Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Review: Char Miller (ed.), "Where There's Smoke: The Environmental Science, Public Policy, and Politics of Marijuana" (2018)

In an era replete with weed books, the University Press of Kansas has published one of the most valuable efforts to-date with Where There’s Smoke, a collection of essays edited by environmental historian Char Miller.

The book is the first to bring a variety of academic and non-academic perspectives to bear on the environmental impact of outlaw marijuana cultivation, a problem that seemingly grows more intractable by the day. The decision to have an environmental historian as editor was a superb one. Environmental history is interdisciplinary by nature (pardon the pun), and Miller has shrewdly compiled critically relevant perspectives from biology, law enforcement, journalism, sociology, politics, and others to produce a comprehensive, on-the-ground snapshot of marijuana activity across the nation.

Where There’s Smoke is divided into three parts, with the first two focusing on the environmental and social ramifications of outlaw marijuana cultivation, and the third offering a condensed history of legalization movements and policy in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, DC, and California.

The first four chapters discuss the history and ecological harms of widespread illegal cannabis farming, especially in California. Problematic growing began there in the 1980s, when cannabis became “a leading export commodity” in Northern California, an otherwise economically depressed region ((p 17). In the ensuing decades, intensive policing pushed the price of pot higher, and innovative growers generally kept a step ahead of law enforcement. When California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, the northern part of the state was already known as a premier place to grow weed, so thousands of growers began moving there to take advantage of vague medical cultivation laws (p 20).

Today, there are between 500,000 and 1.5 million marijuana plants growing illegally on private and public lands across the state (p 30), straining both law enforcement and local environments. Growers are diverting and polluting streams, clear-cutting forests and hillsides, and poisoning all kinds of wildlife, from rodents to black bears (p 36). In recent years, law enforcement has prioritized the cleanup and remediation of these sites, but authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer number of trespass grows, and with every bust, several new operations crop up somewhere else.

If Where There’s Smoke is the first scholarly book to explicitly address these issues, it does not present them in the most interesting fashion. The writing in this section is informative but not engaging, with too many complex or long-winded sentences that quash the reader’s momentum. Some points are unnecessarily rehashed; for example, the second and fourth chapters both include essentially the same discussion of excessive rodenticide and fertilizer use (p 35-36, 63-64). Nonetheless, the perspectives in these first four chapters drive home the point that, whatever else they may be, marijuana prohibition and cultivation are interconnected environmental issues that cry out for “more complete investigation and documentation” (p 38).

As editor of Where There's Smoke, environmental historian
Char Miller brings together an array of important perspectives
on outlaw marijuana cultivation.
Where There’s Smoke makes fresher tracks in its second section, where the authors add a bit more nuance to the first section’s “outlaw grows are bad” narrative. Three essays connect the dots between the three major federal policy areas driving the cycle of outlaw marijuana cultivation—drug enforcement, criminal justice, and immigration. In particular, Amos Irwin’s chapter “Double Bind” relays the stories of two people arrested at outlaw cultivation sites, showing how poor, undocumented immigrants in the US make perfect cannon fodder for major Mexican drug cartels: they are inherently averse to law enforcement; willing to work long hours in uncomfortable environments; they have families in Mexico or the US that the cartels can leverage against them; and they are used to taking jobs without asking questions or signing agreements, so if they get arrested at a grow site, they have no information to offer authorities in exchange for lighter sentences. As a result, the justice system punishes the most vulnerable and least important people in the entire operation, and law enforcement is no closer to stamping out trespass growing than it was before making the arrests (p 118-121).

Irwin, program director for the nonprofit Law Enforcement Action Partnership, does an excellent job conveying the rational actions and humanity of those arrested at illegal grow sites, and his essay highlights the need to understand outlaw marijuana farming in a much broader, more transnational context than is typically offered in news reports. It also perfectly encapsulates the central argument of the book: ongoing federal prohibition perpetuates trespass marijuana grows and exacerbates the social and environmental injustices associated with them.

For all its insight, Irwin’s chapter also reflects the biggest flaw in Where There’s Smoke: a book designed to draw attention to one of the most important problems facing our public lands is decidedly not written for the public. Irwin’s chapter offers a frustrating example; he has two fascinating stories to tell, but he instead leads with “This chapter informs our understanding of …”

This kind of unimaginative writing plagues Where There’s Smoke from cover to cover, effectively smoke-screening the valuable insight of its contributors. Notable exceptions include chapters by drug policy reformer Amanda Reiman and California game warden John Nores, Jr., as well as the chapter on outlaw cannabis farms in Appalachia by Miller and Hawes Spencer. But the clunky academic writing before and in between these later chapters will likely turn away non-academic readers well before they get to them. This is unfortunate given that two of the book’s prominent themes are the importance of public awareness of trespass marijuana grows and the essential role of the voting public in reforming the nation’s marijuana laws.

If Where There’s Smoke misses a huge chance to connect with a broader audience around a timely and important topic, it will still likely induce more scholarly collaboration around the problem of outlaw cannabis cultivation. In that respect, Where There’s Smoke is an important foundation stone in the scholarly literature on cannabis, and should at least be required reading for all journalists writing about trespass marijuana grows.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Marijuana and the Homeless: A Brief History

As many astute readers of this blog may know, weed makes people feel good.

Also, being homeless makes people feel pretty bad.

Thus it is no surprise that one of the main groups of marijuana users in the country are those who do not have a place to hang their hats. And yet, newspaper after newspaper prints stories about marijuana allegedly causing or increasing homelessness, as if it is something abnormal or of great concern.

Credit: Ian Sane, Flickr
Echoing the concerns of urban hand-wringers across the country, the police chief in Pueblo, Colorado, told his local newspaper the other day that transients "come to either extensively get jobs in the marijuana field or as it ends up, most of the time just to get marijuana."

To the chief's credit, he noted other factors drawing transient people to Pueblo, including the weather, perceived lower cost of living, and unfortunate life events. But he maintained that the marijuana-homeless connection should have been better recorded in a recent study of local marijuana legalization by Colorado State University-Pueblo's Institute of Cannabis Research.

The researchers should not feel bad about overlooking the marijuana-homeless connection in Pueblo, because anyone familiar with the history of cannabis in the United States will say that there is nothing novel about homeless people smoking weed.

Historian Zachary Falck writes that in the 1930s, "urban Americans also perceived cannabis as dangerous because transient Americans used the plant." Transient marijuana growers and smokers were found from New York to St. Louis, from Seattle to Memphis. They included jazz musicians, the mentally ill, and the out-of-work and others displaced by the Great Depression. Police pointed to the herb's use among Mexicans, African Americans, and the homeless as a reason why the plant was dangerous, lumping cannabis and those who used it together in a criminal class. Falck argues that authorities portrayed cannabis "as a weed to cultivate fear and tighten social order" in the nation's cities.

Journalist and cannabis historian Martin Lee also highlights marijuana's prevalence in Depression-era camps where the "discards of capitalist America" gathered:
"It was not unusual, especially in the north, for poor whites to live side by side with negroes and Mexicans in these camps, where there were no Jim Crow color lines and marijuana was used by all ethnicities as a cheap intoxicant that didn't ravage the mind and body like rotgut alcohol."
Cannabis's value among transients and other marginalized people is not unique to the United States. Geographer Chris Duvall, who studies the global history and distribution of cannabis, argues that marijuana "has a long history as a drug used primarily by lower social classes." These include soldiers, prisoners, slaves, migrant workers, and yes, transients, from Africa to the Caribbean to Central and South America.

Contrary to what many newspaper reports imply, homeless people gathering in places where there is easy access to weed isn't exactly noteworthy phenomenon. Rather, it is a fundamental part of cannabis's relationship with modern societies. Headlines such as "legal marijuana drawing homeless to Colorado" are pretty much saying the same thing as "homeless people drawn to local food bank." It's just...not news.

Yet the enduring stigma of marijuana use, combined with its long and well-documented history among the poor, ensures that such headlines will bring newspapers a ton of clicks and other attention, which they hope to convert to revenue. Far from helping readers understand the homeless, those clickbait headlines only promote a tired and unfair stereotype of homeless people as lazy drifters who pollute communities with drug use.

Responsible news outlets should continue to portray homelessness as a multi-faceted problem that has as much to do with draws like weather and legal weed as it does with affordable housing crises, access to mental health services, and home and job loss. The homeless themselves, meanwhile, should never be reduced in print to empty-headed drugseekers--after all, they are simply fellow humans in need, and all of us are one spell of bad luck away from joining them on the streets.

Oh, and the CSU-Pueblo researchers should feel free to ignore their police chief and go on with their studies, which so far have suggested that marijuana legalization is one of the most economically sound policies any municipality can enact.

Sources for this post: Zachary Falck, Weeds: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010), pp. 76-89; Martin A. Lee, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana--Medical, Recreational, Scientific (New York: Scribner, 2012), pp. 44-46.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Podcast Appearance and/or Shameless Plug: Edge Effects

A couple weeks ago I had a fun conversation with Humboldt State University ecologist Tim Bean for Edge Effects, an online magazine produced by grad students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The home of the Badgers is also the home of one of my favorite historians, Bill Cronon, so I jumped at the chance to be affiliated with anything in Madison. Tim's a great interviewer, and we touched on a variety of subjects, from cannabis's place in the "vernacular landscape" to the class-based nature of marijuana stigmas and the singularity of the cannabis plant.

Many thanks to Tim and the Edge Effects staff for inviting me on and putting this out. Listen to the full interview here. Below are some choice excerpts:

Edge Effects

TB: You discovered a striking spatial overlap between beet farming in the early 20th century and cannabis busts.

NJ: I stumbled upon that completely by accident. I just wanted to find out where people were growing cannabis. The more newspaper reports I found, the more a trend emerged: it was sugar beet workers in sugar beet fields. And then when I started plotting them on Google Maps, I pulled up the Census map of sugar beet farms and there ended up being this beautiful overlay.

TB: What does that tell us about who was growing and using cannabis at that time?

NJ: It’s another chapter in the global history of cannabis traveling the world by attaching itself to laboring underclasses, as Chris Duvall put it in his wonderful book Cannabis (Reaktion Books, 2014). Mexicans had fled the Mexican Revolution and the dictatorship that preceded it. At the same time, there was a massive expansion of irrigation infrastructure in the American West, so a huge agricultural industry was just getting going and needed a huge labor force. The Spanish-American War had cut off the supply of foreign sugar and American farmers started to figure out how to grow and process the sugar beet. It became the number-one cash crop in West. The Mexican-American population had experience with it, so they took over the stoop labor of farming beets.

Cultivating sugar beets is very, very hard on the body. A small segment of these workers had knowledge of cannabis from their homeland as a remedial or recreational substance. So they just planted it and sold it to each other. Some of them used it to ease the pain from a day’s worth of labor. Some of them used it to take their minds off of the work. Others used it recreationally.
The money was a big part of it; selling to your fellow beet workers could supplement some of the meager wages you got out on the fields. Starting in the 1920s, selling it to the broader American pubic became a lucrative market. By the 1940s, some of these workers are raking in tens of thousands of dollars. It’s an opportunity they would not have had anywhere else in American society.

TB: You set out to write the history of cannabis as a crop. What makes cannabis similar to other crops in the West? What makes it different?

NJ: In terms of physical requirements, it’s very similar to corn. It’ll just take as much water and nutrients as you want to throw at it. But if we’re going to look at the water requirements of a pot plant—which is a hot topic now—we have to compare it to other crops. It ranks somewhere between lettuce and peaches. You have all of these articles saying oh my gosh, cannabis plants are using all of this water! Six gallons a day! Did anybody writing these stories think about how other crops are using water? I wanted to write this book to put cannabis back in this agricultural context, which should be the starting point for all regulations.

But it really is a singular crop. The versatility of the plant is what has ensured its millennia-old relationship with humans. It has the widest geographic range of any crop. It really has conquered the world, all owing to its versatility and its cryptic nature, which allows us to keep peeling back the layers to discover new uses for it over time. Cannabis fits the human niche.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Greener Mountain State: Vermont makes history as legal cannabis sweeps Northeast

Vermont lawmakers sent a marijuana legalization bill to their governor yesterday, making them the first state legislature to pass such a bill in the history of the United States. And unlike its New England neighbors New Hampshire and Maine, Vermont has a supportive governor who intends to sign the bill.

If you're keeping score at home, marijuana is now completely legal in 8 states, while a new governor in New Jersey has the Garden State ready to become no. 9. Vermont's new law underscores the futility of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recent removal of federal protections for states that legalize marijuana.

Vermont is the latest state to go dark green.
Dark Green = legal rec weed
Solid green = medical marijuana
Olive = limited medical cannabis
Gray = no legal cannabis
D = decriminalized

Vermont, which debuted a medical marijuana program in 2013, is the only state to legalize cannabis without a ballot measure. Yet its legalization-by-legislature differs from other states in another important way: it does not set up a retail industry for cannabis, but instead allows adults over the age of 21 to cultivate up to 2 flowering plants and possess up to 1 ounce. This watered-down version of legalization may seem like a good idea to state lawmakers who were hesitant to embrace a full-blown retail market, but it will eventually cause problems that will likely result in the law being amended or even replaced.

For instance, where will Vermonters get their cannabis? It's unrealistic to expect every consumer in the state to grow their own, especially when residents spent $125-$225 million on black-market weed in 2014. The black market will certainly continue to thrive under the incomplete law. This will no doubt draw the ire of state law enforcement and prohibitionists in neighboring states. If you want a look at what happens when you combine lenient pot policy with minimal regulations on supply, see California 1996-2016. Spoiler alert: it did not go well. The lesson should be clear: passing a legalization bill without putting much thought into the supply side is at best half-baked policy, and at worst a catastrophe for law enforcement and the environment.

Regional developments could also force a change in Vermont's law. Seems like the only thing stopping New Hampshire from legalizing is the executive branch, and should the state get a new governor in 2018, the new green revolution could roll through the Granite State. Vermont's medical outlets would then have to compete with a retail market just over the border. A similar situation is playing out in Rhode Island, where medical dispensaries are now considering delivery services to compete with widespread availability in newly legal Massachusetts. Last year, lawmakers in Providence formed a committee to study best practices of legalization in Colorado and other states. Meanwhile, Connecticut lawmakers introduced four bills to legalize cannabis in the last year, and have vowed to keep pushing despite the failure of all four.

Coupled with Maine and Massachusetts' votes to legalize in the 2016 election, bills to legalize marijuana in Vermont,  Rhode Island and Connecticut reflect a shift of the marijuana policy frontier from the American West (1996-2014) to the Northeast (2016- ). Having conquered the West Coast and scored major victories in the Mountain West, marijuana activists are now setting their sites on the most densely populated region in the country: a cluster of Progressive northeast states, arranged as the next set of prohibitionist dominoes. The big prize is New York, which will be under heavy pressure should New Jersey legalize. We also can't forget efforts in the Rust Belt, where Chicago already has medical dispensaries and activists in Michigan are close to getting a legalization measure on the ballot this November.

All this movement on the marijuana front is an embarrassment for the White House and Attorney General Sessions, who continues to ignore the bipartisan nature of cannabis law reform. If you want to gauge how politically safe a policy is, cowardly lawmakers are good barometers. As a member of the Trump Administration, when renowned public-dodgers like Cory Gardner (R-CO) crawl out of their office fortresses and pound on a Senate podium in opposition to your policy, the political winds have changed. Locally-sanctioned cannabis is poised to continue its march through the United States, despite or in spite of the federal government's stance. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Leonard Leinow & Juliana Birnbaum, "CBD: A Patient's Guide to Medicinal Cannabis" (2017)

Over the past five years, I've spent a lot of time talking to people about pot. Seems that no matter where I go, who I'm speaking to, or how the subject is brought up, the conversation inevitably turns to the healing power of the cannabis plant.

This past Saturday was no different. I was in Colorado Springs doing a book signing at The Bookman, a small used bookstore on the city's west side. Not many people came into the store while I was there, but of the eight or nine people I met that evening, about half of them saw my book and immediately opened up about their experiences with medical cannabis. One particularly moving story came from a middle-aged man with painfully gnarled hands that marked an extreme case of rheumatoid arthritis. Thanks to cannabis treatments, he was able to cut up a pineapple by himself last week - something he could not do for years, even though he'd been taking prescription medication.

Impressed - though not surprised - by his story, I told the man about a book I was about to review for this site: Leonard Leinow and Juliana Birnbaum's CBD: A Patient's Guide to Medicinal Cannabis (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2017). Leinow is a globe-traveling cannabis guru who founded the medical cannabis company Synergy Wellness in 2008; Birnbaum is an anthropologist, writer, and trained midwife who started working for Leinow's dispensary in 2015. 

The book's title is the shortened name of cannabidiol (can-ah-bid-DIE-all), one of dozens of cannabinoids - compounds unique to cannabis plants. At Synergy, the authors "get calls every day, from patients looking for instructions and advice on CBD to care for themselves, their children, or their pets" (p. xxiv). With so many people curious about cannabis therapy, and with so little information available to doctors and other medical professionals, Leinow and Birnbaum decided to put many of the answers to these daily calls into a book.

Packed with up-to-date, scientifically verified information on the medical applications of cannabis, CBD: A Patient's Guide targets those who are considering cannabis treatment but aren't sure where to begin. It contains answers to a variety of FAQ's, such as "What kind of treatments are available?" "Does one have to get high in order for cannabis to help?" and "How do different varieties of cannabis treat different afflictions?"

The book is designed to be used in chunks, depending on what the reader wants to know. Those who want a brief overview on cannabis before delving into its various functions can turn to chapters on the plant's medical history and ethnobotany; those interested in the plant's chemistry can consult sections on specific cannabinoids and terpenes; those looking for advice on how to treat a specific condition can turn to the alphabetized list of health issues (there's even a section on cannabis medicines for your pet). In what will likely be one of the book's most popular sections, Leinow and Birnbaum include an alphabetized and annotated list of high-CBD cannabis varieties. This sectional structure makes the book easily accessible to readers with different needs, interests, and knowledge levels.

CBD: A Patient's Guide to Medicinal Cannabis includes an annotated list of high-CBD strains.
Although it may seem to consist of standalone chapters, the book's structure actually mirrors its broader theme. "Synergy" refers to the different parts of a system interacting to produce something greater than the sum of the parts. The concept is central to the authors' philosophy on cannabis treatments. "The focus of medical treatment," they argue, "needs to be that of achieving the right dose of a balanced spectrum of cannabinoids tailored to the particular condition" (p. 23).

This holistic approach is one of the most attractive arguments in the book, because it acknowledges and validates what the pharmaceutical industry can't seem to grasp: that the chemical diversity of medicinal plants - as opposed to a single compound - often holds the key to more effective medicine.  Pharmaceutical companies compete to patent the latest wonder drug, but you can't patent a plant (unless you invent it), which is part of the reason why Big Pharma has remained opposed to lifting restrictions on cannabis. It's also part of the reason why mainstream medicine has paid little attention to the medicinal value of the entire cannabis plant.

For its section on cannabis history, the CBD book leans heavily on Martin A. Lee's Smoke Signals (which I've also reviewed on this blog), even including a lengthy passage from Lee's section on Harry Anslinger. While Lee's book isn't necessarily objective history, it's still mostly accurate, so readers won't be led astray in that section of CBD

Overall, Leinow and Birnbaum have produced a comprehensive, informative volume with very few shortcomings. The book is almost guaranteed to be a hit among the cannabis-consuming public, the alternative medicine community, and for journalists and other researchers who want the most up-to-date information on the plant's medical potential. CBD's reliability cannot be contested; it includes nearly 500 endnotes, most of which reference peer-reviewed articles, and the authors write that updates will be posted on the book's official website, cbd-book.com

Leonard Leinow, Juliana Birnbaum, and the dozens of medical professionals, researchers, and scientists who collaborated on CBD: A Patient's Guide have truly done society a favor: they've given us an honest, accessible, and highly applicable reference work on one of the world's most complex and medically valuable plants.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Modern Day Reefer Madness: On Halloween, Edibles are Coming for Your Children

Edibles sure put the "trick" in Trick-Or-Treat!

Seems like every October, we in the rational corner of society (an increasingly smaller and smaller space) have to endure the breathless warnings of police departments all over the country about malevolent stoners doling out marijuana edibles to innocent children on Halloween.

Local news stations are the primary mouthpieces for these hysterical warnings. This is not surprising, because local news is a shameless clickbait hole of shootings, stabbings, missing white children, and anything else that induces widespread paranoia. 

Real news outlets staffed by real journalists recognize that the idea of cannabis consumers giving away their stash for free to initiate a prank they will never see A) makes zero sense, and B) reflects an incredibly cynical and sinister stereotype of cannabis users.

America's police departments are apparently not beyond the nineteenth-century concept of the "Dope Fiend" lurking in the shadows, preying on schoolchildren, motivated by nothing except their inherent depravity.

The current state of American law enforcement - to say nothing of American journalism - is more frightening than most Halloween costumes. 

Have a Happy Halloween everyone! And remember, as always, that stoners are vicious people who want to hurt your children by giving them non-lethal treats!

The Hempiricist on Public Radio

Had a great time yesterday morning talking cannabis history with Geoff Riley on southern Oregon's Jefferson Public Radio! We discussed some of the problems inherent in researching cannabis, as well as the biology and botany of the plant and how the fraught terminology surrounding cannabis endures to the present. Listen to the full interview here!