• Todd Strasser

Busted F0r Dealing, 1968

Updated: Mar 21, 2019

As we stand on the cusp of watching recreational marijuana become legal in more and more states, I can’t help thinking about how far we’ve come since the days when grass was classified as a dangerous narcotic, the purveyors of mere grams of this “drug” were considered outlaws or “hardened” criminals, and in some states the punishment for selling even small amounts of it could result in a prison sentence of 25 years to life.

The memory of that time is still vivid for me, because around 6:30 on an April morning in 1968, two Nassau County detectives knocked on the door of my family’s suburban Long Island home and informed my startled parents that I was being arrested for dealing drugs.

Wearing his pajamas, my father came into my bedroom and told me that the police were here and to get dressed. Still half-asleep, but at the same time quickly filling with fear and alarm, I stumbled down the hall to the bathroom where I quickly shaved off the fledgling mustache I had been nurturing for months. Moments later, back in my room, I stood in front of my closet, heart thudding as I tried to figure out the proper attire for being taken into custody. Having never been in trouble with the police before, I wasn’t entirely sure, but it seemed like a tie and jacket might be a logical choice. Decades before the phrase “white privilege” entered the vernacular, I was just a naive middle-class kid who’d been brought up to show respect for the authorities.

Having dressed, I made my way to the kitchen where two detectives sat at the kitchen table having the coffee my mother had made for them while they waited to take me in. I can’t remember where my father was. We were all in shock. When I entered, the detectives thanked my mother for the coffee, and then escorted me out the front door where they asked me to put my hands behind my back. I did as requested and was promptly handcuffed.

Trembling violently, I was placed in the back seat of an unmarked car. While one detective drove, the other informed me that anything I said could be used as evidence against me, and that I had the right to remain silent and request an attorney.

The detectives then commented on my choice of clothes, speculating that perhaps I thought I was going to a debutante ball. Next, they wanted to know why our kitchen had two ovens. When I didn’t answer, the detective riding shotgun frowned over the passenger seat at me. “Hey, you being a wise guy? You better give us an answer."

In a quavering voice I replied, "But you said anything I say can be used against me."

In the front seat, the detectives glanced at each other and then burst into laughter. I didn’t have to worry, they said, they couldn’t use two ovens as evidence against me.

The driver guffawed: "Some criminal we got here.”

He was right. I wasn’t a criminal, just a dumb 17-year-old kid who hoped he could score points socially by providing his classmates with a little pot to enhance their enjoyment of the Jefferson Airplane or a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Often, I gave the marijuana away for free. Other times I charged just enough to cover my costs.

Only once in my life did I sell to someone I didn’t know, but he had come to my house with a guy I did know. Before selling the stranger about $5 worth of grass (probably around six grams – the same as a teaspoon of salt), I asked if he was a narc. I was under the impression that if he was, he was legally required to say so.

I was wrong.

A little while later we parked behind a large red-brick building at the county center in Mineola. My hands were still cuffed behind my back and, as one of the detectives started to help me out, a flash blinded me momentarily. I sank back in to the car. The detective took my shoulder and gently but firmly pulled me out. There were a few more flashes as a couple of newspaper photographers took photos. I ducked my head down and pressed my chin down to my chest as I was led inside.

I was taken to a large room where half a dozen other detectives were seated at desks, working. My detective told me to sit beside his desk while he slowly typed up the arrest report. That’s when I learned the charges against me: one count of possession and one count of selling a controlled substance, class D felonies.

A moment of slight levity followed. It being 1968, and weed being so new to suburban Long Island, the detective paused to ask around the room if anyone knew how to spell marijuana. “Is it with a J or an H?”

The arrest report completed, I was taken to another room where I was fingerprinted, and then to yet another room where I was photographed front and sides. From there I was taken to a large holding cell where more than a dozen guys were already waiting. All of them had been picked up that morning. Two were friends of mine from school. The rest I’d never seen before. No one else was wearing a jacket and tie. I felt like a fool.

The main topic of conversation in the cell was who the undercover narc had been. The rest of the time we stood around (no seats. Don’t remember if there was a toilet). At lunch time a cop came by with a food cart. He gave us paper plates with a sandwich (turkey on white bread. No mayo) and a paper cup filled with unsweetened ice tea.

In the early afternoon they began taking us one by one down a hall to a courtroom. When I entered the courtroom, my father was sitting in the first row of seats behind the railing with a short, stocky man with curly black hair. That man rose and greeted me as I was escorted toward the bench. He had thick sideburns, a pink bow tie, was maybe forty years old. “I'm Jack Cook (not his real name), your attorney. When the judge speaks, you don't say anything. I’ll answer for you, okay?"

I nodded.

The arraignment was quick. The judge set bail at two thousand dollars, which my father posted. From the courthouse we walked to an old four-story brick office building a few blocks away and went upstairs to a door marked J. Cook, Atty. Inside, Mr. Cook removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and sat down behind a wide dark wood desk. He leaned toward me, resting his elbows on the desk. "Okay, Todd, who was the man?"

I stared back at him blankly.

“Come on, Todd," the lawyer urged, "who was he?"

"What man?" I finally asked.

“The cop, the narc, the guy you sold to."

And that’s how I found out what “The Man” meant. Like the detective had said earlier, I was some criminal.

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