Dovarganes | AP

Huey’s view of the police contradicts that of the resourceful, intuitive, investigator of crime novels and series such as C.S.I. Cops, in his experience, are mostly dumb brutes who “can’t or won’t” do “real detective work.” Their only recourse is to round up snitches, force them into police vans and intimidate them into turning over, either truthfully or not, their fellows. That’s why, he says, police only concentrate on “street busts” and seldom go higher. He also notes the “angry look cops get when they talk to lawyers” who know the law better than they. He recounts how a police search of his bag with $3000 dollars in a hidden compartment failed to discover the money. Finally, although in his telling they are incapable of doing actual detective work, they do watch and imitate cop and action movies, leaping over counters “Starsky and Hutch style.”

By far the most interesting part of the book, though, is its detailing of the moment when “Wall Street and corporate agribusiness,” sensing legalization and a profitable enterprise, begin moving into the trade and exerting legal strong-arm tactics, including employing the government Drug Enforcement Agency and informers, to remove independent dealers like him. He names the carcinogenic pesticide polluter Monsanto, and the food conglomerates Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill as new players now buying up marijuana growers and getting ready to monopolize the market.

In what Huey calls a “Cannabis Coup,” to “keep the old dealers away from the coming pot of gold,” these companies in league with banks and hedge funds drove down the price in some cases from $3000 a pound to $400, so large-scale growing was the only way to profit. They then set up a licensing system in California, the state where the best pot is grown, to keep anyone with a criminal record out of the business. He calls this “the everyday illegality of capitalism” and notes of this disenfranchising that “racism in America is in money.” He notes with acuity that as yet another Black business is stripped from its creators—and here we can think of most notoriously. for example in music, the pilfering of the Blues by white record company labels—the builders in this case, far from sharing the profits, will instead “get housing in Wall Street-backed private prisons.”

Huey exits the business and becomes, of all things, a political worker on the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, detailing from the inside the deceptiveness of that campaign which, when asked at a fund-raising meeting of growers if it would support legalization, replied instead that it supported “further research.” The growers, mostly African American and Latinx, left the meeting with a pained expression on their faces “as if they were passing kidney stones.”

After seeing his business taken from him, Huey concludes that in a “country founded on capitalism” where “Black people were the first commodity sold on Wall Street…as soon as black people find a way to build up anything, rich people find a way to take it away.”

The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing: An Almost True Account
Matt Taibbi & “Anonymous”
OR Books, London, 2021


Dennis Broe
Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe, a film, television and art critic, is also the author of the Harry Palmer LA Mysteries, the latest volume of which, The House That Buff Built, is about the real estate industry, dispossession, and appropriation in the shaping of “modern” Los Angeles.