Monday, October 16, 2017

New essay: "Marijuana on Public Lands: A Short History"

Credit: Gretel Daugherty, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel)

This morning Colorado State University's Public Lands History Center published my essay, "Marijuana on Public Lands: A Short History," on its blog. The PLHC is a research institution that uses history to help tackle current problems affecting America's public lands.

Read my post, and while you're there, check out what else the center is digging into!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Missouri cops not the first officers to think hemp was MJ

A few weeks ago, a group of Missouri police officers were so proud of the marijuana motherlode they found that they posed for a quick Facebook pic:



"What a great team effort today," a statement from the Jasper Police Department read, "It was hot and humid and not easy getting those plants."

"Yessir WE GAVE THOSE STALKY BASTARDS HELL TODAY!"  

The statement claimed the "marijuana" plants had a street value of $100,000. Only one problem: those plants are most likely hemp. The Jasper police chief later took down the post, but the internet's legions had already inundated it with angry and corrective comments. Apparently, some of the officers even received threats (side note: this is the second time in the past week I've read about cannabis activists issuing threats - aren't they supposed to be chill?).

The chief later said that his officers found the pot as part of an ongoing investigation into a meth operation, and that he personally did not think marijuana use was a problem.

In further fairness to the Jasper Police, they are far from the only American authorities to have mistaken hemp for marijuana. It happened all the time after the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which excluded hemp in theory but not in practice. Just a year after the law was passed, authorities in Montana burned up a fiber company's whole crop of hemp, forcing the mayor of Red Lodge, Montana to denounce the whole episode as a "big mistake":


Later, police in southern California pulled up hemp plants from people's yards almost daily during the 1950s, and sometimes posed for photos just like the Missouri cops above:



There's so much to love about this photo, taken from the Long Beach Independent in October 1954, from the bewildered expressions on the cops' faces ("GOLLY GEE, WOULD YA LOOK AT THE SIZE'A THAT, LLOYD???") to the article's tinge of mundane suburban drama (my neighbors won't "pooh-hoo" me anymore!). 

Photos and stories like this were extremely common after the Tax Act, as hempseed - a major ingredient in birdseed - was spread across the American landscape by animals and the wind. Though the government required all hempseed to be sterilized - lest it sprout into the evil nemesis marijuana - it's clear that not all of it was.

That, or there was some epic "life-finds-a-way" thing happening. Either way, stories of mistaken marijuana identity are reminders of both nature's role in thwarting prohibition and of the cryptic nature of cannabis, a plant that to this day confounds and surprises us.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Feud between Oregon pot farmer, neighbors shows (more) growing pains of legalization

The New York Times has an excellent feature story about a pot grower in Oregon who tried to realize his dream of a country ganja farm but was stymied by skeptical neighbors.

Last year, 33-year-old Richard Wagner and his parents bought 6.7 acres of land in the Willamette Valley town of McMinnville. McMinnville is in Yamhill County, where voters were about evenly split on the legalization of recreational marijuana in 2014. Wagner started legally growing organic marijuana on the farm and got approval to build a marijuana processing facility. That's when his neighbors turned against him, per the article:

"He was sued. The neighbors also asked for a temporary restraining order to stop him from using a shared road to haul his products to market. When Mr. Wagner made a case for his processing facility at a county commission meeting in April, he was outnumbered by critics: 14 to 1."

One of Wagner's most outspoken critics is a winemaker who got nervous about processing facilities when he read stories about butane explosions on the internet. Two other neighbors were "uncomfortable" when Wagner visited them to let him know about his new business; one of them said he was concerned about property values. The complaints about the road are strange; the winemaker cited traffic concerns, but since he likely wouldn't complain if the road was being used to ship more of his wine, it's pretty obvious that these concerns stem from the fact that Wagner is growing and processing weed.

After news outlets picked up the story of the McMinnville pot feud, Wagner's neighbors began receiving angry and threatening phone calls. Predictably, that only made the winemaker and other neighbors more committed in their opposition to Wagner's farm.

As is predictable when it comes to pot, there's a lot of misunderstanding going on here. On the one hand, the neighbors are clearly overreacting about the impacts of Wagner's farm, and they don't seem willing to understand and accept his crop of choice. On the other hand, the cannabis activists (cannactivists?) who made threatening phone calls were clearly out of line and made no attempt to understand the neighbors' concerns. For his part, Wagner did send friendly postcards and made visits to his neighbors to let them know what he was doing; however, the fact that he was coldly received and met with opposition does not automatically mean his neighbors are terrible people who deserve threats.

Counties in red, most of them rural, voted against legal MJ in 2014.
All it signals to me is that it's going to take time for Wagner and his neighbors to understand one another, which is to say that it's going to take time for marijuana to integrate into mainstream agriculture. Many people in rural America are still opposed to marijuana - most rural counties in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado voted against their states' legalization measures - so cannabis activists should not expect farmers in these states to welcome marijuana farms with open arms.

Cannabis activists need to recognize that just because they are turning the tide of public opinion, that does not give them a pass on trying to understand people's concerns about this new industry. Legitimate concerns - say, about an industry that is to-date cash only, or about chemical seepage or butane explosions - should be addressed positively and respectfully. Activists also need to know how to pick their battles. A dispute between farmers - however bitter it gets - is no call to crusade, especially since Wagner has not been banned from growing pot. The trick is to find common ground - a shared passion for agriculture, for example, or a shared concern for tight regulations on chemicals and other aspects of pot farming.

And on the other side, American farmers who don't support marijuana - especially in legal states like Oregon - are going to have to learn more about the industry and more carefully examine their prejudices. Having a pot grower as a neighbor is not nearly as bad as some make it out to be, especially in the open air of the country. If you don't want to grow or smoke weed, then don't, but don't trample on other people's lives or dreams just because you disapprove of what they do for a living (and stop complaining about the smell. How awful do most American farms smell? Everyone on the highway smells your farm's cow and horse poop - some of us every day; we  say "eww" and move on with our lives.)

The story of Richard Wagner is important because it is likely going to repeat itself in many states that have legalized marijuana, as cannabis farmers try to blend in with mainstream agriculture and with the farmers next door who have yet to warm up to the nation's largest cash crop.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Wild West of Weed: The "Green Rush" and Western American History

The "Rush" is a common theme in Western American lore: gold seekers rush to places of new discovery; settlers rush west to set up farms and "civilize" the landscape; railroads rush west to connect the country and bring riches of the frontier back to eastern markets; and today, those wishing to cash in on marijuana join a "Green Rush" to the western states that have legalized it. In typical stories about the American West, individuals travel to a new land and brave difficulty and ruin in an attempt to make their lives better.
What was the federal government's role in creating 
the "Green Rush"?

But what is often lost in romantic stories of Western individualism is how much help those "pioneers" had. In many cases, it was a powerful federal government - not gritty individuals prevailing over immense odds - that played the most important role in the historical rushes of the West. The California Gold Rush (1848) could only happen after federal troops killed enough Mexicans to acquire California, then looked the other way as white Californians slaughtered and enslaved indigenous people. Later, those much-adored, rough-and-tumble homesteaders could only rush to their western land after federal homestead acts and more Indian killing. Railroads extended westward not by the grace of corporate visionaries but by the lure of federal land grants - which, again, were based on the extermination of Indians and their claims to said land.

Similarly, federal policy is largely responsible for today's "Green Rush" - albeit in more indirect ways. And just like in past rushes, federal policy has helped ensure that the benefits of the Green Rush are disproportionately distributed to white Americans at the expense of Latinos and other nonwhites.

Prohibition Makes Weed Wild

Federal cannabis prohibition - in place since 1937 - resulted in a number of negative effects that eventually convinced voters in several western states to legalize marijuana within their borders, beginning with California's adoption of medical marijuana in 1996 and continuing through the present legalization of general adult use in several western states. This alone made states such as California and Colorado magnets for those who wanted to profit from or enjoy legal marijuana.

But legal weed is only one part of the Green Rush. Ongoing federal prohibition elsewhere has kept black-market marijuana prices high (up to $1,800 per ounce), encouraging a rush of outlaw growers to states where marijuana is legal. These growers hope to produce and sell black-market weed under the cover of legalization - a phenomenon known as the "gray market." Some examples of what's been happening:

In southern Oregon, the understaffed Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement (MADGE) has no idea which grows are legal and which ones aren't, and can't figure out whether some of the illegal ones can be traced to Mexican cartels or other DTOs ("drug trafficking organizations").

Last month in California, Butte County sheriff's deputies shot and killed an armed, illegal marijuana grower after the suspect threatened to kill a hostage. The outlaw growing culture in the Golden State, with all its unexpected and sometimes violent elements, is well documented.

Yesterday in Neah Bay, Washington, Makah Tribe authorities found a marijuana crop they believe was laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is stronger than heroin; meanwhile, about 7.5 percent of weed grown legally in Washington leaves the state to be sold on the black market (it was 12 percent before neighboring Oregon legalized in 2014).
One of the 9,200 illegal MJ plants seized near Grand Junction,
CO this August (Credit: Gretel Daugherty, Grand Junction
Daily Sentinel
)

Earlier this year, police uncovered a massive home-grow operation in Denver that spanned the entire metro area and sent marijuana to Illinois, Arkansas, Minnesota, and Missouri; sixteen people were indicted. And a few weeks ago, authorities in western Colorado found 9,200 cannabis plants illegally growing on an island in the Colorado River near Grand Junction.

Clearly, the rush of outlaw growers to Oregon, California, Washington, and Colorado has overwhelmed local authorities, creating a patchwork of legal and illegal marijuana crops that threatens to undermine the progressive aims of states that embraced an alternative to the Drug War. It truly is the Wild West of Weed, and with Nevada's recreational marijuana program still in its early stages, it may only get wilder.

Race in the Green Rush


Outlaw growing is hardly the only consequence of the federally driven Green Rush. The legal marijuana industry in the West is leaving out Latinos, blacks, and American Indians - all communities that were victimized by past western rushes. Again, federal policy is mostly to blame: although blacks, whites, and Latinos use marijuana at similar rates, the enforcement of federal prohibition fell disproportionately on minority communities, resulting in inflated incarceration rates for black and brown Americans. Combined with racial disparities in wealth, education, and housing, this meant that blacks and Latinos were in a far worse position than whites to capitalize on the marijuana industry when it became legal.

The results? Most owners of legal marijuana dispensaries are white men; in California and Colorado, blacks and Latinos are still being arrested for marijuana offenses at a higher rate than whites.


Meanwhile, despite dealing with crippling poverty, many American Indian Tribes are choosing to stay out of the new industry out of fear of federal retribution. White Westerners do not have to weigh such options and are free to reap the rewards of legal weed.

Of course, there are some critical differences between the exclusion of minorities in today's Green Rush and the rushes of the past. Today's racially imbalanced weed industry is more the result of decades of institutional racism and the disproportionate Drug Wars than it is intentional exclusion by marijuana business owners. During the California Gold Rush, blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, and other minority gold seekers were not as fortunate; whites barred them from their share of the wealth by taxing them unfairly, passing fugitive slave laws, or running them off of promising claims. Still, the racial disparity of the Green Rush makes the point that the benefits of the great rushes of the West are still for whites only.

Lessons from the Past

The major role of the federal government in the various western rushes complicates the traditional narrative that enterprising easterners traveled west, overcame a slew of setbacks and obstacles, and capitalized on nature's bounty - whether it be gold, land, or weed - largely due to their own effort.

More importantly, though, it reminds us that if the federal government helped cause the problems vexing legal marijuana in the West today - such as racial disparity and outlaw cultivation - then it must also be involved in the solution of those problems. Politicians and other authorities in states that have taken the progressive step of legalizing marijuana must realize this and intensify calls for the federal government to legalize and regulate marijuana nationwide. Only then can we truly tame the Wild West of Weed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"What about the black market?"


One of the main criticisms of states that have legalized marijuana is that they aren't doing enough to stamp out the black market. The feds have made the argument, as have anti-pot organizations, as have finger-wagging "policy experts" who make other bizarre, baseless arguments such as "we would all be better off if marijuana did not exist." (Side note: What would Jonathan Caulkins have to write about if MJ did not exist? Maybe he'd find something else to be a superb curmudgeon about?)

The problem with the "what about the black market?" argument is essentially the same problem found in most prohibitionist arguments - it ignores inconvenient yet important facts. The most important fact lost on those who complain about black-market pot in legal states is that cannabis prohibition sustains high marijuana prices. The most effective way to end the underground cannabis trade - and all the negative effects of that trade - is to legalize and regulate it nationally. This will bring down the price, which is the backbone of the black market.

Will there still be a black market? Of course, because some people need money and other people like weed, and no amount of arrests or cops or laws will change that. But lower prices brought down black-market booze after the repeal of alcohol prohibition; they will do the same for underground weed. As part of legalization, state and federal taxes on legal marijuana must be low enough to discourage black-market activity but high enough to cover the costs of regulation, such as grow site inspections or DWI training and equipment, public education campaigns, and other associated functions. One does not need a graduate degree in economics to understand this.

Regulating a legal marijuana market is a complicated endeavor with plenty of pitfalls. There's no denying that. But at this point, the decision to legalize shouldn't really be questioned. Fewer people are going to jail for weed. States use marijuana taxes to fund drug treatment programs, marijuana education campaigns, and marijuana research. People who use cannabis medicinally aren't hassled, and their products are regulated and inspected, just like other medication. Thanks to legalization, more accurate data is being collected on drugged driving - data that will be used to help reduce its frequency and educate people about the risks of driving high.

If law enforcement and other authorities spent as much time arguing for national legalization as they did wringing their hands about interstate trafficking and an "exploding black market," perhaps many of the problems they complain about would gradually disappear.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Massachusetts sets sights on green weed

He doesn't grow pot, but Sam Milton wants Massachusetts weed to be the greenest.

With recreational marijuana markets set to open in the Bay State next year, Milton's recent startup, Climate Resources Group (CRG), is one of the only local consulting firms to count  sustainable cannabis cultivation among its list of green targets.

Environmental policy expert
Sam Milton wants green weed for 
Massachusetts.
"The overarching driver in my work is to really help reduce the impact on our natural environment from the things we do and the way we consume and produce," Milton said. And while the consumption of marijuana often gets the most press, it's the production of arguably the nation's most popular non-food crop that currently presents an environmental problem. But after his state voted to legalize last fall, Milton said that environmental concerns were largely ignored in Massachusetts, just as they were in Colorado in 2012.

"All of the conversation around what the law should look like was around public safety, public health, marketing, and [there was] very little focus on the environmental and energy implications of [legalization]," Milton said.

Fortunately for Milton, he does business in a state that is no stranger to tackling environmental issues. When Massachusetts passed the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008, it became one of the first states to form a comprehensive plan to curb global warming by reducing its carbon emissions. The act required the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below its 1990 levels by 2050.

Massachusetts has since made steady progress in that endeavor. Boston is home to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which opened in 2009, and as of 2014 the state ranked 32nd of 50 states in carbon dioxide emissions. Two weeks ago, Massachusetts renewed its commitment to clean energy by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a regional cap-and-trade agreement that is proven to reduce both carbon emissions and energy costs for member states.

Last fall, 54 percent of Massachusetts voters approved Question 4, and the state joined Maine (which also approved legal marijuana that same night) as the first two states on the eastern seaboard to fully legalize  marijuana.* One of the many challenges now facing Bay State regulators is how to bring the state's robust commitment to sustainability to the cannabis industry.

State legislators began working on that in July, when they approved an implementation bill that called for the establishment of "energy and environmental standards" for the cannabis industry. Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill into law on July 28.

Getting growers to adhere to the new standards could be tricky, though. Most of the state's medical pot is still grown indoors, using energy-guzzling techniques pioneered and perfected during the days of prohibition. Some of the state's medical producers, such as the giant, Denver-based AmeriCann, are already investing in sustainable, state-of-the-art grow facilities, but other growers will need help adapting to new standards.

Milton, who holds a master's degree in law and diplomacy and has plenty of experience in environmental policy, is ready to help both new and existing growers transition to sustainable agriculture.

"As I get into the cannabis space, I realize that not everyone is driven by environmental concerns," Milton said. "The way I'm approaching my work is helping people figure out ways to reduce their costs, particularly around water and energy use."

And unlike in the West's legal marijuana states, the growers Milton helps in Massachusetts might be traditional farmers. The implementation bill calls for "provisions for the benefit of farmers and craft marijuana cultivators."

Those provisions would allow the Bay State's smaller farmers to get in on a booming new business. For example, Milton's local provider for Massachusetts' Community Sponsored Agriculture program recently approached him saying she was seriously looking into growing marijuana.

"She's not a smoker; she's a grandma," he said. "But her daughter is the one driving this and they're thinking about how can they do this and how can they do it right."

Ted Dobson is one of many Massachusetts farmers who would
welcome marijuana in their fields. 
(Credit: Joanna Chattman, Boston Globe)
Should they add legal marijuana to their traditional crop portfolios, Massachusetts farmers would not be the first American farmers to do so; there was a time when the federal government actually published pot-growing instructions. Beginning in 1915, when drug cannabis was still legally distributed as a medicine, the US Department of Agriculture published cultivation instructions for "cannabis indica" (marijuana) in Farmers' Bulletin, a series of instructional pamphlets directed at everyday farmers.

Milton believes that the potential marriage of cannabis and sustainable, small-scale farming would be a perfect match.

"Traditional small farmers, they have a respect for the land, and they want to [farm] in a way that's sustainable," he said. "I want to be at the forefront of sharing that knowledge with people. I want to make sure that the way the [cannabis] crop is grown in New England is among the greenest."

--

*Washington, D.C. approved a recreational initiative in 2014, but Congress has thus far blocked the setup of markets.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Update: Data on MJ-related traffic deaths in Colorado

Yesterday I wrote this piece condemning the Department of Justice for citing the skewed reporting of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) in its attempt to de-legitimize legal marijuana programs in several states. Among the conclusions presented in the HIDTA report was that legal marijuana directly led to an increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities in Colorado. A report by the Northwest HIDTA drew similar conclusions for Washington state.

As I explained yesterday, the data in the HIDTA reports may come from legitimate sources, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but it is intentionally presented and analyzed in a way that makes legalization seem like an apocalyptic scenario, which it just plain isn't. Claims such as rising rates of teenage use aren't backed up by other, less problematic studies, such as the Colorado Healthy Kids Survey. Rising rates of ER visits related to marijuana aren't so much evidence for pot harming society as they are for people recklessly or accidentally over-consuming a non-lethal substance. In its reporting, HIDTA clearly only included data from categories that it knew would show negative trends, so again, the group's reports are not the most honest lens through which to view the effects of legalization.
Coloradans, let's not drive high, mmk?

That said, today The Denver Post's Cannabist section published an excellent analysis of state and NHTSA data that confirms RMHIDTA's claim that marijuana-related traffic fatalities have increased in Colorado since legalization. I encourage anyone reading this to go read that article; reporter David Migoya and the rest of the Cannabist staff did a lot of solid, painstaking work to put the data in context, clarify important methods and terms, and present the information in a way that allows the reader to draw reasoned conclusions instead of making a knee-jerk judgment.

Though it reached a similar conclusion, the Cannabist's reporting is in direct contrast with that of HIDTA; data on drugged driving is fraught for a number of reasons (again, go read the article!), but the Cannabist staff made every attempt to clarify and contextualize it. HIDTA, on the other hand, simply presented the data as uncomplicated, speak-for-themselves numbers in order to support its rigid ideology that drugs are bad and we shouldn't be legalizing them. There is far more value in the former method than in the latter, not the least of which being that people are more likely to trust, and therefore act on, conclusions reached by methods like the Post's.

There are two big takeaways from today's Denver Post report: 1) the best evidence so far shows that marijuana-related traffic fatalities are indeed rising in Colorado, and 2) in contrast to what HIDTA implies in its own report on the same data, the context provided in the Post shows that this trend alone is hardly an indication that legalization is failing or has failed.

What the Post report says to me - and I would guess to most rational observers - is that the state and the cannabis industry need to do a much better job at educating consumers and the public about the risks of drugged driving, and law enforcement needs to nail down a reliable way to test for marijuana impairment -  and guess what? The Cannabist has a great article on that, too!

Have a great weekend, everyone - stay safe, and don't drive high!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

"Alternative Facts" nothing new in the cannabis policy arena

It is no secret that the Trump Administration has made a habit of lowering the standard for basically everything the national discourse. This began back in January with Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway's now-famous remark that the president was simply presenting "alternative facts" to defend his gleefully incorrect boasting about the size of his inauguration crowd.

The truth, of course, is that the US government has long been a purveyor of "Alternative Facts," no matter who was in the White House. This is especially true in the realm of drug policy. One of the more obvious instances is the DEA's constant, unequivocal declaration that marijuana is not medicine, despite a plethora of studies and anecdotal evidence to the contrary. In past decades, when public support for marijuana law reform was relatively weak, prohibitionists could offer misinformed and patently false claims about cannabis without any major scrutiny. They could also rely on the weight of federal authority to lend credence to their misinformation.

That has all changed now. Well over half of the American public supports marijuana legalization, and several states' experiments with legal pot markets have only caused the plant's poll numbers to rise (the reasons for this are numerous and are probably fodder for another post). Those who support legalizing and regulating cannabis have gotten better at forming evidence-based arguments, and so far, the facts are on their side: science is finally getting around to confirming marijuana's medical usefulness and states that have legalized have largely succeeded in keeping many of pot opponents' worst fears from materializing.

Sessions DOJ doubles down on dubious MJ report.
But true to its past, and especially to its present, the federal government is again demonstrating its belief that its own information matters more than, well, actual information. This time it is in the context of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions's correspondence with governors of four weed-friendly states - Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska - regarding the effectiveness of their legalization programs.

In April the four governors sent a letter to Sessions asking that the feds touch base with their administrations before engaging in any major marijuana enforcement activities. In July Sessions responded to the governors with a letter that questioned the effectiveness of their programs, liberally citing data from a recent report by the Northwest and Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs). Among other things, the reports allegedly document legalization-related increases in teenage marijuana use, black-market diversion, and higher rates of marijuana-induced vehicle crashes. (In case you're wondering, HIDTAs are hybrid federal-state drug enforcement organizations that serve under the National Office of Drug Control Policy. They date to the Reagan era - these agencies are not and have never been interested in any kind of drug policy reform).

The problem with the HIDTA reports - as with many other federal reports on marijuana trends - is that they are inaccurate. As they did with a previous HIDTA report, astute observers immediately published critiques that punched holes in the studies' most ominous claims. And on Wednesday a group of Washington state lawmakers (both Dems and Repubs) sent a letter to Sessions disputing every statistical claim made by the US Attorney General in his July letter.

Predictably, a Justice Department official responded to the lawmakers' letter with an email saying that  an "updated HIDTA report" confirms the original report's documentation of "troubling developments" in states with legal weed. True to form, in response to legitimate critiques of its primary data source, the DOJ did not offer other, perhaps more legitimate sources, but merely doubled down on the "updated" version of the same source. Our information is better than yours, still better than yours.

Props to the Washington lawmakers for calling out the skewed HIDTA report and the Justice Department's unquestioning acceptance of it. At the administrative level, the war on drugs has always been an information war. While they may be a relatively new foe for the country at large, purveyors of "Alternative Facts" have been laying siege to the truth about US drug policy for decades.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Feds Issue $3.8 Million for Medical Marijuana Study - Wait, Really?

As I've said before on this blog, good news is rare these days - and it's even rarer after the violent, hate-filled weekend that we're all struggling to recover from - so I'm quick to jump on a good story when I see it.

Today's good news: The federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved a five-year, $3.8 million study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine to see whether marijuana can reduce opioid use for adults dealing with chronic pain.

The Einstein College's MMJ study - will its results be taken seriously?
This is surprising on a couple different levels. First, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, meaning that the feds consider it to have "no currently accepted medical use." That categorization alone has made it difficult for medical researchers to conduct trials on the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine. The DEA, which enforces the Controlled Substances Act and maintains a hardline stance against medical marijuana, has a huge impact on the kinds of drug studies the NIH can approve. So it is kind of amazing to see historically and rigidly anti-pot federal agencies serve up a ton of money to a study that may end up contradicting their own assertions. Second, Jeff Sessions, a decidedly anti-pot figure, is head of the Justice Department, which oversees the DEA, so on many levels you'd think that there would be no chance in hell for research like this to receive federal support.

Perhaps the Sessions team was too distracted with other things (the AG's mini-feud with our egomaniac-in-chief?) to notice this funding and put a stop to it; or perhaps he has taken the amazingly pragmatic view that any kind of research that may help solve the nation's awful opioid addiction problem is worth funding. Also - and I know this is going to sound crazy - Sessions may not be as anti-pot as his past words and actions have indicated. After all, he is AG in 2017, not 1977, and with all these states setting up legal markets in defiance of federal law, he kind of has to play nice. Sessions's recent correspondence with the governors of Colorado, Washington, and other weed-friendly states suggests he's more into monitoring what's going on there instead of marching in the Drug War shock troops.

But there could be yet another angle to the approval of this MMJ research funding. The federal government has approved large-scale studies on marijuana before - for the sole purpose of concocting data to back up its assertion that marijuana is a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad substance. These included the La Guardia Report (1945), the Shafer Commission (1972), and a comprehensive report by the National Academy of Sciences (1982). The problem was, all of these studies came to the conclusion that pot really wasn't all that bad, and warranted both more medical research and a softer policy approach. The results of these studies were politically inconvenient for drug warriors like Harry Anslinger, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, so they were never addressed. 

So is this new NIH funding an honest attempt by the federal government to understand medical marijuana's' potential to help one of the worst medical crises our nation has faced in years? Or is it another attempt to use slanted "scientific research" to confirm what the DEA keeps saying about medical marijuana? The study's abstract suggests it will be legit, but who knows what caveats the Einstein College had to agree to in order to secure the funding. 

If the study shows that marijuana is indeed a helpful and less harmful alternative to opioid pain medication, there's no guarantee that the feds won't just sweep it under the rug, like they did with all their other expensive marijuana studies. The makers of Oxycodone and other opioid producers would certainly pressure them to do so, and their impact on federal drug policy and enforcement is well documented.

I'm not saying this good news will eventually turn sour, but I'm highly suspicious of the federal government's sudden interest in honestly testing the validity of medical marijuana.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Despite negative impacts of prohibition, Hickenlooper keeps telling other states to "wait" on MJ legalization

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has always been a cautionary voice when it comes to weed legalization, but five years into his state's foray into legal cannabis, the time has come for him to lead more forcefully.

A few days ago, in a Facebook live interview with Politico's Playbook Exchange, Hickenlooper trotted out his usual, squeaky-clean marijuana soundbites, repeating his belief that other states should "wait a year or two" before legalizing. "Let's make sure there's no unintended consequences that we haven't been able to measure yet." He went on to say that some of his initial concerns about legalization, including greater use by teenagers and more people driving under the influence, have not materialized. He also noted some unexpected benefits, such as senior citizens choosing pot instead of opioids for pain relief. A recent meeting with US Attorney General Jefferson Davis Jeff Sessions, he said, went well, with Hickenlooper coming away with a sense - conveyed in a weed pun - that the Justice Department "has higher priorities."

CO Governor John Hickenlooper
As he's proven in the past, Hickenlooper is reluctant to speak his mind if the facts aren't on his side, and with marijuana, it's becoming increasingly evident that they are. So while I think it's responsible for him to be concerned about future impacts of legalization, I don't think he's sending the right message to other states, or the federal government, when he tells them "wait a year or two" before legalizing.

The problem with this "wait and see" approach is that prohibition in other states and at the federal level is not something Americans want or need to see go on for any longer. In 2015, a year after Colorado started selling legal recreational weed, more than a half million people went to jail for marijuana possession. A disproportionate amount of those who went to state prison for drug offenses (57 percent) were people of color. Meanwhile, prohibition has sustained high black-market prices that encourage outlaw growers to use environmentally destructive cultivation practices, including energy-intensive indoor growth and unregulated growth on public lands. And, as Hickenlooper himself acknowledged back in March, black-market growers sell to black-market distributors, whose dealers don't care who they are selling to, be they adults, teens or pre-teens.

So why does Hickenlooper keep telling other states to wait? Governor, legal systems in Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere are not perfect, and may result in "unintended consequences" down the road. But those consequences will pale in comparison to those of prohibition, which remains the worst marijuana policy any state or nation can have. It encourages criminal activity that often turns violent, it leaves the door open for underage use, it unfairly punishes minorities, and it wastes billions of taxpayer dollars on largely symbolic and ineffectual raids.

Governor, show some backbone on this. Your state is leading the way on sensible marijuana policy - own it, and act the part. Endorse New Jersey Senator Cory Booker's recent bill to deschedule and decriminalize cannabis at the federal level. Remind other governors of the awful social and financial effects of prohibition, and encourage any state considering legalization efforts to move forward. Take a stand against an unjust policy that has been mindlessly, cruelly, and needlessly extended for decades. The citizens of this country need any kind of positive leadership they can get right now, and on drug policy, you're in a great position to lead.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Legal cannabis is getting greener, but illegal weed is still a problem

Good news is hard to come by these days, so when I find it, especially within my own little area of expertise, it really is worth savoring - even though it comes from what is basically a report about a report.

Ahem. Per Forbes, a recent report by the decidedly pro-cannabis media firms Salar Media and Civilized Media pulled out five major trends in the legal cannabis industry, and a push for environmental sustainability is one of them:
"The cultivation of cannabis is leading to a greater stress on water and sustainability practices in agriculture"
Huzzah! Music to the pro-weed environmentalist's ears! But then, alas, dismay: the report proceeds to conveniently ignore the systematic ecosystem destruction carried out by unregulated pot growers in northern California, choosing instead to praise the growers' firm Humboldt's Finest for its promotion of "a rain grown, sun grown cultivation technique."

Humboldt's Finest, a coalition of sustainable growers in northern California,
is leading legal weed's push for 
environmental sustainability.
That's all well and good, but Humboldt's Finest - a small coalition of ecologically conscious growers - does not even begin to represent the dominant growing practices in Humboldt County or the rest of northern California. Based on recent estimates, there are at least some 10,000 growers in the region, and most of them do not belong to Humboldt's Finest. Most of them do not even grow for the legal market, and most of them are regularly dumping plastic and pesticides into the woods and siphoning water out of already-stressed river systems. Moreover, even the responsible growers of Humboldt's Finest play a role in the excessive erosion that clogs those same river systems with silt.

To be clear, I'm not faulting Humboldt's Finest for doing what they do; it is laudable that a contingent of growers in the nation's most famous weed-growing region are leading a push for sustainability. But I don't think it is responsible for pro-cannabis outlets like Salar and Civilized Media to tout those positives without acknowledging that overall, cannabis farming is still unsustainable, and it will take a supreme effort by far more people than just those inside the industry to reverse course.

Reports on (and on behalf of) the legal cannabis industry need to acknowledge the ecological destruction of outlaw marijuana growing and put pressure on lawmakers (especially federal lawmakers) to develop policies that will rein it in. So far, the policy that seems most likely to achieve that is federal legalization. Prohibition may be over in California and many other parts of the West, but that doesn't mean it isn't still propping up the nationwide price for black-market marijuana. With high prices, outlaw growers are encouraged to keep up the large-scale, environmentally destructive cultivation methods that are currently wreaking ecological havoc in California.

Legal, sustainable cannabis should be the law of all the land - not just in states that are on the vanguard of the new industry. The long-term health of northern California's forests depends on it.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: John Hudak, Marijuana: A Short History (2016)

As the many past and present books about it attest, marijuana is a subject rich in social, environmental, and political history. That's why it is strange - and perhaps a testament to the entrenched taboos of prohibition - that the history of marijuana has remained nearly untouched by professional historians.

Journalists, botanists, legal scholars, and geographers have all weighed in on the subject, and many have produced valuable histories of a plant that we are still attempting to fully understand. Yet the only professional history of marijuana to-date has been Isaac Campos's Home Grown, about the introduction and prohibition of marijuana in Mexico. By writing Grass Roots, I am hoping to continue what Campos started, and perhaps show other professional historians that marijuana is a worthy topic crying out for useful historical analysis. In the meantime, cannabis is such a popular and timely subject that there will no doubt be many books seeking to explain, or at least engage, its origins in the United States and the wider world.

The most recent effort comes from John Hudak, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. His Marijuana: A Short History (2016) is a fast-reading, pocket-sized guide to the plant's past in the United States. Hudak's book, like most current histories of cannabis, is aimed at the general public, and its clear and concise outlines of the plant's biology and spread across the country will help even those who know next to nothing about the plant quickly get up to speed. It is to Hudak's credit as a writer (and likely his editing team) that he is able to distill the wealth of research that went into this book into bite-sized, highly readable sections covering only the most essential information.

Structurally, Hudak breaks up the book into separate sections on the political history of prohibition and the social and cultural forces that worked against it. As a historian, I found this annoying - culture and politics exist and work in tandem, after all - but I doubt Hudak's audience will care. Overall, Hudak provides just enough context in each section so that the reader does not feel like the plant's political and social history were detached.

I also enjoyed Hudak's discussion of the Progressive movement alongside early twentieth-century efforts to regulate marijuana. This is exactly the kind of historical context modern readers need to understand the history of cannabis in the United States; it wasn't all about race and lies, as many of the popular marijuana histories assert. Rather, the federal government initially opted for a regulatory approach to cannabis drugs spearheaded by an array of Progressive-era experts from the agricultural, pharmaceutical, and medical fields.

Of course, being a "short history," Hudak had little space to delve too deeply into historical context, which is one of the book's flaws. There is, for instance, little attempt to flesh out exactly what drove the counterculture to embrace marijuana (other than it was forbidden by the loathed government). History without appropriate context is history abridged - some might say blunted. Sure, useful facts and trends come through, but there is little of the deep understanding of a subject that comes with professional historical treatment.

Another shortcoming in Hudak's short history is the lack of attention to environmental implications, especially in his discussion of present and future marijuana policy. Hudak is clearly an adept political thinker who articulately raises legitimate concerns about market regulation and patchwork legalization efforts; yet he turns a blind eye to the energy, water, and chemical consumption of what is fundamentally a crop - a highly popular crop, as it is, that covers hundreds of thousands of acres. In addition, Hudak fails to mention how or why marijuana growing changed over time - a major piece of the plant's history that deserves at least a line or two in any cannabis history, however short.

Despite these flaws, Marijuana: A Short History does what it sets out to do: provide a concise, accurate history of pot in the United States for anyone who wants to know about it. For its clarity, fact collection, and brevity, Hudak's book will likely be found on the desks of journalists, on politicians' bookshelves, and in think-tank libraries across the country. Indeed, because of Hudak's superb final section on current marijuana policy, I'd recommend Marijuana: A Short History over outdated guides such as Beau Kilmer et al.'s Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know (2012). And hopefully, Hudak's work will inspire professional historians to delve a bit deeper into the roots of marijuana in the United States.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Modern-Day Reefer Madness: MJ "Dangerous Gateway Drug," Will Get You Deported, Homeland Security Says

John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security and part of President Donald Trump's dusty old fossil cabinet, has a message for all Americans straight outta 1956 ...  or 1972 ... or 1984:

"Let me be clear about marijuana. It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs."

Kelly, who also submitted the poster at right as evidence for his claims, added that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) "will continue to use marijuana possession, distribution and convictions as essential elements as they build their deportation removal apprehension packages for targeted operations against illegal aliens living in the United States."

Kelly's words speak to yet another bizarre and terrifying spectacle unfolding in Donald Trump's America: Latinos who have done nothing else wrong besides smoke pot - even medicinally, even in one of the many states where medical or recreational pot is legal - kiss your family, job and adopted home country goodbye. President Trump thanks you for all the taxes you paid while you were here, so he can go have fun at Mar-a-Lago.


What about all the white people living in states with legal MJ who break federal law every time they light up? If Kelly was serious about applying "federal law," he and Jeff Sessions would be invading Colorado, California, and the dozens of other states with legal pot users. Luckily for those states, he's only serious about enforcing "federal law" on the most vulnerable of people, because Trump's administration is the equivalent of a schoolyard bully - wanting to appear tough by pushing around those it can for whatever reason it can, while cowardly ignoring those who are able to stand up for themselves.


Okay, Kelly's had his say. Now let ME be clear about marijuana: it is not a gateway drug. The media knows it. Scientists know it. Almost everyone who has read any credible book or article about weed knows it. Simply repeating an untrue statement for decades does not make it any more true.


Of course, this is the Trump Administration w're talking about, with Jeff Sessions, a latter-day George Wallace who still believes that locking people up for 180 years will fix a non-existent crime problem, at the helm of the Justice Department. 


So I don't exactly expect anyone in the admin to be truthful about anything. But I feel it is my duty as a historian to remind people that Reefer Madness is alive and well in the present, even as there doesn't appear to be a reversal of widespread marijuana legalization anytime soon. 


Marijuana is not a "gateway drug" or a "narcotic." Even the descriptor "potentially dangerous" exaggerates the worst effects of marijuana use. No one has died from its consumption. Caffeine withdrawals are more intense. Based on the dozens of interviews I've conducted and on the dozens of books I've read about pot over the last three years, I'd even say that there is a blurred line between "medicinal" and "recreational" use; whether they realize it or not, many so-called "recreational users" smoke pot to cope with everyday ailments such as stress, anxiety, insomnia, and moodiness. These are not necessarily diagnosable conditions, yet marijuana helps treat them.


The new baseline for how everyone should talk about weed is something like this: "Marijuana is a medicine procured from one of the world's oldest and most widespread crops. Like all medicines, it has benefits, side-effects, and detrimental effects that vary from user to user and need to be understood in an empirical context based on experience and scientific evidence." 


As far as I'm concerned, in the age of the anti-information and anti-human Trump Administration, ALL marijuana use is medicinal.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Pre-Order the Hempiricist's Book and Get 30% Off!

Marijuana legalization is unfolding across the American West, but cultivation of the cannabis plant is anything but green. Unregulated outdoor grows are polluting ecosystems, high-powered indoor grows are churning out an excessive carbon footprint, and the controversial crop is becoming an agricultural boon just as the region faces an unprecedented water crisis.  

Understanding how we got here and how the legal cannabis industry might become more environmentally sustainable is the focus of my new book, Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West, coming this October by way of Oregon State University Press!

Pre-order the book here, and use promo code F17 to get 30% off your copy!



More from the pre-publication flyer: 

"Grass Roots looks at the history of marijuana growing in the American West, from Mexican American growers on sugar beet farms to today’s sophisticated greenhouse gardens. Over the past eighty years, federal marijuana prohibition has had a multitude of consequences, but one of the most important is also one of the most overlooked—environmental degradation. Grass Roots argues that the most environmentally negligent farming practices, such as indoor growing, were borne out of prohibition, and now those same practices are continuing under legalization. 

Grass Roots uses cannabis’s history as a crop to inform its regulation in the present, highlighting current efforts to make the marijuana industry more sustainable. There are many social and political histories of cannabis, but in considering cannabis as a plant rather than as a drug, Grass Roots offers the only agriculturally focused history of cannabis to-date." 


About the Author
Nick Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University and a master’s degree in American history from Colorado State University. A former freelance journalist in his home state of Illinois, Nick now lives in Longmont, Colorado, and works as associate editor of the online Colorado Encyclopedia.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Report Finds Dozens of Women Abused at No. Cal. Marijuana Farms

Today I stumbled across this awful, yet not-so-surprising investigative report that details how dozens of women, and likely more, are sexually abused on pot farms in the Emerald Triangle:
“Women believe they are getting hired for trimming work, and then they’re drugged and raped,” said Maryann Hayes Mariani, a coordinator for the North Coast Rape Crisis Team. “Everybody looks at (the region) like it’s the Land of Oz. I’m just so tired of pretending like it’s not happening here.”
Like most other industries, institutions, and organizations in the twenty-first century, the marijuana industry is plagued by sexism and sexual exploitation. Despite the growing number of women  working in legal weed, the majority of growers, drug policy reformers, and business owners are men, setting up an unequal power balance in which women can be harassed and abused without punishment for the harassers and abusers.

Even the act of pot farming itself relies on female exploitation: only female cannabis plants produce marijuana, and once they are pollinated, the flowers cease producing psychoactive resin. Thus, the goal of marijuana cultivation is essentially to isolate and sexually starve the female plants, so they keep coating their flowers with resin until they expire.

There is a sad irony in the fact that female bud trimmers are taken advantage of sexually in the same space where female cannabis plants are sexually starved - both women and female plants are manipulated to please male growers.

Abuse Under the Trees

Of course, since plants aren't people, only the women are victims. And per the Reveal investigation, just as the remote wilderness of northern California makes it very difficult for authorities to find illegal pot grows, it also makes it difficult for those same authorities to confirm women's stories of sexual exploitation. For that reason, many women decline to report their horrible experiences to the police. Disturbingly, still others never show up again:
"The number of trimmigrants who go missing alone is overwhelming for law enforcement, fueling an epidemic of the lost. In 2015, Humboldt County reported 352 missing people, more per capita than any other county in the state."
The secretive environment in which all northern California pot growers operate has also given rise to an underground sex trade, in which young women post advertisements online claiming to be "trimmers," then sell themselves to lonely male growers in the hills. Pimps also run rings on the north coast, bringing a parallel tier of female exploitation to the area. Prostitution can bring these women as much as $500 an hour - far more than they would make simply trimming.

So to recap: we have dozens of women who are sexually abused and exploited in their positions as seasonal weed trimmers; men who are on dangerous power trips as the heads of the region's most lucrative industry; a lack of willingness and ability on behalf of law enforcement to find and punish abusers; and an online escort business that feeds into male growers' fantasies of having powerless, sexually available women around them for the right price - whether they're paying them for "work" or explicitly for sex.

Will Legalization Help?

The theme running through all of these events is the remote and quasi-lawless environment of northern California - a continuity that has existed since the beginning of white American settlement in the area, through alcohol prohibition and the twentieth-century logging industry, all the way to the present marijuana scene. Indeed, the area's remoteness and secretive culture are the main reasons why the Reveal piece is not optimistic that California's recent vote to legalize pot will help the situation.

But I'm not so sure that legalization can't at least provide opportunities to stop these abuses. For one thing, legalization is bound to make the culture surrounding marijuana cultivation far less secretive, even in remote places. For another, an ideal legalization rollout would include resource packages and a firm directive to local law enforcement to deal with sexual predation, prostitution, and other black-market problems in the marijuana industry. The state could fund this by earmarking a certain amount of legal marijuana sales taxes for law enforcement and drug treatment programs, like Colorado does.

Of course, since rape victims are also routinely mistreated and disrespected by law enforcement, there is no guarantee that any of this offers a permanent solution. After reading about the awful experiences of these women in northern California, however, I guess I'd just prefer to hope.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sessions confirmed as AG - Should Legal Weed be Worried?

It is official: Jeff Sessions, the man with a proven record of opposition to black people voting, is the new US Attorney General.

The ascension of a classic, George Wallace-type Southern racist to the nation's highest law enforcement position does not bode well for American civil rights in general, but his harsh positions on race, drugs, and crime make him a natural opponent of legal marijuana industries operating in several states. Since Sessions has not yet made it clear whether marijuana will be a priority for his Justice Department, that is all that we can be sure of at the moment.

Yet, as "Radical Russ" over at the blog Weed News pointed out back in January, there are still plenty of good reasons for the legal weed industry to be scared of a Sessions-led JD. The quintessential prohibitionist, Sessions has said that "good people don't smoke marijuana," and he was once overheard saying (he says he was joking) that he thought some members of the KKK were okay, until he found out they smoked pot.

But, as Russ points out, the most concrete reason for worry in the weed industry might not be Sessions but the President:
"... let’s pretend Trumplethinskin really believes in the sovereignty of the states in matters of marijuana policy. Which states will he lean toward, the legal marijuana states which, all but Alaska, voted for Hillary – and their states’ rights to sell marijuana in stores? Or the prohibition states that make up his base and their states’ right to not have legal marijuana flowing across their borders?"
This kind of childish political retribution seems to be well within the realm of Donald Trump's cavalcade of impulses. He has a penchant for staging dramatic acts of retaliation against those he feels has wronged him and he could easily have the Sessions JD drop the hammer on Left Coast marijuana as punishment for all the liberals who sneered and doubted him in the campaign.

Any action against legal marijuana would be a travesty. Far from simply a movement to let people smoke pot in peace, ending the War on Drugs is a Civil Rights campaign. For more than a hundred years, drugs have been an excuse for law enforcement to disproportionately stigmatize, stereotype, harass, beat, arrest, imprison, disenfranchise, shoot, and kill black, brown, and LGBT Americans.

It would also be a travesty because legalization is working. In Colorado, for instance, not only do thousands of people not get harassed and arrested over pot, but the state is collecting much-needed tax revenue, a portion of which goes to school construction; the state enforces rigorous rules on product labeling, grow site security, pesticide use, and other aspects of the industry; there is no indication of a weed-related public health crisis; and teenagers are not using marijuana at a higher rate than before legalization.

Of course, the rollout hasn't been perfect. Among other issues, minorities are still being unfairly targeted for illegal use. But this all a far cry from the days of prohibition, when simply possessing enough of the herb could land you in prison. In short, it is virtually impossible to argue that legalization has been the abject failure that so many prohibitionists assured us it would be.

While the GOP as a whole is likely to back any kind of crackdown on legalization, there is at least one Republican in Congress who will not. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Orange County, California, has just introduced a bill that would exempt consumers and businesses from federal drug laws if they are acting in accordance with state laws. Of course, the bill has no chance of passing, but I see it as an honorable effort.

Stay tuned - I may not be sure what will happen, but I am sure that this is only the tip of the Sessions blog post iceberg.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

CA Winemakers Fear Competition From Legal Pot

The wine industry in California is worried that legal marijuana is stealing its labor and its kicks, according to a report on Fortune's website.

Writer John Kell explains how the wine industry is actually "crushing it" thanks to "the coveted millenial generation," but it is worried about higher wages in the marijuana industry pulling away migrant workers and that more adults might choose to get buzzed on weed over wine. And apparently, Kell notes that this concern is backed up by some real data:

"Cowen & Co. analyst Vivien Azer issued a widely cited report late last year that said there were signs cannabis sales were hurting demand for beer across several states where marijuana was legal. Domestic big beer brands like Bud Light and Coors Light appeared to face the greatest competitive threat to cannabis, while imported beers looked the most immune."

Personally, if that data is accurate, I don't see a problem there. First, both of those giant beer companies make awful beer that no self-respecting person should buy anyway. Second, alcohol is by far a more harmful and addictive substance than pot, and it will be hard to argue that society is any worse off if more people are smoking weed instead of drinking. That said, I don't think the major beer industries need to worry about their profits - worrying that people aren't going to buy Coors Light is like worrying they won't buy Coca Cola. Even if fewer people buy, corporate beer profits are going to remain enormous.

The wine industry's concerns about labor seepage to weed farms may be legitimate, especially now that California is going to attempt full-on legalization. But the idea that winemakers will sell less product solely because of weed is, I think, a bit paranoid. It comes down to consumer choice, and the people who buy wine generally like it way too much to quit it, even if they like their weed, too. 

The race to get American brains buzzing isn't a zero-sum game. Americans have been smoking herb and drinking booze - sometimes at the same time, sometimes not - for decades. In fact, because both products tend to attract the "connoisseur," I could see wine-weed pairings happening, especially in California. Look, there's even this guide that tells you how to pair the two substances! Overall, the competition between makers of wine and weed should be more friendly than fierce.