Friday, September 22, 2017

Wild West of Weed: The "Green Rush" and Western American History

The "Rush" is a common theme in Western American lore: gold seekers rush to places of new discovery; settlers rush west to set up farms and "civilize" the landscape; railroads rush west to connect the country and bring riches of the frontier back to eastern markets; and today, those wishing to cash in on marijuana join a "Green Rush" to the western states that have legalized it. In typical stories about the American West, individuals travel to a new land and brave difficulty and ruin in an attempt to make their lives better.
What was the federal government's role in creating 
the "Green Rush"?

But what is often lost in romantic stories of Western individualism is how much help those "pioneers" had. In many cases, it was a powerful federal government - not gritty individuals prevailing over immense odds - that played the most important role in the historical rushes of the West. The California Gold Rush (1848) could only happen after federal troops killed enough Mexicans to acquire California, then looked the other way as white Californians slaughtered and enslaved indigenous people. Later, those much-adored, rough-and-tumble homesteaders could only rush to their western land after federal homestead acts and more Indian killing. Railroads extended westward not by the grace of corporate visionaries but by the lure of federal land grants - which, again, were based on the extermination of Indians and their claims to said land.

Similarly, federal policy is largely responsible for today's "Green Rush" - albeit in more indirect ways. And just like in past rushes, federal policy has helped ensure that the benefits of the Green Rush are disproportionately distributed to white Americans at the expense of Latinos and other nonwhites.

Prohibition Makes Weed Wild

Federal cannabis prohibition - in place since 1937 - resulted in a number of negative effects that eventually convinced voters in several western states to legalize marijuana within their borders, beginning with California's adoption of medical marijuana in 1996 and continuing through the present legalization of general adult use in several western states. This alone made states such as California and Colorado magnets for those who wanted to profit from or enjoy legal marijuana.

But legal weed is only one part of the Green Rush. Ongoing federal prohibition elsewhere has kept black-market marijuana prices high (up to $1,800 per ounce), encouraging a rush of outlaw growers to states where marijuana is legal. These growers hope to produce and sell black-market weed under the cover of legalization - a phenomenon known as the "gray market." Some examples of what's been happening:

In southern Oregon, the understaffed Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement (MADGE) has no idea which grows are legal and which ones aren't, and can't figure out whether some of the illegal ones can be traced to Mexican cartels or other DTOs ("drug trafficking organizations").

Last month in California, Butte County sheriff's deputies shot and killed an armed, illegal marijuana grower after the suspect threatened to kill a hostage. The outlaw growing culture in the Golden State, with all its unexpected and sometimes violent elements, is well documented.

Yesterday in Neah Bay, Washington, Makah Tribe authorities found a marijuana crop laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is stronger than heroin; meanwhile, about 7.5 percent of weed grown legally in Washington leaves the state to be sold on the black market (it was 12 percent before neighboring Oregon legalized in 2014).
One of the 9,200 illegal MJ plants seized near Grand Junction,
CO this August (Credit: Gretel Daugherty, Grand Junction
Daily Sentinel
)

Earlier this year, police uncovered a massive home-grow operation in Denver that spanned the entire metro area and sent marijuana to Illinois, Arkansas, Minnesota, and Missouri; sixteen people were indicted. And a few weeks ago, authorities in western Colorado found 9,200 cannabis plants illegally growing on an island in the Colorado River near Grand Junction.

Clearly, the rush of outlaw growers to Oregon, California, Washington, and Colorado has overwhelmed local authorities, creating a patchwork of legal and illegal marijuana crops that threatens to undermine the progressive aims of states that embraced an alternative to the Drug War. It truly is the Wild West of Weed, and with Nevada's recreational marijuana program still in its early stages, it may only get wilder.

Race in the Green Rush


Outlaw growing is hardly the only consequence of the federally driven Green Rush. The legal marijuana industry in the West is leaving out Latinos, blacks, and American Indians - all communities that were victimized by past western rushes. Again, federal policy is mostly to blame: although blacks, whites, and Latinos use marijuana at similar rates, the enforcement of federal prohibition fell disproportionately on minority communities, resulting in inflated incarceration rates for black and brown Americans. Combined with racial disparities in wealth, education, and housing, this meant that blacks and Latinos were in a far worse position than whites to capitalize on the marijuana industry when it became legal.

The results? Most owners of legal marijuana dispensaries are white men; in California and Colorado, blacks and Latinos are still being arrested for marijuana offenses at a higher rate than whites.


Meanwhile, despite dealing with crippling poverty, many American Indian Tribes are choosing to stay out of the new industry out of fear of federal retribution. White Westerners do not have to weigh such options and are free to reap the rewards of legal weed.

Of course, there are some critical differences between the exclusion of minorities in today's Green Rush and the rushes of the past. Today's racially imbalanced weed industry is more the result of decades of institutional racism and the disproportionate Drug Wars than it is intentional exclusion by marijuana business owners. During the California Gold Rush, blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, and other minority gold seekers were not as fortunate; whites barred them from their share of the wealth by taxing them unfairly, passing fugitive slave laws, or running them off of promising claims. Still, the racial disparity of the Green Rush makes the point that the benefits of the great rushes of the West are still for whites only.

Lessons from the Past

The major role of the federal government in the various western rushes complicates the traditional narrative that enterprising easterners traveled west, overcame a slew of setbacks and obstacles, and capitalized on nature's bounty - whether it be gold, land, or weed - largely due to their own effort.

More importantly, though, it reminds us that if the federal government helped cause the problems vexing legal marijuana in the West today - such as racial disparity and outlaw cultivation - then it must also be involved in the solution of those problems. Politicians and other authorities in states that have taken the progressive step of legalizing marijuana must realize this and intensify calls for the federal government to legalize and regulate marijuana nationwide. Only then can we truly tame the Wild West of Weed.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"What about the black market?"


One of the main criticisms of states that have legalized marijuana is that they aren't doing enough to stamp out the black market. The feds have made the argument, as have anti-pot organizations, as have finger-wagging "policy experts" who make other bizarre, baseless arguments such as "we would all be better off if marijuana did not exist." (Side note: What would Jonathan Caulkins have to write about if MJ did not exist? Maybe he'd find something else to be a superb curmudgeon about?)

The problem with the "what about the black market?" argument is essentially the same problem found in most prohibitionist arguments - it ignores inconvenient yet important facts. The most important fact lost on those who complain about black-market pot in legal states is that cannabis prohibition sustains high marijuana prices. The most effective way to end the underground cannabis trade - and all the negative effects of that trade - is to legalize and regulate it nationally. This will bring down the price, which is the backbone of the black market.

Will there still be a black market? Of course, because some people need money and other people like weed, and no amount of arrests or cops or laws will change that. But lower prices brought down black-market booze after the repeal of alcohol prohibition; they will do the same for underground weed. As part of legalization, state and federal taxes on legal marijuana must be low enough to discourage black-market activity but high enough to cover the costs of regulation, such as grow site inspections or DWI training and equipment, public education campaigns, and other associated functions. One does not need a graduate degree in economics to understand this.

Regulating a legal marijuana market is a complicated endeavor with plenty of pitfalls. There's no denying that. But at this point, the decision to legalize shouldn't really be questioned. Fewer people are going to jail for weed. States use marijuana taxes to fund drug treatment programs, marijuana education campaigns, and marijuana research. People who use cannabis medicinally aren't hassled, and their products are regulated and inspected, just like other medication. Thanks to legalization, more accurate data is being collected on drugged driving - data that will be used to help reduce its frequency and educate people about the risks of driving high.

If law enforcement and other authorities spent as much time arguing for national legalization as they did wringing their hands about interstate trafficking and an "exploding black market," perhaps many of the problems they complain about would gradually disappear.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Massachusetts sets sights on green weed

He doesn't grow pot, but Sam Milton wants Massachusetts weed to be the greenest.

With recreational marijuana markets set to open in the Bay State next year, Milton's recent startup, Climate Resources Group (CRG), is one of the only local consulting firms to count  sustainable cannabis cultivation among its list of green targets.

Environmental policy expert
Sam Milton wants green weed for 
Massachusetts.
"The overarching driver in my work is to really help reduce the impact on our natural environment from the things we do and the way we consume and produce," Milton said. And while the consumption of marijuana often gets the most press, it's the production of arguably the nation's most popular non-food crop that currently presents an environmental problem. But after his state voted to legalize last fall, Milton said that environmental concerns were largely ignored in Massachusetts, just as they were in Colorado in 2012.

"All of the conversation around what the law should look like was around public safety, public health, marketing, and [there was] very little focus on the environmental and energy implications of [legalization]," Milton said.

Fortunately for Milton, he does business in a state that is no stranger to tackling environmental issues. When Massachusetts passed the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008, it became one of the first states to form a comprehensive plan to curb global warming by reducing its carbon emissions. The act required the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below its 1990 levels by 2050.

Massachusetts has since made steady progress in that endeavor. Boston is home to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which opened in 2009, and as of 2014 the state ranked 32nd of 50 states in carbon dioxide emissions. Two weeks ago, Massachusetts renewed its commitment to clean energy by joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a regional cap-and-trade agreement that is proven to reduce both carbon emissions and energy costs for member states.

Last fall, 54 percent of Massachusetts voters approved Question 4, and the state joined Maine (which also approved legal marijuana that same night) as the first two states on the eastern seaboard to fully legalize  marijuana.* One of the many challenges now facing Bay State regulators is how to bring the state's robust commitment to sustainability to the cannabis industry.

State legislators began working on that in July, when they approved an implementation bill that called for the establishment of "energy and environmental standards" for the cannabis industry. Governor Charlie Baker signed the bill into law on July 28.

Getting growers to adhere to the new standards could be tricky, though. Most of the state's medical pot is still grown indoors, using energy-guzzling techniques pioneered and perfected during the days of prohibition. Some of the state's medical producers, such as the giant, Denver-based AmeriCann, are already investing in sustainable, state-of-the-art grow facilities, but other growers will need help adapting to new standards.

Milton, who holds a master's degree in law and diplomacy and has plenty of experience in environmental policy, is ready to help both new and existing growers transition to sustainable agriculture.

"As I get into the cannabis space, I realize that not everyone is driven by environmental concerns," Milton said. "The way I'm approaching my work is helping people figure out ways to reduce their costs, particularly around water and energy use."

And unlike in the West's legal marijuana states, the growers Milton helps in Massachusetts might be traditional farmers. The implementation bill calls for "provisions for the benefit of farmers and craft marijuana cultivators."

Those provisions would allow the Bay State's smaller farmers to get in on a booming new business. For example, Milton's local provider for Massachusetts' Community Sponsored Agriculture program recently approached him saying she was seriously looking into growing marijuana.

"She's not a smoker; she's a grandma," he said. "But her daughter is the one driving this and they're thinking about how can they do this and how can they do it right."

Ted Dobson is one of many Massachusetts farmers who would
welcome marijuana in their fields. 
(Credit: Joanna Chattman, Boston Globe)
Should they add legal marijuana to their traditional crop portfolios, Massachusetts farmers would not be the first American farmers to do so; there was a time when the federal government actually published pot-growing instructions. Beginning in 1915, when drug cannabis was still legally distributed as a medicine, the US Department of Agriculture published cultivation instructions for "cannabis indica" (marijuana) in Farmers' Bulletin, a series of instructional pamphlets directed at everyday farmers.

Milton believes that the potential marriage of cannabis and sustainable, small-scale farming would be a perfect match.

"Traditional small farmers, they have a respect for the land, and they want to [farm] in a way that's sustainable," he said. "I want to be at the forefront of sharing that knowledge with people. I want to make sure that the way the [cannabis] crop is grown in New England is among the greenest."

--

*Washington, D.C. approved a recreational initiative in 2014, but Congress has thus far blocked the setup of markets.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Update: Data on MJ-related traffic deaths in Colorado

Yesterday I wrote this piece condemning the Department of Justice for citing the skewed reporting of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) in its attempt to de-legitimize legal marijuana programs in several states. Among the conclusions presented in the HIDTA report was that legal marijuana directly led to an increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities in Colorado. A report by the Northwest HIDTA drew similar conclusions for Washington state.

As I explained yesterday, the data in the HIDTA reports may come from legitimate sources, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but it is intentionally presented and analyzed in a way that makes legalization seem like an apocalyptic scenario, which it just plain isn't. Claims such as rising rates of teenage use aren't backed up by other, less problematic studies, such as the Colorado Healthy Kids Survey. Rising rates of ER visits related to marijuana aren't so much evidence for pot harming society as they are for people recklessly or accidentally over-consuming a non-lethal substance. In its reporting, HIDTA clearly only included data from categories that it knew would show negative trends, so again, the group's reports are not the most honest lens through which to view the effects of legalization.
Coloradans, let's not drive high, mmk?

That said, today The Denver Post's Cannabist section published an excellent analysis of state and NHTSA data that confirms RMHIDTA's claim that marijuana-related traffic fatalities have increased in Colorado since legalization. I encourage anyone reading this to go read that article; reporter David Migoya and the rest of the Cannabist staff did a lot of solid, painstaking work to put the data in context, clarify important methods and terms, and present the information in a way that allows the reader to draw reasoned conclusions instead of making a knee-jerk judgment.

Though it reached a similar conclusion, the Cannabist's reporting is in direct contrast with that of HIDTA; data on drugged driving is fraught for a number of reasons (again, go read the article!), but the Cannabist staff made every attempt to clarify and contextualize it. HIDTA, on the other hand, simply presented the data as uncomplicated, speak-for-themselves numbers in order to support its rigid ideology that drugs are bad and we shouldn't be legalizing them. There is far more value in the former method than in the latter, not the least of which being that people are more likely to trust, and therefore act on, conclusions reached by methods like the Post's.

There are two big takeaways from today's Denver Post report: 1) the best evidence so far shows that marijuana-related traffic fatalities are indeed rising in Colorado, and 2) in contrast to what HIDTA implies in its own report on the same data, the context provided in the Post shows that this trend alone is hardly an indication that legalization is failing or has failed.

What the Post report says to me - and I would guess to most rational observers - is that the state and the cannabis industry need to do a much better job at educating consumers and the public about the risks of drugged driving, and law enforcement needs to nail down a reliable way to test for marijuana impairment -  and guess what? The Cannabist has a great article on that, too!

Have a great weekend, everyone - stay safe, and don't drive high!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

"Alternative Facts" nothing new in the cannabis policy arena

It is no secret that the Trump Administration has made a habit of lowering the standard for basically everything the national discourse. This began back in January with Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway's now-famous remark that the president was simply presenting "alternative facts" to defend his gleefully incorrect boasting about the size of his inauguration crowd.

The truth, of course, is that the US government has long been a purveyor of "Alternative Facts," no matter who was in the White House. This is especially true in the realm of drug policy. One of the more obvious instances is the DEA's constant, unequivocal declaration that marijuana is not medicine, despite a plethora of studies and anecdotal evidence to the contrary. In past decades, when public support for marijuana law reform was relatively weak, prohibitionists could offer misinformed and patently false claims about cannabis without any major scrutiny. They could also rely on the weight of federal authority to lend credence to their misinformation.

That has all changed now. Well over half of the American public supports marijuana legalization, and several states' experiments with legal pot markets have only caused the plant's poll numbers to rise (the reasons for this are numerous and are probably fodder for another post). Those who support legalizing and regulating cannabis have gotten better at forming evidence-based arguments, and so far, the facts are on their side: science is finally getting around to confirming marijuana's medical usefulness and states that have legalized have largely succeeded in keeping many of pot opponents' worst fears from materializing.

Sessions DOJ doubles down on dubious MJ report.
But true to its past, and especially to its present, the federal government is again demonstrating its belief that its own information matters more than, well, actual information. This time it is in the context of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions's correspondence with governors of four weed-friendly states - Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska - regarding the effectiveness of their legalization programs.

In April the four governors sent a letter to Sessions asking that the feds touch base with their administrations before engaging in any major marijuana enforcement activities. In July Sessions responded to the governors with a letter that questioned the effectiveness of their programs, liberally citing data from a recent report by the Northwest and Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs). Among other things, the reports allegedly document legalization-related increases in teenage marijuana use, black-market diversion, and higher rates of marijuana-induced vehicle crashes. (In case you're wondering, HIDTAs are hybrid federal-state drug enforcement organizations that serve under the National Office of Drug Control Policy. They date to the Reagan era - these agencies are not and have never been interested in any kind of drug policy reform).

The problem with the HIDTA reports - as with many other federal reports on marijuana trends - is that they are inaccurate. As they did with a previous HIDTA report, astute observers immediately published critiques that punched holes in the studies' most ominous claims. And on Wednesday a group of Washington state lawmakers (both Dems and Repubs) sent a letter to Sessions disputing every statistical claim made by the US Attorney General in his July letter.

Predictably, a Justice Department official responded to the lawmakers' letter with an email saying that  an "updated HIDTA report" confirms the original report's documentation of "troubling developments" in states with legal weed. True to form, in response to legitimate critiques of its primary data source, the DOJ did not offer other, perhaps more legitimate sources, but merely doubled down on the "updated" version of the same source. Our information is better than yours, still better than yours.

Props to the Washington lawmakers for calling out the skewed HIDTA report and the Justice Department's unquestioning acceptance of it. At the administrative level, the war on drugs has always been an information war. While they may be a relatively new foe for the country at large, purveyors of "Alternative Facts" have been laying siege to the truth about US drug policy for decades.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Feds Issue $3.8 Million for Medical Marijuana Study - Wait, Really?

As I've said before on this blog, good news is rare these days - and it's even rarer after the violent, hate-filled weekend that we're all struggling to recover from - so I'm quick to jump on a good story when I see it.

Today's good news: The federal National Institutes of Health (NIH) approved a five-year, $3.8 million study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine to see whether marijuana can reduce opioid use for adults dealing with chronic pain.

The Einstein College's MMJ study - will its results be taken seriously?
This is surprising on a couple different levels. First, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I Controlled Substance, meaning that the feds consider it to have "no currently accepted medical use." That categorization alone has made it difficult for medical researchers to conduct trials on the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine. The DEA, which enforces the Controlled Substances Act and maintains a hardline stance against medical marijuana, has a huge impact on the kinds of drug studies the NIH can approve. So it is kind of amazing to see historically and rigidly anti-pot federal agencies serve up a ton of money to a study that may end up contradicting their own assertions. Second, Jeff Sessions, a decidedly anti-pot figure, is head of the Justice Department, which oversees the DEA, so on many levels you'd think that there would be no chance in hell for research like this to receive federal support.

Perhaps the Sessions team was too distracted with other things (the AG's mini-feud with our egomaniac-in-chief?) to notice this funding and put a stop to it; or perhaps he has taken the amazingly pragmatic view that any kind of research that may help solve the nation's awful opioid addiction problem is worth funding. Also - and I know this is going to sound crazy - Sessions may not be as anti-pot as his past words and actions have indicated. After all, he is AG in 2017, not 1977, and with all these states setting up legal markets in defiance of federal law, he kind of has to play nice. Sessions's recent correspondence with the governors of Colorado, Washington, and other weed-friendly states suggests he's more into monitoring what's going on there instead of marching in the Drug War shock troops.

But there could be yet another angle to the approval of this MMJ research funding. The federal government has approved large-scale studies on marijuana before - for the sole purpose of concocting data to back up its assertion that marijuana is a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad substance. These included the La Guardia Report (1945), the Shafer Commission (1972), and a comprehensive report by the National Academy of Sciences (1982). The problem was, all of these studies came to the conclusion that pot really wasn't all that bad, and warranted both more medical research and a softer policy approach. The results of these studies were politically inconvenient for drug warriors like Harry Anslinger, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, so they were never addressed. 

So is this new NIH funding an honest attempt by the federal government to understand medical marijuana's' potential to help one of the worst medical crises our nation has faced in years? Or is it another attempt to use slanted "scientific research" to confirm what the DEA keeps saying about medical marijuana? The study's abstract suggests it will be legit, but who knows what caveats the Einstein College had to agree to in order to secure the funding. 

If the study shows that marijuana is indeed a helpful and less harmful alternative to opioid pain medication, there's no guarantee that the feds won't just sweep it under the rug, like they did with all their other expensive marijuana studies. The makers of Oxycodone and other opioid producers would certainly pressure them to do so, and their impact on federal drug policy and enforcement is well documented.

I'm not saying this good news will eventually turn sour, but I'm highly suspicious of the federal government's sudden interest in honestly testing the validity of medical marijuana.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Despite negative impacts of prohibition, Hickenlooper keeps telling other states to "wait" on MJ legalization

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has always been a cautionary voice when it comes to weed legalization, but five years into his state's foray into legal cannabis, the time has come for him to lead more forcefully.

A few days ago, in a Facebook live interview with Politico's Playbook Exchange, Hickenlooper trotted out his usual, squeaky-clean marijuana soundbites, repeating his belief that other states should "wait a year or two" before legalizing. "Let's make sure there's no unintended consequences that we haven't been able to measure yet." He went on to say that some of his initial concerns about legalization, including greater use by teenagers and more people driving under the influence, have not materialized. He also noted some unexpected benefits, such as senior citizens choosing pot instead of opioids for pain relief. A recent meeting with US Attorney General Jefferson Davis Jeff Sessions, he said, went well, with Hickenlooper coming away with a sense - conveyed in a weed pun - that the Justice Department "has higher priorities."

CO Governor John Hickenlooper
As he's proven in the past, Hickenlooper is reluctant to speak his mind if the facts aren't on his side, and with marijuana, it's becoming increasingly evident that they are. So while I think it's responsible for him to be concerned about future impacts of legalization, I don't think he's sending the right message to other states, or the federal government, when he tells them "wait a year or two" before legalizing.

The problem with this "wait and see" approach is that prohibition in other states and at the federal level is not something Americans want or need to see go on for any longer. In 2015, a year after Colorado started selling legal recreational weed, more than a half million people went to jail for marijuana possession. A disproportionate amount of those who went to state prison for drug offenses (57 percent) were people of color. Meanwhile, prohibition has sustained high black-market prices that encourage outlaw growers to use environmentally destructive cultivation practices, including energy-intensive indoor growth and unregulated growth on public lands. And, as Hickenlooper himself acknowledged back in March, black-market growers sell to black-market distributors, whose dealers don't care who they are selling to, be they adults, teens or pre-teens.

So why does Hickenlooper keep telling other states to wait? Governor, legal systems in Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere are not perfect, and may result in "unintended consequences" down the road. But those consequences will pale in comparison to those of prohibition, which remains the worst marijuana policy any state or nation can have. It encourages criminal activity that often turns violent, it leaves the door open for underage use, it unfairly punishes minorities, and it wastes billions of taxpayer dollars on largely symbolic and ineffectual raids.

Governor, show some backbone on this. Your state is leading the way on sensible marijuana policy - own it, and act the part. Endorse New Jersey Senator Cory Booker's recent bill to deschedule and decriminalize cannabis at the federal level. Remind other governors of the awful social and financial effects of prohibition, and encourage any state considering legalization efforts to move forward. Take a stand against an unjust policy that has been mindlessly, cruelly, and needlessly extended for decades. The citizens of this country need any kind of positive leadership they can get right now, and on drug policy, you're in a great position to lead.