Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Book Review: Char Miller (ed.), "Where There's Smoke: The Environmental Science, Public Policy, and Politics of Marijuana" (2018)

In an era replete with weed books, the University Press of Kansas has published one of the most valuable efforts to-date with Where There’s Smoke, a collection of essays edited by environmental historian Char Miller.

The book is the first to bring a variety of academic and non-academic perspectives to bear on the environmental impact of outlaw marijuana cultivation, a problem that seemingly grows more intractable by the day. The decision to have an environmental historian as editor was a superb one. Environmental history is interdisciplinary by nature (pardon the pun), and Miller has shrewdly compiled critically relevant perspectives from biology, law enforcement, journalism, sociology, politics, and others to produce a comprehensive, on-the-ground snapshot of marijuana activity across the nation.

Where There’s Smoke is divided into three parts, with the first two focusing on the environmental and social ramifications of outlaw marijuana cultivation, and the third offering a condensed history of legalization movements and policy in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, DC, and California.

The first four chapters discuss the history and ecological harms of widespread illegal cannabis farming, especially in California. Problematic growing began there in the 1980s, when cannabis became “a leading export commodity” in Northern California, an otherwise economically depressed region ((p 17). In the ensuing decades, intensive policing pushed the price of pot higher, and innovative growers generally kept a step ahead of law enforcement. When California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, the northern part of the state was already known as a premier place to grow weed, so thousands of growers began moving there to take advantage of vague medical cultivation laws (p 20).

Today, there are between 500,000 and 1.5 million marijuana plants growing illegally on private and public lands across the state (p 30), straining both law enforcement and local environments. Growers are diverting and polluting streams, clear-cutting forests and hillsides, and poisoning all kinds of wildlife, from rodents to black bears (p 36). In recent years, law enforcement has prioritized the cleanup and remediation of these sites, but authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer number of trespass grows, and with every bust, several new operations crop up somewhere else.

If Where There’s Smoke is the first scholarly book to explicitly address these issues, it does not present them in the most interesting fashion. The writing in this section is informative but not engaging, with too many complex or long-winded sentences that quash the reader’s momentum. Some points are unnecessarily rehashed; for example, the second and fourth chapters both include essentially the same discussion of excessive rodenticide and fertilizer use (p 35-36, 63-64). Nonetheless, the perspectives in these first four chapters drive home the point that, whatever else they may be, marijuana prohibition and cultivation are interconnected environmental issues that cry out for “more complete investigation and documentation” (p 38).

As editor of Where There's Smoke, environmental historian
Char Miller brings together an array of important perspectives
on outlaw marijuana cultivation.
Where There’s Smoke makes fresher tracks in its second section, where the authors add a bit more nuance to the first section’s “outlaw grows are bad” narrative. Three essays connect the dots between the three major federal policy areas driving the cycle of outlaw marijuana cultivation—drug enforcement, criminal justice, and immigration. In particular, Amos Irwin’s chapter “Double Bind” relays the stories of two people arrested at outlaw cultivation sites, showing how poor, undocumented immigrants in the US make perfect cannon fodder for major Mexican drug cartels: they are inherently averse to law enforcement; willing to work long hours in uncomfortable environments; they have families in Mexico or the US that the cartels can leverage against them; and they are used to taking jobs without asking questions or signing agreements, so if they get arrested at a grow site, they have no information to offer authorities in exchange for lighter sentences. As a result, the justice system punishes the most vulnerable and least important people in the entire operation, and law enforcement is no closer to stamping out trespass growing than it was before making the arrests (p 118-121).

Irwin, program director for the nonprofit Law Enforcement Action Partnership, does an excellent job conveying the rational actions and humanity of those arrested at illegal grow sites, and his essay highlights the need to understand outlaw marijuana farming in a much broader, more transnational context than is typically offered in news reports. It also perfectly encapsulates the central argument of the book: ongoing federal prohibition perpetuates trespass marijuana grows and exacerbates the social and environmental injustices associated with them.

For all its insight, Irwin’s chapter also reflects the biggest flaw in Where There’s Smoke: a book designed to draw attention to one of the most important problems facing our public lands is decidedly not written for the public. Irwin’s chapter offers a frustrating example; he has two fascinating stories to tell, but he instead leads with “This chapter informs our understanding of …”

This kind of unimaginative writing plagues Where There’s Smoke from cover to cover, effectively smoke-screening the valuable insight of its contributors. Notable exceptions include chapters by drug policy reformer Amanda Reiman and California game warden John Nores, Jr., as well as the chapter on outlaw cannabis farms in Appalachia by Miller and Hawes Spencer. But the clunky academic writing before and in between these later chapters will likely turn away non-academic readers well before they get to them. This is unfortunate given that two of the book’s prominent themes are the importance of public awareness of trespass marijuana grows and the essential role of the voting public in reforming the nation’s marijuana laws.

If Where There’s Smoke misses a huge chance to connect with a broader audience around a timely and important topic, it will still likely induce more scholarly collaboration around the problem of outlaw cannabis cultivation. In that respect, Where There’s Smoke is an important foundation stone in the scholarly literature on cannabis, and should at least be required reading for all journalists writing about trespass marijuana grows.

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