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.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Legal cannabis is getting greener, but illegal weed is still a problem

Good news is hard to come by these days, so when I find it, especially within my own little area of expertise, it really is worth savoring - even though it comes from what is basically a report about a report.

Ahem. Per Forbes, a recent report by the decidedly pro-cannabis media firms Salar Media and Civilized Media pulled out five major trends in the legal cannabis industry, and a push for environmental sustainability is one of them:
"The cultivation of cannabis is leading to a greater stress on water and sustainability practices in agriculture"
Huzzah! Music to the pro-weed environmentalist's ears! But then, alas, dismay: the report proceeds to conveniently ignore the systematic ecosystem destruction carried out by unregulated pot growers in northern California, choosing instead to praise the growers' firm Humboldt's Finest for its promotion of "a rain grown, sun grown cultivation technique."

Humboldt's Finest, a coalition of sustainable growers in northern California,
is leading legal weed's push for 
environmental sustainability.
That's all well and good, but Humboldt's Finest - a small coalition of ecologically conscious growers - does not even begin to represent the dominant growing practices in Humboldt County or the rest of northern California. Based on recent estimates, there are at least some 10,000 growers in the region, and most of them do not belong to Humboldt's Finest. Most of them do not even grow for the legal market, and most of them are regularly dumping plastic and pesticides into the woods and siphoning water out of already-stressed river systems. Moreover, even the responsible growers of Humboldt's Finest play a role in the excessive erosion that clogs those same river systems with silt.

To be clear, I'm not faulting Humboldt's Finest for doing what they do; it is laudable that a contingent of growers in the nation's most famous weed-growing region are leading a push for sustainability. But I don't think it is responsible for pro-cannabis outlets like Salar and Civilized Media to tout those positives without acknowledging that overall, cannabis farming is still unsustainable, and it will take a supreme effort by far more people than just those inside the industry to reverse course.

Reports on (and on behalf of) the legal cannabis industry need to acknowledge the ecological destruction of outlaw marijuana growing and put pressure on lawmakers (especially federal lawmakers) to develop policies that will rein it in. So far, the policy that seems most likely to achieve that is federal legalization. Prohibition may be over in California and many other parts of the West, but that doesn't mean it isn't still propping up the nationwide price for black-market marijuana. With high prices, outlaw growers are encouraged to keep up the large-scale, environmentally destructive cultivation methods that are currently wreaking ecological havoc in California.

In short, it's good to read that those observing the cannabis industry identify sustainability as a salient trend, but those who support legal weed need to keep the pressure on state and federal lawmakers to legalize and properly regulate the industry. Legal, sustainable cannabis should be the law of all the land - not just in states that are on the vanguard of the new industry. The long-term health of northern California's forests depend on it.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: John Hudak, Marijuana: A Short History (2016)

As the many past and present books about it attest, marijuana is a subject rich in social, environmental, and political history. That's why it is strange - and perhaps a testament to the entrenched taboos of prohibition - that the history of marijuana has remained nearly untouched by professional historians.

Journalists, botanists, legal scholars, and geographers have all weighed in on the subject, and many have produced valuable histories of a plant that we are still attempting to fully understand. Yet the only professional history of marijuana to-date has been Isaac Campos's Home Grown, about the introduction and prohibition of marijuana in Mexico. By writing Grass Roots, I am hoping to continue what Campos started, and perhaps show other professional historians that marijuana is a worthy topic crying out for useful historical analysis. In the meantime, cannabis is such a popular and timely subject that there will no doubt be many books seeking to explain, or at least engage, its origins in the United States and the wider world.

The most recent effort comes from John Hudak, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution. His Marijuana: A Short History (2016) is a fast-reading, pocket-sized guide to the plant's past in the United States. Hudak's book, like most current histories of cannabis, is aimed at the general public, and its clear and concise outlines of the plant's biology and spread across the country will help even those who know next to nothing about the plant quickly get up to speed. It is to Hudak's credit as a writer (and likely his editing team) that he is able to distill the wealth of research that went into this book into bite-sized, highly readable sections covering only the most essential information.

Structurally, Hudak breaks up the book into separate sections on the political history of prohibition and the social and cultural forces that worked against it. As a historian, I found this annoying - culture and politics exist and work in tandem, after all - but I doubt Hudak's audience will care. Overall, Hudak provides just enough context in each section so that the reader does not feel like the plant's political and social history were detached.

I also enjoyed Hudak's discussion of the Progressive movement alongside early twentieth-century efforts to regulate marijuana. This is exactly the kind of historical context modern readers need to understand the history of cannabis in the United States; it wasn't all about race and lies, as many of the popular marijuana histories assert. Rather, the federal government initially opted for a regulatory approach to cannabis drugs spearheaded by an array of Progressive-era experts from the agricultural, pharmaceutical, and medical fields.

Of course, being a "short history," Hudak had little space to delve too deeply into historical context, which is one of the book's flaws. There is, for instance, little attempt to flesh out exactly what drove the counterculture to embrace marijuana (other than it was forbidden by the loathed government). History without appropriate context is history abridged - some might say blunted. Sure, useful facts and trends come through, but there is little of the deep understanding of a subject that comes with professional historical treatment.

Another shortcoming in Hudak's short history is the lack of attention to environmental implications, especially in his discussion of present and future marijuana policy. Hudak is clearly an adept political thinker who articulately raises legitimate concerns about market regulation and patchwork legalization efforts; yet he turns a blind eye to the energy, water, and chemical consumption of what is fundamentally a crop - a highly popular crop, as it is, that covers hundreds of thousands of acres. In addition, Hudak fails to mention how or why marijuana growing changed over time - a major piece of the plant's history that deserves at least a line or two in any cannabis history, however short.

Despite these flaws, Marijuana: A Short History does what it sets out to do: provide a concise, accurate history of pot in the United States for anyone who wants to know about it. For its clarity, fact collection, and brevity, Hudak's book will likely be found on the desks of journalists, on politicians' bookshelves, and in think-tank libraries across the country. Indeed, because of Hudak's superb final section on current marijuana policy, I'd recommend Marijuana: A Short History over outdated guides such as Beau Kilmer et al.'s Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know (2012). And hopefully, Hudak's work will inspire professional historians to delve a bit deeper into the roots of marijuana in the United States.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Modern-Day Reefer Madness: MJ "Dangerous Gateway Drug," Will Get You Deported, Homeland Security Says

John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security and part of President Donald Trump's dusty old fossil cabinet, has a message for all Americans straight outta 1956 ...  or 1972 ... or 1984:

"Let me be clear about marijuana. It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs."

Kelly, who also submitted the poster at right as evidence for his claims, added that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) "will continue to use marijuana possession, distribution and convictions as essential elements as they build their deportation removal apprehension packages for targeted operations against illegal aliens living in the United States."

Kelly's words speak to yet another bizarre and terrifying spectacle unfolding in Donald Trump's America: Latinos who have done nothing else wrong besides smoke pot - even medicinally, even in one of the many states where medical or recreational pot is legal - kiss your family, job and adopted home country goodbye. President Trump thanks you for all the taxes you paid while you were here, so he can go have fun at Mar-a-Lago.

What about all the white people living in states with legal MJ who break federal law every time they light up? If Kelly was serious about applying "federal law," he and Jeff Sessions would be invading Colorado, California, and the dozens of other states with legal pot users. Luckily for those states, he's only serious about enforcing "federal law" on the most vulnerable of people, because Trump's administration is the equivalent of a schoolyard bully - wanting to appear tough by pushing around those it can for whatever reason it can, while cowardly ignoring those who are able to stand up for themselves.

Okay, Kelly's had his say. Now let ME be clear about marijuana: it is not a gateway drug. The media knows it. Scientists know it. Almost everyone who has read any credible book or article about weed knows it. Simply repeating an untrue statement for decades does not make it any more true.

Of course, this is the Trump Administration w're talking about, with Jeff Sessions, a latter-day George Wallace who still believes that locking people up for 180 years will fix a non-existent crime problem, at the helm of the Justice Department. 

So I don't exactly expect anyone in the admin to be truthful about anything. But I feel it is my duty as a historian to remind people that Reefer Madness is alive and well in the present, even as there doesn't appear to be a reversal of widespread marijuana legalization anytime soon. 

Marijuana is not a "gateway drug" or a "narcotic." Even the descriptor "potentially dangerous" exaggerates the worst effects of marijuana use. No one has died from its consumption. Caffeine withdrawals are more intense. Based on the dozens of interviews I've conducted and on the dozens of books I've read about pot over the last three years, I'd even say that there is a blurred line between "medicinal" and "recreational" use; whether they realize it or not, many so-called "recreational users" smoke pot to cope with everyday ailments such as stress, anxiety, insomnia, and moodiness. These are not necessarily diagnosable conditions, yet marijuana helps treat them.

The new baseline for how everyone should talk about weed is something like this: "Marijuana is a medicine procured from one of the world's oldest and most widespread crops. Like all medicines, it has benefits, side-effects, and detrimental effects that vary from user to user and need to be understood in an empirical context based on experience and scientific evidence." 

As far as I'm concerned, in the age of the anti-information and anti-human Trump Administration, ALL marijuana use is medicinal.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Pre-Order the Hempiricist's Book and Get 30% Off!

Marijuana legalization is unfolding across the American West, but cultivation of the cannabis plant is anything but green. Unregulated outdoor grows are polluting ecosystems, high-powered indoor grows are churning out an excessive carbon footprint, and the controversial crop is becoming an agricultural boon just as the region faces an unprecedented water crisis.  

Understanding how we got here and how the legal cannabis industry might become more environmentally sustainable is the focus of my new book, Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West, coming this October by way of Oregon State University Press!

Pre-order the book here, and use promo code F17 to get 30% off your copy!

More from the pre-publication flyer: 

"Grass Roots looks at the history of marijuana growing in the American West, from Mexican American growers on sugar beet farms to today’s sophisticated greenhouse gardens. Over the past eighty years, federal marijuana prohibition has had a multitude of consequences, but one of the most important is also one of the most overlooked—environmental degradation. Grass Roots argues that the most environmentally negligent farming practices, such as indoor growing, were borne out of prohibition, and now those same practices are continuing under legalization. 

Grass Roots uses cannabis’s history as a crop to inform its regulation in the present, highlighting current efforts to make the marijuana industry more sustainable. There are many social and political histories of cannabis, but in considering cannabis as a plant rather than as a drug, Grass Roots offers the only agriculturally focused history of cannabis to-date." 

About the Author
Nick Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University and a master’s degree in American history from Colorado State University. A former freelance journalist in his home state of Illinois, Nick now lives in Longmont, Colorado, and works as associate editor of the online Colorado Encyclopedia.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Report Finds Dozens of Women Abused at No. Cal. Marijuana Farms

Today I stumbled across this awful, yet not-so-surprising investigative report that details how dozens of women, and likely more, are sexually abused on pot farms in the Emerald Triangle:
“Women believe they are getting hired for trimming work, and then they’re drugged and raped,” said Maryann Hayes Mariani, a coordinator for the North Coast Rape Crisis Team. “Everybody looks at (the region) like it’s the Land of Oz. I’m just so tired of pretending like it’s not happening here.”
Like most other industries, institutions, and organizations in the twenty-first century, the marijuana industry is plagued by sexism and sexual exploitation. Despite the growing number of women  working in legal weed, the majority of growers, drug policy reformers, and business owners are men, setting up an unequal power balance in which women can be harassed and abused without punishment for the harassers and abusers.

Even the act of pot farming itself relies on female exploitation: only female cannabis plants produce marijuana, and once they are pollinated, the flowers cease producing psychoactive resin. Thus, the goal of marijuana cultivation is essentially to isolate and sexually starve the female plants, so they keep coating their flowers with resin until they expire.

There is a sad irony in the fact that female bud trimmers are taken advantage of sexually in the same space where female cannabis plants are sexually starved - both women and female plants are manipulated to please male growers.

Abuse Under the Trees

Of course, since plants aren't people, only the women are victims. And per the Reveal investigation, just as the remote wilderness of northern California makes it very difficult for authorities to find illegal pot grows, it also makes it difficult for those same authorities to confirm women's stories of sexual exploitation. For that reason, many women decline to report their horrible experiences to the police. Disturbingly, still others never show up again:
"The number of trimmigrants who go missing alone is overwhelming for law enforcement, fueling an epidemic of the lost. In 2015, Humboldt County reported 352 missing people, more per capita than any other county in the state."
The secretive environment in which all northern California pot growers operate has also given rise to an underground sex trade, in which young women post advertisements online claiming to be "trimmers," then sell themselves to lonely male growers in the hills. Pimps also run rings on the north coast, bringing a parallel tier of female exploitation to the area. Prostitution can bring these women as much as $500 an hour - far more than they would make simply trimming.

So to recap: we have dozens of women who are sexually abused and exploited in their positions as seasonal weed trimmers; men who are on dangerous power trips as the heads of the region's most lucrative industry; a lack of willingness and ability on behalf of law enforcement to find and punish abusers; and an online escort business that feeds into male growers' fantasies of having powerless, sexually available women around them for the right price - whether they're paying them for "work" or explicitly for sex.

Will Legalization Help?

The theme running through all of these events is the remote and quasi-lawless environment of northern California - a continuity that has existed since the beginning of white American settlement in the area, through alcohol prohibition and the twentieth-century logging industry, all the way to the present marijuana scene. Indeed, the area's remoteness and secretive culture are the main reasons why the Reveal piece is not optimistic that California's recent vote to legalize pot will help the situation.

But I'm not so sure that legalization can't at least provide opportunities to stop these abuses. For one thing, legalization is bound to make the culture surrounding marijuana cultivation far less secretive, even in remote places. For another, an ideal legalization rollout would include resource packages and a firm directive to local law enforcement to deal with sexual predation, prostitution, and other black-market problems in the marijuana industry. The state could fund this by earmarking a certain amount of legal marijuana sales taxes for law enforcement and drug treatment programs, like Colorado does.

Of course, since rape victims are also routinely mistreated and disrespected by law enforcement, there is no guarantee that any of this offers a permanent solution. After reading about the awful experiences of these women in northern California, however, I guess I'd just prefer to hope.