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.