The air inside Josh Zapata’s car reeks of marijuana.
Take one whiff, and pungent odors escaping from baggies and white paper sacks instantly flood your nasal cavity. The scent is so strong, even a passerby could surmise that Zapata’s trunk is loaded with drugs.
The stocky former Marine has long discarded the clean-cut look in favor of a thick black beard. He’ll spend the weekend, like he does every weekend, driving around the state selling strains of Indica and Sativa marijuana with hippyish names like Raspberry Kush, Train Wreck and Super Lemon Haze.
Zapata isn’t just carrying dried buds. He’s also loaded a box up with marijuana cookies, brownies and pressed pucks of Black Temple hashish. Lollipops and candy gems that resemble Gummy Worms are becoming popular edibles. At $70 a gram, his Butane Hash Oil is potent but expensive. Bottled soft drinks infused with cannabis tinctures are marketed as “both refreshing and soothing.”
When customers aren’t sure what’s available, Zapata offers them a menu he keeps in a scarred accordion file sitting in the back seat of his car.
Like street dealers, Zapata takes orders over the phone, sets up drop-off times and collects payments. But unlike criminal smugglers, he’s an employee and investor at
, one of 23 nonprofit producers sanctioned by the New Mexico Department of Health to deliver medical-grade marijuana to patients across the state.
Even though Zapata carries a state-issued cannabis program card in his wallet, he’s always looking over his shoulder. A conflict between state and federal laws puts him at risk of having his drugs and cash seized. At worst—if caught by US Customs and Border Protection or Drug Enforcement Administration agents—he could be charged with drug trafficking and face years in prison.
That’s because federal authorities don’t recognize the
—which authorized New Mexico’s medical cannabis program in 2007—or similar programs in 19 other states and the District of Columbia. They’re under strict orders to seize any marijuana they find.
Still, Zapata is willing to take the risk. He says his only mission is to provide safe access to homebound patients and people in rural areas who often find themselves in competition with urban dwellers for limited supplies of cannabis.
“The state needs to recognize there is a severe shortage of medical marijuana,” says Len Goodman, who with his family owns and operates Santa Fe’s nonprofit
“We can only serve about half of our patients’ needs each week.”
He notes that the number of patients has tripled since Gov. Susana Martinez took office in January 2011—from 3,218 at the end of 2010 to more than 9,100 patients today.
A quarterly report from the New Mexico Department of Health, which oversees the medical cannabis program, appears to support Goodman's claims. According to those data, producers reported only 243,538 grams of medical marijuana to the state during the first three months of 2013. That's not enough, according to Goodman, who estimates the average patient needs 28 grams a month. If he's right, then only around one-third of New Mexico's patients got enough medicine last quarter.
SFR tried to contact Medical Cannabis Program managers in Santa Fe, but was told they were unavailable for an interview.
DOH spokesman Kenny Vigil, however, notes that 3,300 patients are licensed to grow their own plants. Vigil says that reduces the number of grams needed from nonprofit producers’ gardens.
Vigil wasn’t able to say whether personal growers are completely self-sufficient, nor confirm whether patients are actually growing plants. But anecdotal reports from Goodman and others indicate that many patients still have trouble finding enough medical cannabis.
Without access to safe medication, Goodman worries, active patients may be turning to friends, neighbors or even going to the street to buy marijuana off the black market “if they get desperate.”
Goodman wants DOH to consider doubling the number of plants he’s authorized to grow at any one time from 150 to 300. Until then, he’s taking advance orders and putting packages aside for Zapata to deliver. So is R Greenleaf Organics.
“We’re putting about 20 percent of our inventory aside for rural patients,” Zapata says.
“The state’s nonprofit licenses are not Willy Wonka golden tickets,” he adds, frustrated. Zapata seems to believe some of the nonprofits “are in it just to make a quick buck.”
Since ramping up operations, Zapata has recruited 11 other producers to participate in his delivery program. Ultimately, he says, having more producers involved is good for patients.
“It gives them more products to choose from,” he explains. “They may like a certain strain from one producer, but like the edibles from another. Now they can get both for one $10 delivery fee.”
Though US Attorneys may not agree with him, Zapata asserts he’s not doing anything wrong as he drives around the state in a car loaded with cannabis.
Zapata likens himself to the Han Solo character in Star Wars
, who smuggled vials of glitterstim, a fictional psychoactive substance controlled by the Galactic Empire. But, without Solo’s Millennium Falcon spacecraft to zip around in, Zapata often logs at least 24 to 48 hours on the road every weekend.
Along desolate roads, when he can’t find a cell signal for his iPhone, Zapata often listens to a favorite comedian or an audio book. Zombie novels are his favorite. Instead of wearing a suit and tie, like he did to his former job as a bar manager, Zapata favors Carhartt ripstop medical scrubs “because they make us look professional.”
After serving in the military for nine years, he’s used to reading maps. He’s discovered little-known roads around New Mexico and often finds himself driving up and down steep mountain passes or cruising alone through nearly deserted mesas to avoid federal checkpoints where he’d surely run afoul of the law.
Even with rigorous planning, Zapata is forced to go through a checkpoint on I-25, north of Las Cruces, at least twice a month. When he does, he lies to Border Protection officers about where he’s been and what he’s been carrying.
“It smells,” Zapata concedes. “I just tell them I was at a party last night; we smoked a joint, and now it’s gone.”
The white lie, he says, is the best way to avoid a confrontation. Telling them the truth, he thinks, would jeopardize the program.
Along sections of I-10 in southern New Mexico, where drivers are not required to stop, Zapata has noticed dozens of DEA-operated cameras pointing directly at drivers and their cars’ license plates.
“I’m a little bit paranoid about them,” he worries. “If they tie my face to the industry, it’s going to be really easy to flag me down.” (Use the interactive map below to explore the checkpoints.)
View federal checkpoints in a larger map
An undercover agent with the DEA tells SFR it is “just paranoia.” The government, he says, doesn’t have the resources to log every photo nor run them through sophisticated facial recognition programs. Instead, the roadside cameras are used, for example, to catch felons on the run.
Despite his careful planning, Zapata still runs the risk of being channeled into a mobile checkpoint while his car is still loaded with medication.
“If there are canines, I’m going to get popped,” he says.
A spokesman with the US Customs and Border Patrol office in El Paso agrees with Zapata’s assessment.
“Agents deal with each instance on an individual basis, but the law is the law,” CBP spokesman Doug Mosier writes in an email to SFR. Mosier adds that the agency’s enforcement of federal laws remains unchanged as it relates to the
passed by Congress in 1970.
A former medical cannabis courier almost found out the hard way. R Greenleaf master grower Jake White, who used to work for another nonprofit cannabis producer, once got stopped carrying both medicine and cash through a checkpoint.
“They didn’t arrest him, but he was stuck for eight hours,” Zapata says, adding that he learned from White’s mistake. Now, he makes sure the products he’s been transporting are delivered before crossing through permanent checkpoints.
Fortunately for Zapata—and his patients—local law-enforcement agencies recognize New Mexico’s laws governing the medical marijuana program. Last year, when state police pulled Zapata over for a broken license plate light bulb, he says, they quickly became suspicious—especially after he rolled his window down and the familiar odor of pot flowed out in thick, invisible waves.
“I just smiled and let them know I’m a medical cannabis courier. When they checked my card, they let me go,” he remembers.
Delivering the medicine is more than a job for Zapata. It's a mission of love, and when you spot two seedlings covered in plastic (to retain moisture) and dangling from a wire hanger on a backseat window hook, you realize Zapata isn't really trying to hide anything.
“The more I read about it, the more I felt like it was something I should do,” Zapata says. Eventually, he walked away from his bar job and a salary almost double what he’ll earn this year.
But Zapata’s new gig has its benefits. Over the past 24 months, he’s been picking up new customers, learning about their medical conditions and doing his best to help them.
In April, just before the marijuana holiday known as 4/20, SFR asked to ride along with him. Zapata agreed, adding, “There’s not going to be any celebrations for us.”
On the tour, we met a blind man in Los Lunas with glaucoma, a Silver City man who has been living with HIV for almost three decades, and a former prison inmate who believes cannabis' ability to keep his posttraumatic stress disorder in check has allowed him to mend relations with his family and turn his life around.
When Zapata first started delivering cannabis, the payments he collected didn't cover his gas expenses, much less a hotel room for the night. He remembers camping out at rest areas and state parks—often sleeping in his car. Even now, Zapata claims the delivery service is only 33 percent viable. He projects he will need at least 100 patients per route to ultimately make it successful.
Outside of Albuquerque, Zapata says he likes to meet groups of patients
in the parking lots of big-box stores, because they’re well-lit and have security cameras. He says it reduces the risk of getting robbed. He also likes it when he sees police cars parked in the lots, but says that’s caused concern for new patients wary about his choice of drop-offs.
“They get freaked out when they see a cop parked in the lot,” Zapata says.
Once he notices their reluctance, Zapata reminds them if they’re carrying a patient card and photo ID, they’re not doing anything illegal, and “we don’t need to meet in dark alleys.”
A retired social worker in Los Lunas, nicknamed Wheels, is definitely not worried. He has a big smile on his face as Zapata pulls alongside his Jeep parked at Walgreens.
Wheels returned from Vietnam in 1973 and soon developed cataracts. Since then, he’s had 17 eye surgeries and been diagnosed with glaucoma, for which marijuana is often used to alleviate pressure on the retinas.
Legally blind, Wheels says he can’t drive himself to Albuquerque to pick up the cannabis he needs to help him sleep.
“In the old days, I had to go get my own,” he says.
Taking the train to Albuquerque, Wheels says, leaves him disoriented.
“This world wasn’t designed for people who can’t see,” he says.
While the vet’s friends support his use of medical marijuana, most of them are afraid to go get it for him. They need to be enrolled in the program as personal caregivers, Zapata says, before he can give them a patient’s package.
If people lack proper identification, Zapata says he has to make special detours off his route.
“That sucks,” he says, “because it slows everything down.”
On this particular day, Zapata is already two hours behind, and his phone’s been ringing nonstop. People are anxious about getting their medicine delivered before the weekend.
We make our way down to Socorro, where a junior at New Mexico Tech has been waiting patiently for his delivery.
“Without cannabis, I would wake up daily in excruciating pain—and, like clockwork, vomit,” says the young man, who suffers from Crohn’s disease and asked to remain anonymous. “With cannabis, I’ve been able to direct my focus away from constant pain and onto important things like school and my future.”
With the clock ticking, Zapata collects the student’s delivery fee and heads back to the highway.
Outside of Truth or Consequences, Zapata pulls over to fill his tank with gas. At the same time, he calls a female patient and tells her to meet him at the station. Tension rises when two Border Protection officers pull in to fill up their SUV. Without appearing nervous, Zapata makes the cannabis sale, tops off his tank and quickly pulls away before the officers suspect anything.
“I didn’t know if they had their canines with them, and I still have a lot of product to deliver,” Zapata tells SFR, breathing easier now that he’s a few miles down the road.
Even after sunset, Zapata is still on the go. He needs to meet up with patients in Bayard and find a hotel room further down the road in Deming.
After a good night’s rest, he meets with a local patient and then heads to Las Cruces. On the way, he sets up a couple of meeting spots. Surprisingly, the first location is directly across the street from a US Customs and Border Protection fleet maintenance yard. Some customers are sitting in their cars when Zapata arrives. Others are mingling, sharing stories.
Despite the tense situation at the gas station the night before, Zapata decides to set up his second drop-off at another fuel stop in Las Cruces. A middle-aged woman who suffers from multiple sclerosis looks delighted to see him and hands him a single long-stem rose from her garden to show her appreciation. Another agrees to take a package of seeds that Zapata has received from a customer who has complained about finding them in his medication.
“I forgot I had them with me. I was going to take them to our lab to show them, but I can’t bring them through the checkpoint,” Zapata says. “Hopefully he’ll throw them in his yard and they’ll pop up.”
Not everyone supports Zapata's medical cannabis delivery service.
When he pulls up to a home in Albuquerque’s South Valley, Sabina Montoya is waiting for him. She’s ordered two triple-strength chocolate brownies called Bang Bars. She hopes they’ll give her relief from chronic pain she developed after suffering pulmonary embolisms in both of her lungs three years ago.
The bars, Montoya says, are a discreet way for her to ingest the medication without “my daughters seeing me smoke it.”
But Sabina isn’t the only one waiting for Zapata. Her father, Tonie Montoya, doesn’t want the edibles on his property and orders Zapata to leave before he can hand over the medicine.
“Get out of here, you fucking asshole!” Montoya screams at SFR’s iPhone camera after trying to knock it to the pavement.
“You’re nothing but drug-dealing bastards—fucking up people’s lives,” he continues.
Unfazed by the angry reception, Zapata quickly tries to de-escalate the situation.
“I’m charged to deliver medication that she ordered through the state mandate,” he tells Montoya.
“And I’m charged with saving people—like my daughter—from bullshit like yours,” Montoya retorts. “I’m going to call the fucking feds on you. Go peddle your fucking drugs somewhere else.”
Taking a cue from his father, Sabina’s brother calls sheriff’s deputies to the home.
Rejected, Zapata tells Sabina he’ll return her brownies to the company she ordered them from and promises to get her a refund, but he refuses to drive away. He knows patrol cars are on the way and doesn’t want to look like he’s fleeing.
“If I do, they’re going to put out an all points bulletin. They’re going to stop me and think I’m a drug dealer. Then, I’m going to have to deal with it. I’d rather just stay there and show my credentials,” Zapata says. “I’m going to stay and face the music. I don’t want any bad blood.”
Sabina insists cannabis is the best alternative to the prescription pills she’s been taking under psychiatric care for the past 30 months.
“They have put me on more than 10 different types of antidepressants, and they’ve never worked for me,” Sabina says. The marijuana, she says, helps her control anxiety and panic attacks. “It makes me calm.”
With deputies dispatched, and Zapata holding his ground, the elder Montoya, who’s had his own run-ins with the law, tells Zapata he thinks he’s only in it for the “almighty buck.”
“I don’t care if it’s legal or not; you’re still a drug dealer. I took that shit,” Montoya says. “It does nothing but fuck you up.”
Within 10 minutes, two deputies arrive at the home. Zapata explains the situation to Deputies Paul Gonzales and Scott Swallows, who later tell Sabina she's free to get her product, but that her father is also "free to kick you out."
Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department spokesman
Aaron Williamson says the department hasn’t had any problems with medical couriers like Zapata or patients involved in the program.
“They’re law-abiding citizens that legitimately have it to use as medicine,” Williamson tells SFR. “It our job to enforce the law, and our deputies, who get some of the best training in the state, quickly recognized there were no violations here.”
Drug Policy Alliance State Director Emily Kaltenbach is also quick to praise the deputies’ professional response, writing, “We’re pleased that deputies are protecting New Mexicans’ legal right to access safe medicine that works for them.”
Kaltenbach, citing her group’s 2013 poll, says people like Montoya are now in the minority. With 52 percent of the poll’s respondents in favor of taxing and regulating marijuana and another 57 percent in favor of reducing criminal penalties, he may well be.
“New Mexicans not only overwhelmingly support the state’s medical marijuana law, but a majority of these voters also say they support legalizing marijuana for adults, so that it could be taxed and regulated in a way similar to alcohol. This momentous shift in New Mexico aligns with what we are seeing nationally, with a supermajority of Americans believing the federal government should leave state marijuana reforms alone,” Kaltenbach writes.
Zapata believes the Montoyas are dealing with misinformation and ignorance.
“It was important for them to see my interaction with the cops. The medicine really isn’t the problem,” he says. “I’m not the problem. The family’s issues are what’s messed up.”
But even Zapata’s own views on marijuana have evolved over the years.
“I grew up being told, and believing, pot’s bad. It was taboo,” Zapata, the son of a Presbyterian church leader in Mexico, and a dual citizen himself, says. “But now the data now is irrefutable. You have doctors coming out saying there are medical benefits to it.”
Zapata says he hopes the federal government starts listening to patients and doctors who believe the drug should be moved off the DEA’s Schedule 1 list of banned drugs. Working in the legalized part of the cannabis industry is his way of “fighting the drug war.”
“It’s the most effective way to destroy it,” he says. We have to legalize it, tax it and regulate it. That’s it. Period.”
Peter St. Cyr is an Albuquerque-based freelance reporter. His work has been broadcast on ABC and Fox News Radio, and he has appeared on CNN, America Tonight and New Mexico PBS. St. Cyr is a board member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande Chapter. Follow him on Twitter: @Peter_StCyr