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.