Last week The New York Times ran a sympathetic, lighthearted profile of an illegal drug dealer: Lonnie Warner, a.k.a. Lonnie Loosie, who sells black-market cigarettes on Eighth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Warner gets the cigarettes from smugglers who buy them in Virginia and other low-tax states. He sells them in Manhattan, where a legal pack costs $12.50 or so, for 75 cents each. A dollar will get you two, and a pack costs $8.
Warner can turn a profit while giving his customers a 36 percent discount thanks to the punitively high cigarette taxes in New York City, which total $6.86 a pack: $1.50 city, $4.35 state, and $1.01 federal. "The tax went up," he tells the Times, "and we started selling 10 times as much." In other words, Warner is taking advantage of a business opportunity created by the government, like any other drug dealer. Yet there he is smiling on the front page of The New York Times, which depicts him as an industrious entrepreneur and charming neighborhood fixture:
Over many court appearances, Mr. Warner has made a favorable impression on the lawyers in Midtown Community Court, who know him as Lonnie Loosie and consider him better company than the typical misdemeanor defendant.
"There are people who are known bad guys, and then there's him," said Russell S. Novack, the Legal Aid lawyer who represents many of Midtown's hustlers, prostitutes, shoplifters and public drunks. "He's like the goodwill ambassador of Eighth Avenue. And when he comes into court, he says hello to everybody."
The Times does note that Warner "spent about two decades in New Jersey prisons for a series of armed robberies" but attributes those crimes to a crack habit he has kicked. Today he brags, apparently without irony, that "we don't allow people to sell drugs on this block."
It is hard to imagine a pot, cocaine, or heroin retailer getting similarly friendly treatment from a major news outlet. Unlike tobacco, of course, those drugs are addictive and dangerous.