Nate Norman was hanging out with his buddy Topher Clark when he came up with The Idea. The two friends were sitting around Nate's house, a dumpy little place near the cemetery, and both of them were extremely stoned. And yet The Idea had more legs than your typical pot-inspired idea. It did not involve a second Twinkie inside the first one. It did not involve genetically modifying the bugs so their blood would not be blood but windshield-wiper fluid. It was, in fact, based on a practical application of global economic theory. That, and cheap weed in Canada.
At the time, Nate was a nineteen-year-old high school dropout who worked at a Pizza Hut in Coeur D'Alene - a gorgeous but dull resort town in Idaho - and sold the occasional dime bag on the side. Chubby and baby-faced. Nate had never been the type to come up with a million-dollar brainstorm. "He was one of those guys everybody used to pick on," says his friend Scuzz - Ben Scozzaro, a year ahead of Nate at Coeur D'Alene High. "He looks like the Keebler Elf. That's what we used to call him, actually." Nor was Nate much of a scholar. His girlfriend Buffy once received a letter in which Nate spelled "pot" with an extra "t." "He can't spell 'marijuana,' either," she adds.
Always ready with an eager grin, Nate developed a puppy-dog need for approval - and perpetually holding proved a quick way to earn the love, or at least tolerance, of his peers. Topher, nine years his senior, initially met Nate as a customer. An avid outdoorsman who hunted deer and elk for meat, Topher didn't have much in common with Nate but found him goofy yet likable, a "fat, funny kid" with a "big heart."
Nate had been getting his stash from a dealer in Spokane, Washington. But he had heard about how easy it was to cross the Canadian border – only an hour north of Coeur D'Alene – and bring back the popular, extremely potent marijuana growing in abundance in British Columbia and known, generically, as "B.C. Bud." Rumor had it that the town of Nelson had become a sort of hippie Shangri-La, a place where if it took you more than ten minutes to find someone to sell you a dime bag, there was a good chance you were already high.
Nate turned to Topher and said, "I'm cool. Are you cool?"
Topher said, "I try to be."
Nate said, "I've got a plan."
The Idea turned out to be a textbook case of business economics: Buy low, sell high and eliminate the middleman. Things happened quickly after that. Suddenly, Nate and Topher and all of their friends had more cash than they'd ever dreamed of, along with expensive cars, hot girlfriends and fancy lakefront homes. And then, just as quickly, they began to lose control. Harder drugs, guns, paranoia, eventually violence – it was like a movie, everyone agrees. "Mini-Scarface," chuckles Nate's lawyer Frank Cikutovich.
"Have you seen Blow?" asks Topher. "You should sit down and watch it sometime. That's what it was like. We're at these parties, watching naked women jump into pools, feeding piranhas in aquariums, smoking out of big, fancy bongs."
Topher is sitting, at the moment, in the visiting room of a federal prison in Terminal Island, California. He's a big guy, with solid arms and blocky features. Outside, there are palm trees in the parking lot and a decent view of the harbor. "When I heard about the Butler kid, I just wanted out," he says. He attempts a smile, but his eyes do not cooperate, the final effect being more of a pained wince. "I was like, this is pot, right?' This isn't supposed to happen. No one's supposed to die."
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