Some New York executives unwind in the evening with a glass of wine. Others go out for a beer. And some take the edge off in a way they rarely discuss with their colleagues. Particularly in the summer, when children are at camp, these Gothamites are kicking back in a fashion reminiscent of their college days. "When my son's away, I keep my bong and my bag out on the dining room table," says Jim, co-owner of a furniture manufacturing company, who, like every other pot smoker interviewed in this article, asked not to be identified. "It makes me feel young again.

Despite the ongoing war on drugs and the stigma surrounding any illegal activity, a certain portion of the New York business community never turned in its rolling papers. For many of these otherwise law-abiding citizens, taking a few tokes of their favorite illicit substance is simply their preferred way to decompress. Though they might conceal their after-hours smoking from their co-workers, they insist that, used in moderation, the evil weed doesn't have to hurt job performance.

"It's an asset to the conceptualizing part of the business," Jim says. "It's a liability to the implementation part."

Among New York professionals, smokers tend to be discreet, even when children aren't in the picture. There's too much to lose from being typecast as a stoner. After all, Cheech and Chong--the pothead comedians of the 1970s--weren't exactly known for productivity.

"It's not something I would discuss with clients, even if they brought the subject up," says Sam, who has his own architecture firm. "And I only smoke with close friends."

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But statistics suggest that some of those clients are probably indulging as well. According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services, 97 million Americans have smoked marijuana at least once, and it is the most widely used illicit drug in the United States.

In the marijuana underground, New York has a reputation not only for widespread use but for the buying habits of its upscale users. City dwellers fork over as much as $600 an ounce for top-quality product, while dealers brag about selling strains grown from winners of the Amsterdam Cannabis Cup.

The city is also famous for its efficient delivery services.

"It's the only place in the country where you can get cannabis delivered, uptown and downtown, faster than pizza or Chinese food," says Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, based in Washington.

New York is also known for strict enforcement of laws against marijuana. Under the Giuliani administration, marijuana-related arrests peaked in 2000 at about 74,000; about 90% of those busts were for possession.

Arrests for grass have dropped by more than half under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to about 34,000 last year--a number that still makes the city among the national leaders in marijuana arrests per capita, according to NORML.

Though there is disagreement about government policy, even critics of the laws warn that heavy pot use can stunt ambition and accomplishment, as well as destroy personal relationships.

Growing use

"Marijuana is the most difficult drug to get people to give up, because it allows them to keep functioning," says Andrew Park, a Manhattan psychotherapist who specializes in addiction. "You can't see the damage to a person's life that you would if they were smoking crack or shooting dope."

But neither the law nor the dangers of abuse have dampened the nation's appetite for cannabis: the government's survey recorded 15 million current users in 2003, compared with 10 million in 1995.

"Alcohol dulls everything," says Abe, a litigator at a Manhattan law firm who says he would rather toke than imbibe. "Pot sharpens certain things, like creativity."

Marijuana is also the one illicit substance that appears to enjoy widespread appeal across social and economic lines.

"Lawyers, accountants, actors, cooks ... I deal with people across the board," says Jason, who has been selling marijuana full time in New York since 1996. "From people living in hellholes who can't really afford it, to people whose secretaries I have to talk to before I can talk to them."

But longtime aficionados find that, just like the sports they played in college, the drug is something they can no longer partake of as often as they did when they were young.

"The lifestyle changed when I had kids," says Bill, who manages a short-term apartment complex in midtown Manhattan and smokes only on those rare occasions when his children are not around. "Yet I still have a roach, wrapped in aluminum foil, in the back of my sock drawer."