The Weed Runners: Travels With the Outlaw Capitalists of America's Medical-Marijuana Trade

The Weed Runners: Travels With the Outlaw Capitalists of America's Medical-Marijuana Trade
Illustration: Jared Boggess | Design: Dustin Ames

It might be a stretch to say the history of America's underground marijuana trade is encapsulated in the story of Donald Hoxter.

Not by much, though.

Few people can say they've smuggled as much as 10 tons of marijuana across both the Mexican and Canadian borders per year. Or that they were one of the first hippies in the Pacific Northwest to pioneer America's homegrown crop in the early 1980s, some 15 years before marijuana became legal—first in California, then in more than a dozen other states—for medical purposes. And it's certainly true that few have won or lost as much as Hoxter in this business. His story, which ends before the tales contained in my recently released book begin, is therefore a perfect place to start.

Jared Boggess

At the moment, Hoxter is sitting at an outdoor table at a coffee shop in Long Beach, at a busy intersection, kitty-corner from an elementary school where kids are loudly enjoying their afternoon recess. He's a tall, lanky man in his early 60s with whitening red hair and freckles. His fair skin is mottled red and white, permanently scorched by 41 straight months in the too-sunny recreation yard of a federal prison. A fresh cigarette dangles from his lips. He has almost lit the thing several times over the past hour or so, but instead absent-mindedly twirls the lighter with his left hand.

Hoxter is too busy talking to smoke. The memories, some of which are still a jumble in his mind since he hasn't spoken publicly about much of his life until now, overflow. It all started in the early 1960s, he says, when he was a kid in El Cajon, a gritty, working-class town just east of San Diego. Then as now, El Cajon was a bastion of the Hells Angels, and several members of the outlaw motorcycle gang happened to live on the street where Hoxter grew up. "They lived on the same block, much to my mother's chagrin," remembers Hoxter. "I got my first joint from the Hells Angels. They cost about four for a dollar back then. And, of course, they came from Mexico. Mexico is where everything came from in the beginning."

Hoxter hung out with older kids and young adults who tended to drive down to Tijuana each weekend. He didn't realize it right away, but a lot of them weren't just crossing the border to get drunk in the cantinas of the infamous Zona Norte. "A friend of mine came back one time and was laughing and joking and opened up the trunk of his Chevrolet," he recalls. The friend lifted up some unfolded newspapers and proudly showed Hoxter several bricks of cheap Mexican grass. Even before Hoxter was old enough to drive, he was going along for the ride, and by the time he had his license, he was a smuggler. "It was nothing. You just drove down and drove back," he recalls. "Going into Mexico, there was no police presence, and coming back, you just played it like you had gotten drunk because that's what people did."

Typically, Hoxter and his friends would find a back-alley dealer, pool their money and purchase about 2 pounds of pot that had been packed into tight bundles, or bricks. Each one cost $60 or $70. Then they'd sell each pound for $300, dividing the amount into 30 lids, or $10 quantities, which were measured by a finger's width of a Prince Albert can of tobacco. By the late 1960s, he and his buddies were handling much larger loads, 30 or 40 pounds at a time, which they'd typically stash in the bottom of a boat, and then attach to their legs with rope before swimming ashore. Meanwhile, they'd formed their own commune in San Diego called "the Family" and had hooked up with the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a group of hippies and surfers living in cheap houses in Laguna Beach who were smuggling untold quantities of hashish from Afghanistan and transporting massive quantities of Mexican weed across the border.

Smuggling and selling hash and marijuana became a way for the Family, the Brotherhood and legions of other hippies to finance their alternative lifestyles. As more young people started tuning in, turning on and dropping out, the demand for Mexican buds grew even higher, and Hoxter was often handling shipments of 1,000 or 1,500 pounds at a time. Because of the volume they handled, the various drug networks operating at the time soon had no use for Tijuana middlemen and had hooked up directly with individual villages in the Mexican states of Sinaloa, Jalisco or Michoacan, where growing marijuana had long been a way of life. The Family patronized one particular hamlet high up in the hills of Michoacan, an hour or so south of Morelia. After a decade of cross-border enterprise, the jungle township had doubled in size and enjoyed electricity, plumbing and paved roads.

When Southern California got too crowded—and too hot—Hoxter and the Family moved to rural Montana, and Hoxter began a new life smuggling Mexican loads across the border into Canada. His first crossing was insanely risky: he drove through a one-man border-control checkpoint with his Canuck girlfriend, posing as newlyweds. "My chances were probably 80 to 20 that I'd get caught," Hoxter estimates. "But I told her to look at this guy and melt him. 'I want him to think if I wasn't sitting here, he'd had a shot with you.'"

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