EVAN COX used to deliver pizza. But 18 months ago, as he was running out of money at college in Seattle, he had a new business idea. The state of Washington was in the process of legalising the sale of marijuana, but he guessed it would take time for pot shops to open. So he set up Winterlife, a marijuana-delivery service.

Delivering dope is like delivering pizza, but easier. “You don’t need to keep your product warm, so you don’t need to return to base nearly as often,” says Mr Cox. “Your customers can peruse your menu but choose from your actual available selection at the time of arrival.” (And order a real pizza if they get the munchies afterwards.) Winterlife generates $1m a month, he says, and employs 50 people. Its website boasts that it is a “business with a conscience” that supports orphaned squirrels.

Mr Cox operates at the edge of the law. Although it is legal to buy marijuana in Washington state, the person who delivers it could be guilty of a felony. That hasn’t stopped Winterlife from attracting competitors. Mr Cox has registered as a business with the city and state, but he cannot open a bank account, thanks to federal rules. In April, he paid $167,000 in sales tax to the Washington State Department of Revenue—in cash.

Dope-delivery services are also popular in states with stricter laws. In New York, dealing is banned but possession has been decriminalised. More than a dozen illegal delivery services now serve tokers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Anyone with a recommendation from an existing client can call a number and wait an hour or so for a clean-cut young man to show up, probably on a bike, with a backpack of different varieties. The messengers sell only marijuana and carry less than 25g, which makes them liable for a fine if stopped, not a misdemeanour charge. Police know about their operations but ignore them.

A typical 2.5g package costs $50 or more. This is much pricier than street dope, but you are less likely to be mugged. Affluent tokers are happy to pay more for safety and convenience. Home delivery works less well for hard drugs, says Peter Reuter, an economist at the University of Maryland, since the markets are smaller and the criminal penalties much stiffer.

Even in states where bricks-and-mortar pot shops are allowed, some firms just deliver. Wheresweed.com, an industry directory, lists dozens of delivery-only services in California, Oregon and Colorado. Many of San Diego’s storefront pot dispensaries became delivery services when county rules forced them to close temporarily.

Mark Kleiman of the University of California, Los Angeles, believes governments should favour delivery services over shops, which degrade neighbourhoods, are prone to robberies and attract “shoulder-tapping” minors who ask adults to buy for them, he says. Mr Kleiman also worries that storefronts, like liquor stores, provide a visual trigger, making it hard for drug abusers to give up.