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 
"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.