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:
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.