So there I was in Mexico, wintering away in the tiny, stray-dog surf town of Punta de Mita, bored out of my skull, not a single rideable wave predicted for the next week, my time mostly spent in mind-numbing internet excursions, when all of a sudden I wound up on Twitter, reading posts from a guy named the Wolf of Weed Street. It seems that the Wolf and his followers – 21,000 of them, known collectively as the Wolf Pack – have been making a fortune trading stocks tied to the marijuana industry. So far, more than 20 states have approved pot for medicinal purposes, with more on the way. Since last January, when Colorado opened itself up to recreational toking, pot stocks have been on a tear. By March, the Wolf himself had parlayed $22,000 into $640,000, trading companies with names like American Green, Vapor Group Inc., and Hemp Inc. And there are, so says Twitter buzz, more gains to come. In fact, according to ArcView Market Research, the U.S. market for legal weed will reach $2.6 billion this year and $10.2 billion within five years, which has opened up an equally major-bucks-boffo opportunity for investors.
"Soon our collective wealth will be enough to run someone over and get away with it, video-game style," the Wolf tweeted in February. Furthermore: "I pour honey in the market's ear and let buy calls roll off my tongue like gum balls." Finally: "I don't make bad bets."
In response, from Freespeechprof: "Ouch! WTF was that? Oh, just another bucket of cash raining on my head!"
And, from a female fan of the Wolf: "If you're ever in Santa Monica, I owe you a nice sloppy blow job!"
I don't know about you, but that kind of stuff gets my attention. I checked out the ocean, saw that it was still flat, and hustled downstairs to the apartment below mine, to see my surfing buddy Theo, a semiretired teacher from Oregon, who was going through a nasty, money-sucking divorce, to tell him the news: that we were in the midst of a cultural revolution. According to recent polls, the majority of the population now favors legalization of the former demon weed. It's just a matter of time before every state in the Union OKs the stuff, if only for the tax revenue. No publicly traded company has started selling weed outright; that's still a federal crime. Instead, they deal in whatever it takes to cultivate, distribute, and smoke it – vaporizers and pipes, ganja-specific vending machines, hydroponic growing stations, and other assorted gimcracks.
"But who cares about any of that?" I said, over a late-afternoon toke. "Look, Theo. There's money to be made. One guy I read about: Four trades, he paid off the loans on two cars. Can you imagine?"
The first words out of Theo's mouth were, "OK, I'm in for $5,000. What's the next step? Let's go make a trade!"
"Whoa, Nelly," I said. "The stock market isn't open on weekends."
I smiled to myself. What a naive soul he was, and how lucky for him that he had me to guide him to pot-stock riches. And, of course, how lucky for me that I had the Wolf of Weed Street.
Over the next few days, I spent all my time learning everything I could about what would shortly make Theo and me filthy rich. Right away I came across a curious fact: Many of the 250 or so companies involved in the pot industry had nothing whatsoever to do with high times in previous incarnations. Instead, they were involved with the airplane industry (AvWorks Aviation, now known as Vapor Group) or the coffee business (Hemp Inc.) or oil (PetroTech Oil and Gas) or mining (Next Gen Metals), and apparently failing at those enterprises big-time. So when pot began to take off, they switched over and ballyhooed the event with press releases that said dubious stuff like, "Who better to build the infrastructure of this new industry than a group of savvy mining execs? That's right, mining execs!"
Moreover, many of the guys running these companies seemed to have awfully shady pasts. Bruce Perlowin, Hemp's CEO, spent nine years in prison for operating one of the largest drug-smuggling operations in U.S. history. And Michael Llamas, the former CEO of Medical Marijuana Inc., was recently indicted (he has pleaded not guilty) for his part in a multi-state mortgage-fraud Ponzi scheme. Not surprisingly, according to some analysts, a good number of these companies have zero revenue, zero profits, zero goods or services to sell, and zero prospects.
What they do have, however, is the mind-bending ability to offer returns far in excess of your mainstream Wall Street–approved mutual fund, of which I own many, including Berwyn Income, up 10 percent annually for the past five years; and T. Rowe Price Capital Appreciation, up 14 percent. Big deal. With those rates of return, I'm not going to be able to retire ever – unless I hitch my wagon to a guy like the Wolf and take a flier on a few pot stocks, which can go from $.004 a share to $.04 a share, a 1,000 percent increase, in the span of a month, far more than my mutual funds have done in their entire lifetimes.
I know there are risks involved. Driving these huge price gains, for instance, are a cabal of shifty promoters who get paid to tout the stocks with half-truths and fancy language to anyone who will pay attention, via spam email and text messages, tweets, blog posts, and infomercials. In industry parlance, this bit of chicanery is known as a pump. What comes next is the dump, when company insiders and associates unload their shares at the pumped-up prices, which causes prices to plummet, leaving those who were snookered into buying the pump but not getting the message to dump wondering where the hell their money went. That's what happened during the tech stock boom, but before the bust, lots of people got rich.
(Timothy Sykes, left, and Jason Spatafora, the Wolf of Weed Street, square off in Miami. Photograph by Bob Croslin)
These pot stocks don't trade on the big board; mostly they're penny stocks, ultracheapos that are so far down on the scale of respectability they don't even have to file financial statements with the Securities and Exchange Commission. They're the lowest of the low, the kind of stocks that Leonardo DiCaprio hustled in the The Wolf of Wall Street, from whence, of course, the Wolf of Weed Street takes his name.
But from what I could tell, the Wolf's picks were a cut above. He said that before announcing a buy recommendation, he and his inner circle spent countless hours looking into a company's financial history. It's called due diligence, and the Wolf is so well known for it that the Youngstown Cannabis News (whatever that is) went out of its way to praise his "savvy research skills." Plus, the Wolf Pack seemed like very decent people. At his urging, they donated some of their profits to charities like Make-a-Wish and the Wounded Warrior Project. "Wolf, you are proof there are still good people in the world," tweeted one follower. The whole thing gave me a warm, happy feeling.
The next day, at 8:30 am Mexico time, the stock market opened for business, and I was ready. Never before had I contemplated doing anything like this. My late grandfather, a buttoned-down assistant secretary of defense in the Eisenhower administration and Great Depression survivor, had told me never to put my money in anything but U.S. Treasury bonds, the most conservative investment possible. After I branched out into mutual funds, he stopped talking to me for a month – so if he weren't already dead, he'd probably have a heart attack from seeing all the Twitter messages now popping up on my laptop. I leaned in. The Wolf pack was in full-on frothing go-go, buy-buy, can't-lose mode, even though pot stocks were down a bit from their highs.
The Wolf: "Big week! $SPLI will hit .40. $ERBB maybe .09+ $MINE .045-5!!! Watch list $ICBU $VMLK $STEV bloody buys $TRTC $PHOT."
I scanned the responses.
"Listen to the Wolf Pack! Hold your stocks! Wolves buy dips! Roll with Weed Street!"
"Just got into MINE and SPLI early today!"
"In it long!"
Almost without thinking, I logged on to my Scottrade IRA account and started buying. I didn't know what any of these companies did, really. I didn't even know the full company name of most of them. All I knew was that, according to the Wolf, prices would soon resume their meteoric rise, and if I didn't get onboard now, I'd be left in the dust. And so it was that a short while later, I returned from a kind of fugue state only to learn that while I was gone, I'd bought 44,000 shares of ticker symbol SPLI, 600,000 of EMJI, 400,000 of MINE, 3,500 of STEV, 1,300 of TRTC, and 75,000 of ERBB, among others. I tallied up the cash outflow and realized I'd just reduced by $33,000 the funds meant to cushion my dotage and keep me out of state- run nursing homes. And then a twinge of fear passed through my noggin. What if tomorrow some Colorado stoner caused a 42-vehicle pileup and, overnight, pot once again became known as a direct gateway to manslaughter, suicide, and madness, as in the classic 1936 movie Reefer Madness? What would become of my big dreams then?
Oh, happy, happy. By the following afternoon, all my stocks were running, just like the Wolf had said they would. At market's close, my $33,000 was worth $37,000, and by the beginning of the following week, a staggering $62,000. If things kept going at the present rate, in a month I'd be worth $480,000, and I was sure to be rolling in private-duty nurses in my twilight years. I could almost feel them giving me silky-smooth, soapy sponge baths. I was thrilled.
And I was transformed. Suddenly I was a different person, a person of (at least some) generosity, as per the Wolf's wishes. To the girl Susana, who worked at the surf shop, I gave a brand-new laptop. She burst into tears. If my taco dinner at La Cabana cost 45 pesos, I'd leave 100 pesos. When Solomon with his huge mustache came around with his cracked and battered guitar, I'd shovel 1,000 pesos at him and tell him to play for the folks six tables over. I felt a buzz. I was happy. I kept ragging on Theo to get his act together and fund a brokerage account. I didn't want him to miss out.
What happened next, I'm sure you can guess. What goes up, must come . . . and it did, hard. It was both a rout and a bloodbath. Everything I owned tanked. Hour after hour I sat in front of my computer, watching as prices ratcheted into the toilet. But I was not in the least bit concerned. In fact, I was pleased because now I could buy more at bargain prices, just like the Wolf, who repeatedly tweeted that you haven't lost a cent until you've sold and realized the loss.
So buy and buy big, which the pack did. "If you sold $SPLI today," the Wolf tweeted, "you're a fucking idiot. If you bought, you're a lucky genius." Then this: "I'm 100 percent behind my Wolf Pack. I do not fucking run from shit, I'm a fucking Wolf!" I stepped up to the plate, too, throwing money at any new stock the Wolf mentioned, even those for which he was taking a smaller, "just the tip" position.
A week later, prices were still depressed, and the pack was getting restless. A tweeter suggested that everyone step back, put buying on hold for a moment, and apply "some common sense" to the situation, which led the Wolf to write: "U have as much common sense as a dude giving anal to someone with a stomach virus." Suddenly it was nasty time in the pot-stock community, like everyone involved had started smoking weed laced with PCP. Then prices went up for two days in a row and harmony was restored; then they dropped again, further, almost out of sight, like turds in a toilet. The pack was snarling now. It needed someone to blame. Not the Wolf, of course, but someone.
They found him in the person of Timothy Sykes, perhaps the most famous penny-stock trader in the country, an obnoxious loudmouth whose DVD and chat-room ads blared stuff like, "Learn how I turned $12,415 into $4,050,000 and how I created four millionaires!" next to pictures of him standing smugly beside his Lamborghini or showing off his Rolex or beaching it in some exotic locale with his model girlfriend. Sykes specializes in short-selling, betting that a certain stock will drop in value, something that will typically happen if lots of other short sellers pile on. Recently Sykes had begun railing against some of the Wolf's picks, calling the companies worthless junk.
After that, the Wolf Pack concluded that Sykes had coordinated short attacks on the pot stocks, and that he was the one who was responsible for their current unhappiness.
"Douchebag is all you are, bro," one tweeted.
"The Wolf Pack is looking out for disabled veterans. What are you doing, Sykes?"
"[This] benefits us, as we buy more cheap shares, and he gets to wipe his tears with our spongy wolfcocks."
Only, I was beginning to have my doubts. What if this Sykes is right? What if my passel of stocks doesn't rebound? What if the Wolf has it all wrong? And who is this Wolf character anyway? And you know what? I'm sick of Mexico. Maybe I should go meet this Wolf, just to see what kind of guy I've put my faith in.
He lives in Fort Lauderdale, drives a sweet black Lexus, is 35 years old, and has the height, bearing, and looks of Tom Cruise, approximately. He was on a conference call with the Wolf Pack's inner circle when he picked me up at the airport, and he kept right on gabbing.
"Look, for people who missed the run-up, this is still an entry," he said. "This is going to get better. Do you know how much new money is going to be pouring in? We need to hammer that home. I mean, after that happens, no one is going to know who Tim Sykes is. They're not even going to know who I am – well, they'll probably know who I am. But you know what? Fuck it. I'm going to tweet that this is a buying opportunity. What do you guys think?"
One of them said, "We have to put the message out that when the fundamentals are good, price drops like these are temporary."
The Wolf liked that idea. "Yeah, yeah. 'When I see red, I see opportunity.' Something like that."
Another guy said, "By the way, did you know there are, like, 40 people in the website's chat room right now, and every one of them is freaking out? They're all pissed. Everything's fucking conking. And Tim Sykes is riding this like a donkey."
The Wolf looked at me, grinned, shrugged, and returned to the call.
The next day, over breakfast, he said: "At the peak in my account, I was at $640,000, but now I'm at $381,000. But I've taken out five times what I've put in along the way, so now it's like Monopoly money. I'm still buying more shares, though, because of my followers. I'm sticking with it for them. I'm like the Jesus of trading. I'm, like, letting myself get nailed to the cross just because I don't want them to suffer. I mean, I'm not really upset about losing all that money, which is shocking to me sometimes."
He shrugged again. But then he got on the subject of Tim Sykes, and he wasn't so cavalier. "If I woke up next week and somebody had beat him within an inch of his life, I would not be surprised. He's playing a very dangerous game with other people's money. I don't wish Sykes ill, but he's putting a bull's-eye on his back. I've heard people say, 'I want to find this guy and kill him.' "
I pushed back from the table. All I'd really wanted from my visit was to learn about the Wolf, so that I could decide if I should keep following him into the financial future. But now we were verging on something altogether different and dark, with the Wolf kind of half-smiling as he went on about Sykes' potential demise. Then he looked at his watch. It was 9:30 am, the market had just opened, and he started checking his stocks on his phone.
"What's happening?" I asked.
"REDG is getting gangbanged."
"In a good way?"
"It was at 60, but now it's at 48," he said. "SPLI, $1.50 down, so I'm down $15,000 on it. MINE, I'm down $700. FRTD, down $2,400." He looked up and smiled. "A month from now, though, everything will be back to normal. We'll be fine. People thought the dot-com penny-stock craze in the late Nineties was crazy. Dot-bong is going to be awesome."
Until last year, the Wolf was just an ex-college lacrosse player who worked as a smooth-talking "disaster consultant," swooping in on calamities – hurricanes, tornadoes, airplane crashes – to convince the suddenly bereft and bewildered to sign reconstruction contracts. The Wolf was a star closer. "I used to do individual homeowners, but they're a pain in the ass, so then I did only hospitals and warehouses and shit like that. The money was crazy."
Last August, he took a flier on some penny stocks, one of which was the weed stock GrowLife. It soared. So he bought more weed stocks, watched them skyrocket, then thought he'd start tweeting about it as the Wolf of Weed Street. And shortly thereafter became the Twitter sensation he is today. "I used to be a washed-up lacrosse player, but now I'm the Wolf," he says. "People want to send me money to thank me – 'Dude, you made me a millionaire!' – but I tell them to donate it. The whole goal is to make a bunch of new one percenters who aren't assholes. The Wolf Pack is the Fight Club of penny stocks. It's a weird feeling for me, because you're one step away from being a cult leader."
For the next few days, I watched the Wolf be the Wolf. There's not much to it, really. Mainly he situated himself in his comfy little home, on the couch with his laptop, watching business news on TV, trading a few stocks, dealing with the construction of his new website, tweeting to his pack, checking in with his delightful engineer wife, and fielding calls from freaked-out players in his little pot-stock universe. Everything was still crashing. And I began to wonder what kind of due diligence the Wolf and his crew had done on these stocks. They kept talking about "the fundamentals," the factors Warren Buffett and other traditionalists judge a company by – cash flow, return on assets, the price-to-earnings ratio. "Help me out here," I said to the Wolf one morning. "What fundamentals are you even looking at?"
He blinked several times but didn't miss a beat. "Well, they have a business and a vision," he said, smiling toothily, arms spreading. "In a new marketplace like this, nobody knows how it's going to end up. So we use words like fundamentals to stand for 'They seem like they're not fucking up.' That's pretty much the fundamentals right now."
Afterward, whenever fundamentals was used, the Wolf looked at me and grinned, and I couldn't help but grin back. He's a pretty charming fellow.
Two months later I'm back home, in Rhode Island, still waiting for the bull market in pot stocks to resume. I'm deeply in the red. I can't bear to talk about my larger losses, but a glance at some of my smaller bets pretty much tells the story: The $680 I slung into Vape Holdings had been reduced to $37, which wouldn't cover a 30-minute visit with a half-baked Ocean State shrink, and my $406 in Indie Growers Association Inc. is down to $18.34, not even enough for a bottle of 100-proof Smirnoff to soak my head in.
Meanwhile, I've been searching for a way to dig myself out. It's not that I've given up on the Wolf; it's more that the pot-stock climate has changed, so maybe I should find someone else to follow – someone like Tim Sykes, the Wolf's nemesis and the great, feared enemy of the Wolf Pack.
This much I know about Sykes: He's a middle-class nerd from Connecticut who started playing the penny stocks when he was 17 with a bankroll of $12,415 in bar mitzvah money, turned that into $2 million in college, and made a career of trading stocks and hawking tutorial DVDs and trading-chat-room services. Last year his online ventures earned him $4 million, far more than his trading, but he's no slouch as a trader, either. He starts every year with $500,000 in his brokerage account; as of today, it stands at $1.2 million. Where the Wolf is currently on a losing streak, Sykes continues to win.
I drop him an email to introduce myself and my situation. The first thing he tells me is to sell everything weed-related: "Pot stocks are a pump-and-dump. They have AIDS. And they do not have Magic Johnson money." He says that he wants to teach me how to trade his way, with bona fide rules, like base your buys on good earnings reports instead of on bogus PR puffery taken at face value by guys like the Wolf – and never allow a loss to go deeper than 7 percent. He thinks the Wolf is either a slimy promoter working some kind of Twitter-based con or a know-nothing playing out of his depth. Either way, Sykes says, the guy is dangerous.
I don't argue. Instead, I concentrate on unwinding a few of my positions. Shortly afterward, though, Sykes tells me he's having dinner with "the Wolf whatever the fuck his name is." I'd suggested it in passing, but Sykes says the Wolf has agreed. "It's going to be like the fucking Geneva Conventions," the Wolf says. I don't know what the point of such a summit would be, but I plan to attend because I can see a bloody pummel-fest ahead, with only one winner. Frankly, I'd put my money (if I had any ) on the Wolf because he has a history of walking into disasters and coming out smiling.
So I get down to Miami Beach, where Sykes lives in a penthouse overlooking the Atlantic. He's 33, two years younger than the Wolf, and somewhat pasty and flabby. He does not look anything like Tom Cruise. He likes to wear a UConn Huskies T-shirt, sweatpants, and Adidas sandals. I watch him trade, learn more about his method, cover my ears when he bellows with joy because a stock is moving in his direction, gawk at his Rolex and photos of his girlfriend, listen to a continuous stream of palaver about his great teaching skills, ride around with him in his headache-orange Lamborghini, get jostled when he backs it into a post (repair cost: $8,000), hear about various trips he's taken to insanely exotic vacation spots, all part of a "deluxe lifestyle" he documents online in order to drum up business for his various enterprises.
Then it's time to meet the Wolf for dinner at an overpriced Miami Beach joint called Red, the Steakhouse. Along the way, Sykes explains those lifestyle photos.
"Let's say you meet a homeless guy on the street and offer him the choice of a bottle of Jack Daniel's or a green-juice kale drink. He's going to take the Jack, right? So what I do is show pictures of my Lamborghini, the mansion I used to have, my trips, my model girlfriend – the life they want, the Jack Daniel's – but, inside, I teach them the rules. See, I'm tricking the bum. I don't care about this Lamborghini. It makes me nauseous. It makes me look like a jackass, a douchebag, even a fraud. I mean, if I wasn't me, I'd hate me. I could give a shit. My goal is not to be the most popular. It's to create successful motherfucking students. I'm on a fucking mission to take bums off the street and put them in Armani suits. So who should these bums go with – the Wolf of Weed Street, and lose 50, 60, 70 percent?" He pauses. "So when you give bad advice, I'm going to come down on you like a Hebrew hammer."
And on he goes, until we arrive at the restaurant, where he struggles out of the Lambo's low-slung seat, asks the valet to keep it parked out front, and pads inside. The Wolf is already here, all toothy grins, hand outstretched to meet Sykes', which it does, the last courteous moment of the night. Sykes orders for the table a $499 sampler plate of Wagyu and Kobe beef and a $75 Alaskan king crab dish, among other things. He lets it be known that he'll be picking up the bill. When the beef arrives, he photographs it for his website.
The Wolf and I look at each other. I'm rooting for him. How could I not? I've still got lots of money in the weed game, so the fate of my nest egg is still tied to the depths of the Wolf's financial acumen and his advice to stick with pot stocks for the longer term. If it ends up he's full of shit, I'm screwed, royally and totally, not to mention an embarrassment for having taken investment advice from a Twitter moniker. I've banked on him. Now it's time for him to pay me back, to prove himself worthy of my trust. In other words: Go ahead, Wolf, rip Sykes a new one. Let's see some blood dripping from down there.
The Wolf leads by talking up one of his favorites, Vapor Group Inc., and pointing out that far from being just a no-revenue penny stock, it had $1.9 million in sales last year.
Sykes nearly leaps from the table. "The financials don't matter! They can be manipulated easily! They are manipulated! Whether they say they do $1.9 or even $10 million, it's meaningless! Companies like that are just selling hopes and dreams! Every one of them is full of shit. They're the worst companies, run by the worst people, and they all deserve to go to zero."
I glance over at the Wolf, expecting to see his hackles raised, ears pitched forward and erect, Colgate-white incisors glistening with drool, ready to pounce. Only he does nothing. He takes another bite of Kobe beef, washes it down with a swig of wine from a bottle he'd purloined from his father-in-law, and lets the moment pass. I smile to myself. Clearly he's working a deeper, subtler angle, setting a trap. Just like a wolf. But after a long pause and a deep sigh, he says, "I guess, essentially, I'm identifying the best shit out of all the shit, so help me identify the companies that are scams."
Sykes leans in, his voice low. "Here's a tip," he says, jabbing a fat finger in the air. "They're all scams. It doesn't matter if it's the best shit or not, all shit goes down the toilet eventually. You need to understand that, and you don't understand that. You're a fucking glorified newbie!"
Again, the Wolf busies himself with his wine. I suddenly realize what's happening: The Wolf is in trouble. So far he hasn't scored a single point against Sykes. Worse, he's asking Sykes for counsel. Away from his Twitter den, the Wolf is nothing but a sheep. A few minutes later, he tries to rally by comparing himself (semi-seriously) to Eminem in the movie 8 Mile, how he's got "one shot, one opportunity" at greatness, and he's taking it.
"You know what?" Sykes says. "You need to be knocked off your fucking high horse. How are you this cocky? Fucking Eminem in 8 Mile. You're more like his fucking drunken mother." It's almost sickening to see. The Wolf is being slaughtered in front of my eyes. All he's capable of is an occasional attempt at misdirection, invariably delivered with his winning closer smile. "If this was any other place," he tells Sykes, laying it on with a certain amount of oil, "I'd like you."
"I don't have time for fucking friends," Sykes sneers. "And I don't need compliments. I have compliments coming out my ass. I want you to change. That's much more important than compliments. And that's why I'm going to give you my DVD worth $500. As a matter of fact, I'm overnighting you the whole fucking set. You need these, stat!"
The Wolf leans back from the table, saying, "I'll look at them."
"Of course you will," Sykes snaps, "because they're fucking great."
Actually, it's kind of fascinating to watch. No matter which way the Wolf turns, Sykes has him cornered. "Let's be clear," the Wolf says. "This is going to be a footnote in my history. I'm never going to say to myself, 'Oh, wow, I was the Wolf of Weed Street.' "
"Why don't you think about others for a second instead of yourself?" Sykes asks. "We don't fucking matter, but those we influence do. Thousands of people depend on this conversation. You have followers. Minions. They want to be you. They want to turn a few thousand dollars into $600,000, like you did. A lot of them can't be in this beautiful place with you, where money is irrelevant. Accept it, motherfucker. You are a face. You're a Twitter handle face."
"I was never in anyone's living room, pushing the buttons for them," the Wolf says, lamely.
Sykes groans, and for a second I think he's going to slap the Wolf silly. But that would be overkill, since by now the Wolf has gone belly-up and rigor mortis is about to set in. I haven't said much, mainly because I'm mesmerized by the spectacle of the Hebrew hammer smashing the closer. Still, though, I wish I was back in Mexico, hanging out with Theo up on our palapa, smoking a bowl, and bitching about the lack of surf.
Outside the restaurant, Sykes wants a picture taken of him and the Wolf together. "Let's do it over here," Sykes says. "Let's get the Lambo in the shot."
"Oh, my God," says the Wolf.
Why anyone would take investment advice from a Twitter handle escapes me at the moment. Now, looking at these two lunatic Internet sensations, I can't imagine what I was thinking. Greed got the best of me, I suppose, and because of that I'll probably wear state-issued sandpaper diapers in my old age. No nice, soapy sponge baths for me. I had a vision. Too bad that, like most pot stocks, it was filled with hot air.