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Will Marijuana Farming in Mendocino County, California, Lead America to Pot?

A locally permitted cannabis plant in Mendocino County, California, with a yellow sheriff's department "Zip-tie" indicating it is taxed. (Photo: Doug Fine)

Why does the political class in DC persist in promoting a “reefer madness” image of marijuana as a dangerous drug? After all, even the Obama administration periodically cracks down on states that have legally allowed the dispensing of medical marijuana. Congress has made no moves to ease up on federal prosecution of marijuana growing and distribution, as it continues to finance a war on drugs that is fueled by taxpayer dollars and law enforcement and contracted-industry financial incentives.

But there is a populist revolt brewing. Beginning with state legalization of marijuana use for easing medical pain, the movement to fully decriminalize pot has picked up steam as the voters of Washington and Colorado approved an end to marijuana prohibition.

As with many trends, California is pointing the way. Doug Fine, author and rancher, detailed how the de facto tolerance for marijuana farms and use in Mendocino County is likely a harbinger for a new green economic revolution in the United States: a legalized pot industry.

Truthout talked with Fine about the issues covered in his book “Too High to Fail” and what he calls “the coming drug peace era.”

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Mark Karlin: Let’s take a look at a recurring focus that you adopt in “Too High to Fail.” Why should marijuana be legalized for its positive economic impact on the US economy? How much tax revenue and spinoff economic development could it create as legally taxed product that could be grown in the United States and sold here?

Doug Fine: Following a year of field-side research alongside farmers of America’s number one crop (cannabis), I believe most conventional estimates about the size of the crop are way low. In “Too High to Fail,” I studied the progress of one California county, Mendocino, whose deciders legalized and permitted the regional cannabis farmers, out of economic necessity. The sheriff signed on, as did the local government. Why? $6 billion. That’s a conservative estimate of the plant’s value to local farmers (on paper) in one of California’s poorest counties.

The way I came to that figure was that the 600,000 plants seized by law enforcement in 2010 were estimated (also by law enforcement) to be 10 percent of the crop. I gave the 6 million plants that did make it to market a very low-end value of $1,000 per plant. In other words, cannabis is not just America’s number one cash crop, it is that by far. We shouldn’t be surprised. One hundred million Americans have used the plant, including the past three presidents. Tax that plant nationwide, and you not just generate billions in tax revenue (Harvard’s Jeffrey Miron estimates $30 billion annually) but you cripple criminal enterprises, the way that the end of alcohol prohibition pretty much put bootleggers out of work.

California already generates $100 million annually from its medical cannabis industry, and that’s with the majority of farmers still operating underground until federal prohibition ends. Space is preventing me from getting into ancillary industries, but in Mendocino County alone the legalizing of the local economic engine supported inspectors, contractors and flower trimmers (where skill and experience matter and are well-remunerated) – dozens of jobs per farm.

Mark Karlin: We’ve engaged in a decades-long “war on drugs” that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people in Mexico and Latin America and enriched drug cartels. Would the end of legal prohibition in the United States put the narcos out of business and reduce the dramatic death toll in Mexico?

Doug Fine: Without question ending the war on cannabis will be devastating to criminal enterprises south of the border. This is why Latin American governments (as well as an increasing number of European ones) are lining up behind ending the drug war. The Mendocino County, California, experiment I followed in “Too High to Fail” itself hurt criminal cartels by bringing the local industry aboveground. The administrator of what was called the Zip-tie Program (for the bright yellow bracelets every permitted plant wore) is named Captain Randy Johnson. A 27-year veteran of the force, most of those as a conventional drug warrior, Johnson told me that most important reason the program is an important model nationwide is not just the revenue it raised (saving seven deputy jobs locally). “It’s that we brought an entire community back into the law-abiding fold.”

South of the border, Bill Martin at Rice University estimates that up to 70 percent of cartel profits derive from cannabis (just as most drug war funding goes to the fruitless and unnecessary war on cannabis). Whenever I throw these numbers out in debates with the last of the taxpayer-funded drug war boosters (they’re becoming rare), I hear, “Oh, that’s exaggerated. Cannabis is only responsible for 50 percent of cartel proceeds, and they’ve diversified.” Hmm, I’d hate to lose 50 percent of my income.

Mark Karlin: What is the story with the ongoing stigmatization of marijuana on a political level that is far out of touch with its use on a social level? How can it be more evil than alcohol when liquor counts for far, far more road accidents, more addictions, deaths and violent encounters?

Doug Fine: The war on drugs, America’s longest and most expensive (with a price tag of $1 trillion to you and me already, with $40 billion more added to our tab every year), is based at core on a crucial lie: that cannabis is very dangerous. Now, I’m a father, and I want my kids to grow up in a safe, responsible society. Guess what? Even youth cannabis use rates go down, without fail, in places that legalize cannabis, whether completely (Portugal) or for medicinal use (New England).

So why does such a fundamental lie endure? The easiest way to understand it is through the concept of a tipping point. Along with “soft on crime,” “soft on drugs” has, for 40 years, been something every politician fears hearing in an opponent’s television spot. The good news, for those interested in a stronger, safer America, is that the Drug Peace tipping point has been reached. Across the nation, across all demographics, Americans want to end the Drug War. Forty percent of Colorado Republicans voted to legalize cannabis in 2012, and youth turnout (the holy grail for Democrats since 18-year-olds got the vote in 1972) was up 12 percent in Colorado in 2012 vs. the 2008 “Yes We Can” election. This is the issue that galvanizes all Americans.

Even in my very conservative New Mexico valley, the cowgirl next to me in the post office line might believe that our president was born in Kenya, but she knows from seeing our border region chaos with her own eyes that cannabis is not the problem with our region’s public safety. The war on cannabis is the problem (along with meth and prescription pill abuse). In fact, it was a massive raid of my AARP member retiree rancher neighbor for something like a dozen cannabis plants that spurred me to write “Too High to Fail.” The raid, paid for by you and me, pointedly ignored criminal cartels operating with impunity nearby. Eighty percent of Americans call the drug war a failure, which it is. Almost everyone is onto the myths and lies that allowed the war on cannabis to endure for ten times longer than World War II.

Mark Karlin: A lot of urban rumors have circulated that the cigarette industry is sitting on brand names and marketing plans for selling marijuana when “the time is right.” Where does big tobacco stand on marijuana legalization?

Doug Fine: More than one tobacco company has, at some point during the war on drugs, said or done something that indicates it wasn’t opposed to profiting from cannabis when the time was right. But having spent so much time with small farmers, I take to heart the views of Tomas Balogh, co-founder of the Emerald Growers Association farmer trade group, which is creating a brand of Northern California’s sustainable, outdoor-cultivated, third-generation cannabis culture. In his view, the cannabis crop is already decentralized and farmer-controlled, and it’s up to consumers to keep it that way after legalization.

As I often put it when “Emerald Triangle” farmers speak of creating a top-shelf, regionally based international brand (like Champagne), “If Napa is any model, get ready for the Bud and Breakfast.” When prohibition ends, some consumers will choose a Big Tobacco or Big Alcohol model, and some will seek out the co-op, farmers market or CSA farm. That’s why we have Dom Perignon and Two Buck Chuck.

Mark Karlin: Obviously, the jury is still out on the how the recent legalization of possession in Washington and Colorado will play out. What do you think the passage of the two statewide propositions mean to the pace of legalization?

Doug Fine: It’s the fall of the Drug War’s Berlin Wall – the end of America’s worst policy since segregation. The tipping point has been reached – I think we’ll see cannabis removed from the Controlled Substances Act entirely within five years. And not a moment too soon – states want to regulate it and need the revenue. Another huge event was last week’s inclusion of hemp cultivation provisions in the House side of the Farm Bill. It’s imperative that the Senate come on board, too. I’m researching a hemp book now, and it will play a significant role in America’s energy independence. Already, a Kentucky utility company is planning to plant hemp on coal-damaged land to use to generate electricity via ethanol and other processes.

Mark Karlin: The Washington and Colorado votes came after years of inroads in state approvals of medical marijuana use. In at least some jurisdictions, the Obama Department of Justice has pounced on medical marijuana dispensaries, including in California. Doesn’t Eric Holder have better things to do with our taxpayer dollars?

Doug Fine: If there’s one thing that pretty much full-time, front-line coverage of the cannabis plant during the drug war’s final battles has taught me, it’s that looking for rationality in the execution of this war is an exercise in futility. At this point the drug war, having lost both scientific and public support, operates on bureaucratic inertia, and even many of the law enforcers who have to fight the war admit as much.

The bottom line is that the people have spoken, their voices are only getting louder, and the people who are paid to win elections realize this. This is why President Obama, in his first major post-re-election interview in December 2012 (with Barbara Walters) for the first time took a cannabis legalization question seriously. He said he didn’t “yet” support it, but he had “bigger fish to fry” than harassing Colorado and Washington.

If you want to know why federal policy suddenly became laissez-faire, it’s about public opinion in swing states. Arizona, just about as silver and red a state as a Goldwaterite could wish for, is polling at 56 percent in support of regulating cannabis for adult use like alcohol. In heartland Illinois, 63 percent of voters support the about-to-be-enacted medicinal marijuana program. Heck, 60 percent of Kentuckians favor medical cannabis. The fact is, if President Obama were to step to the podium next week and announce that he was returning to his pre-2008 drug policy position, which called the Drug War an “utter failure,” his favorable numbers would go up in key swing states. This is true for anyone who’d like to succeed the president by spurring an energized youth turnout in 2016.

Mark Karlin: How does marijuana-growing in Mendocino County, which you feature prominently in your book, present a model for future breakthroughs in marijuana becoming a national and legal homegrown industry?

Doug Fine: As a sustainability journalist who lives on a solar-powered goat ranch, the Mendocino Zip-tie model is a vital one if small independent farmers are to retain a foothold in the industry that is born around America’s number one cash crop after prohibition ends. The craft beer model is illustrative here. Yes, Coors et al. control the corner store, but the microbrew sector is worth $10 billion annually. The Emerald Triangle farmers of Northern California acutely realize this – they are developing what Michael Pollan calls “supermarket pastoral.” This is the story that an organic food provider tells on her packaging – we imagine the chickens who lay our eggs playing cards and attending square dances.

If any cannabis cultivating region can brand itself as top shelf, the way we have fine wines coming from Washington to Vermont, it can beat Wall Street’s offerings. And as with wine and craft beer, farmers in plenty of places besides California, such as Oregon, Kentucky, Louisiana and Colorado, to name a few, can claim to have top-shelf cannabis farmers. The most marketable branding model, I believe, will be family-owned, outdoor cultivating sustainable farmers explaining that they’re just growing a plant that the original American colonist cannabis farmers (including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) did. When the kind of people who shop at farmer’s markets start asking how their cannabis is grown, models like this will be huge; I think even bigger than for high-end wine and beer.

Mark Karlin: How does the opposition to the growing of hemp hamper the US economically?

Doug Fine: Ah, that one is fresh in my mind. I’m just back from a whirlwind tour of the world industrial cannabis (hemp) industry, and it’s staggeringly large and growing 30 percent per year. Canadian farmers can’t grow enough hemp to satisfy US demand for hemp seed oil, and North Dakota’s farmers want nothing more than to take up the slack. In fact the Roughrider State’s agricultural commissioner, Doug Goehring, no liberal, called the half-billion dollars of hemp seed oil we import from Canada every year while not allowing American farmers to take part in the bounty “a lost opportunity” that “sometimes wants to make you shake somebody.”

That’s just hemp seed. Kentucky, Hawaii, Colorado, California and a growing number of other states are ready to roll on both seed and fiber and energy versions of the crop the moment the absurdity of hemp prohibition ends. And that side of things might come to pass this year, since hemp looks poised to be approved, albeit at a moderate “university study” level, in this year’s Farm Bill. It’s another huge victory that reflects the will of the people. Folks would do well to get their U.S. senators on board for the fight, because the lobbyists for the Drug Enforcement Administration, bless them, are still sending the old laughable untruths about hemp in memos to legislators: kids could smoke it anyway, it looks like psychoactive cannabis. These have never been problems in the 15 years that Canada, like 55 other nations, has cultivated industrial cannabis. The rest of the world smacks its collective forehead in disbelief at this “debate.” Luckily it looks like it’s nearly over.

Mark Karlin: For decades, and particularly in recent years, black and Latino males have been jailed as unconscionably high rates for marijuana “crimes.” Wouldn’t legalization hopefully end this discrimination?

Doug Fine: Without question. It takes years of effort to work up to the position of a big-city police chief. You’re generally not a rebel. This is why I listened up when Norm Stamper, 34-year police veteran and former Seattle chief of police, said in 2011, “besides causing thousands of deaths worldwide and costing billions of taxpayer dollars, the Drug War’s most serious collateral damage has been to undermine the role of civilian law enforcement in our free society.” Stamper was talking about what can amount to law enforcement budgetary addiction to Drug War funding.

In cities, the racial profiling to build arrest numbers (and thus federal drug war finding) is unconscionable. On the production side that I followed in rural areas in “Too High to Fail,” it’s no better. In the U.S. today, millions of dollars of property is seized and homes raided for no crime other than alleged cultivation one of humanity’s longest-utilized plants. While I was researching the industry, a federal prosecutor in California handed Stanislaus County a $154,000 check for assisting with a raid. This process is not just addictive, it’s parasitic.

You don’t even need to be a cultivator to get profiled in cannabis-growing country – you just need to be youngish, male and driving out of the Emerald Triangle cultivation region. I know this because while I was researching the cannabis industry in 2011, I was pulled over and my truck searched based on a false claim of a marijuana smell. “I’m not a cannabis farmer,” I told the local narcotics squad as they pilfered my kids’ car seats. “But I am an author writing about the drug war. Can I come along on a ride to see how the taxpayers’ money is being spent in that effort?” I was very quickly released after that.

Later learning that cannabis couriers call this stretch of California’s I-5 “The Gauntlet,” I did the math and determined that I caused Sonoma County law enforcement to spend about $1,100 of taxpayer money fruitlessly digging through some fairly moldy recycling crates that morning. Even if they’d found a joint some hitchhiker had dropped, I’m not sure how hard that would’ve hit the cartels or justified the expense. But hey, it’s a living.

The worst part about the drug war catastrophe is that I’m a law enforcement supporter. I believe most cops at all levels are decent and trying to do their job. The problem is cannabis interdiction needs to stop being their job. It has single-handedly turned the United States the most incarcerated nation in history, with several hundred thousand more prisoners than China. Embarrassing, is my view on that. The drug war is an unnecessary, un-American war.

Mark Karlin: Aside from marijuana, more people in the US die from overdoses of prescription medications than illegal drugs. How much of a threat is the legalization of marijuana to the pharmaceutical industry?

Doug Fine: It’s not a threat. I think the bigger question is, how much of a threat is the pharmaceutical process for consumers who wish to use a whole plant medicinally, socially, spiritually or for health maintenance? Cannabis has more than 90 known cannabinoids (chemical components) whose interplay is just starting to be understood by Western science and medicine. In Chinese medicine, it’s just another herb. In fact, there are numerous cannabis remedies included in the oldest existing medical handbook, from China more than 2,000 years ago.

My general view about Wall Street is it’s going to do what it does. It’s up to the consumer to demand whole plant access and home cultivation rights as legalization comes about. If America allows these, it doesn’t matter if Coors markets its version of cannabis, Philip Morris its version and Merck its version. What is imperative is that cannabis be removed entirely from the federal Controlled Substances Act so states can regulate it like alcohol. Utah’s cannabis laws will very likely be different from Nevada’s. That’s the way it should be. The bottom line is prohibition doesn’t do anything except enrich criminal enterprises. It’s time to bring America’s far and away number one crop into the taxpaying economy. We’ll be stronger and safer as a result. I say that as a journalist, a voter, a patriot and a father.

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