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Legalizing Marijuana May Help Save the US Economy, Reduce the Prison Population, and Stop the Drug War Death Toll

(Photo: Penguin Books)

For his book “Too High to Fail,” author Doug Fine took off to Mendocino, California, where growing marijuana is big business. A tolerant county sheriff sees pot as a source of much-needed revenue for his department and local government, even as the Obama administration sporadically swoops down on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Entering the gray zone of the green revolution in northern California, Fine documents an entrepreneurial spirit that represents a key feature of the stereotype of the American dream: risk and innovation in pursuit of monetary gain. Fine, however, repeatedly reminds us that these are investors with a mission: the full legalization of marijuana.

Given the passage of the recent statewide initiatives legalizing pot in Colorado and Washington State, Fine’s exploration of the Mendocino model provides insight into what is very possibly in store for many states in America.

As Bill Maher noted of Fine’s book, “Fine has written a well-researched book that uses the clever tactic of making the moral case for ending marijuana prohibition by burying it inside the economic case.”

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The following is an excerpt from “Too High to Fail” about one of the commercial Mendocino growers that Fine met who was more than willing to provide his real name:

For a little while, I grumbled to myself about missing my haircut. But until now I didn’t rat Courtenay out.

And I’m glad I didn’t. Because an hour after trapping my vehicle and badly overrevving its engine in an effort to extract it, while waiting patiently for the board members’ feeding frenzy to break up and for Matt Cohen to throw his tow chain around some hopefully sturdy part of my left axle, I was able to have that crucial conversation with one of the meeting’s attendees. He was thirty-three-year-old Tomas “Don’t try to pronounce it: it’s Hungarian” Balogh. He pronounced the Tomas like Thomas, though.

In my preliminary research for the project, we had spoken a couple of times, but one encouraging stance in particular he took this day convinced me that this was going to work: that I’d found the principal farmer whose crop I would cover for this book. He was a first-year Mendocino farmer, bringing his craft, and indeed his career, into the sunlight after a decade of urban indoor growing in the Bay Area.

Filling my own plate with a board member’s home-smoked salmon in the Cohen kitchen, I was still early enough in my exposure to Mendocino cannabis culture’s shocking openness to start Tomas off with my habitual “How do you feel about using your real name?” introduction.

Turned out Balogh, like nearly every 9.31 grower I met, was completely, almost compulsively, revealing about his work. A literal open book, when it came to his finances. His immediate reply was “I’ve thought a lot about it, and I keep coming back to the day I decided to be open about my career. It was a big decision. Have I told you?”


“Well, after I’d been growing quietly for eight years, I spoke in front of the Berkeley City Council in 2009—they were setting up dispensary regulations. And I instantly understood what people feel like when they come out of any closet. My knees were trembling at the podium, my palms were sweating. But I felt so much better afterwards.”

Now the guy made “transparency” his business mantra. In addition to freely giving out both his MendoGrown and his nascent personal business cards—he had just decided to form an online medical cannabis delivery business he was calling the Kama

Collective—to anyone who asked and some (like his 2011 farm neighbors) who didn’t, Tomas didn’t ask me for any privacy protections at all. No off-the-record guarantees, no name changes. No restrictions whatsoever.

I still find that incredibly courageous. There’s no way Tomas could have known I wasn’t another hack coming in to write a sinse-millionaire tabloid feature. Plus, it was conventional wisdom among cannabis players in 2011 that to open one’s trap often drew a federal bead on a farmer. Stirred the wasp’s nest.

“Sauron’s eye,” one grower told me. “As a small farmer with no legal budget, as long as federal prohibition is still in effect, well, it’s just a little too early.”

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tomas’s freedom really is on the line until there’s a change in federal drug policy. This is a man who paid his dispensary-supplying, indoor-crop taxes, even prior to going public. He did this, on the advice of his tax attorney, by checking the truthful if vague “direct marketing” career box on his tax forms. (“Contractor” and “carpenter” are two other common official answers to this ticklish “what’s your line?” question for honest gray-market cannabis farmers nationwide.)

By sticking his neck out and revealing his line of work publicly, Tomas risked ending up in the new Mendota Federal Correctional Institution you and I recently built (for $110 million) outside of Fresno—for a ten-year medium-security detour. Like most people I met in Mendo, he was just going to ignore the little federal cannabis scheduling problem, which is in play in every medical cannabis state because of the pesky Supremacy Clause in Article VI of the U. S. Constitution.

Cannabis aside, Tomas was opening his whole cultivation and business plan to me, and he knew it. This is rare in the business world, and it’s rare in the farming world. There was even a chance I’d report on his more embarrassing traits, such as his unfailing and masochistic habit of rooting not just for the obvious San Francisco Giants, but for their hapless basketball cousins, the Golden State Warriors.

So why did Tomas so readily agree to allow one of his as-yet unborn plants to star in a book? I had to ask, to make sure he wasn’t a federal agent—principally because my contract with my publisher mandated a genuine cannabis grower. So I did, near the end of our conversation that day. His answer was as simple and straightforward as that of any veteran activist on any issue. He gave it just after popping an organic cracker topped with homemade mushroom pâté.

“Prohibition must end,” the UC Berkeley graduate said in the Cohens’ kitchen, brushing his hands together in a crumbs removing motion that I took to be both practical and metaphorical. “The Drug War [crunch] makes me a criminal, enriches real criminals in Mexico and elsewhere, and keeps patients from getting the best, most affordable medicine. It’s a war [crunch] against America. Against my America. It’s wrong [crunch crunch].”

Having just sat in on two hours’ worth of MendoGrown rhetoric, I had my follow-up ready. “As wrong as other ills in the world? Ignoring climate change? Hunger in Africa?” Tomas was ready too. This is a fellow who had experience banging on strangers’ doors in conservative-leaning crannies in Florida and saying, “Yes, we can!”

“Connected to all of those,” he said immediately. “What can I tell you? It’s my issue. I think of myself as an American small farmer, providing jobs and a tax base, and now I’m returning to heal the land too. Did you know that I’m a second-generation freedom fighter?”

“I did not.”

“My dad’s a refugee from the Budapest rebellion in 1956. I’m educating him also.”

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Excerpted from Too High To Fail by Doug Fine. Copyright (c) 2012 by Doug Fine. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA). Not to be reposted without permission of the author.

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