Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Highlights from Oregon's Cannabis past

Today cannabis is officially legal in Oregon. Before today, the only Oregonians who could legally use cannabis were those registered with the state's medical cannabis system, which was approved in 1998; they could possess up to six plants and 24 ounces of dried cannabis. Now, possession and growth of the herb are legal, but there is not yet a legal way to buy it.

The full legalization initiative, Measure 91, was approved by 56% of Oregonians in the midterm elections on November 4, 2014; similar measures made cannabis legal in Alaska and Washington, D.C. The Oregon state legislature has spent months developing regulations for the new industry, and just yesterday sent a bill to Governor Kate Brown's desk that does the following:
  • Limits the size of existing medical cannabis grows beyond cities to 96 plants and grows in urban neighborhoods to 24 plants. New growers in both locations will only be allowed to grow half as many. Under the medical cannabis system, growers could only grow enough cannabis to supply four patients, which amounted to 24 plants, 72 seedlings, and six pounds of the dried product.

  • Allows city and county governments in eastern Oregon, where Measure 91 received the least support, to shut out the cannabis industry altogether. In the rest of the state, voters have to approve any attempts to ban the industry.

  • Bans edible packaging that is deemed attractive to children

  • Establishes mandatory standard testing procedures for pesticides, molds, and mildews

  • Restricts industry employment to residents who have lived in Oregon for at least two years, but allows out-of-state investors.

  • Tracks the product of retail growers from seed to sale and requires growers to file reports on their inventory
As Oregonians shake off the shackles of prohibition and take a toke or two in celebration, here's a look back at some interesting moments in Oregon's cannabis history:

1876 - The drug importer Craddock & Co. places an ad for "Cannabis indica" in Hillsboro, Oregon's Washington Independent. The Philadelphia-based firm calls the herb "the Great East India Remedy" and claims it is "warranted to cure Consumption, Bronchitis and Asthma." Price per bottle: $2.50.

1895 - In a public call for supplies, the board of trustees for the Oregon state insane asylum requests "1 pound granulated cannabis indica" under "Drug Supplies."

1915 - Hashish in Portland

Although it wasn't too popular, drug cannabis was imported from Great Britain (which imported it from India) and sold in drugstores throughout the United States in the late nineteenth century. On March 3, 1915, The Morning Oregonian ran a story about four drug stores in Portland's business district that were found to be selling "hashish" to youths between the ages of 11 and 18.

On May 22, the Oregonian ran a news brief that discussed an "ordinance prohibiting the sale of hashish, an opiate said to have found its way to the Portland market." Though the newspaper incorrectly identified cannabis as an opiate, it at least gave the proper official name, "cannabis indica."

1920 - A Mrs. Dolores "Fernands" - likely a misspelling of "Fernandes" or "Fernandez" - is arrested in Portland after plucking "a large fruit box"'s worth of cannabis from a plant that apparently sprung up near Union Station. She then sold a small quantity of it to a "Maxinieno Mendez" for $1.35. The police told The Morning Oregonian that the weed gives the smoker "a laughing jag."

1966 - This happened:

1973 - Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize cannabis, reducing the penalty for possession of up to one ounce to a $100 fine.

1998 - Fifty-four percent of Oregon voters approve medical cannabis via Ballot Measure 67.

Oregon readers may know of more events that should be included here; if you are one of those readers, please let me know in the comments what else I should add!

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Hempiricist Asks for Your Help

Projections for first month of Crowdfunding campaign.

And now comes the point where I humbly petition my one-time visitors (the majority of my readership here), as well as the few people who have nothing better to do than read this blog regularly, for a pittance to help fund my research activities this summer.

I'm asking for a few bucks here and there to pay for food, fuel, and (modest) lodging as I make my way from Denver to Oakland to Medford, OR, and back again.

As part of my ongoing investigation of modern Cannabis agriculture and its effects on the natural environment, I will be traveling to:
  • Oaksterdam University, the Cannabis-growing school in Oakland, CA, to observe a class on modern Cannabis horticulture,  and 
  • to the Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon to walk the hills of one of the nation's lesser-known weed-growing regions (Northern California, after all, gets all the press). There I will meet with an archaeologist with whom I will co-author an article on the history of Cannabis culture in Southern Oregon, as well as interview local growers and mine local libraries for historical documents.
My wife and I just purchased a new vehicle so that we could both remain functionally apart as she travels across Colorado on medical rotations for her Physician's Assistant program. The extra set of wheels makes this trip possible, but my part-time income from a local non-profit does little more than pay the bills (although I am extremely grateful for it). 

So please, if you have both the will and the spare change to help me make this book the best it can be, throw some coin at my GoFundMe campaign or my Paypal Account (by clicking on the "Donate" button to the right).

Thank you!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Bruce Barcott, Weed the People (2015)

I have spent more than two years on this blog lobbying for people to see cannabis as a plant instead of a drug. That’s why I was delirious with joy when I read the following realization that journalist Bruce Barcott had during a talk with a grower for his recent book Weed the People:
“I tuned him out because at that moment it occurred to me I had never been in the presence of a live marijuana plant. What an odd thing. I’d been living for nearly half a century in a nation obsessed with marijuana … and had never, ever come face to face with the actual living plant itself. That struck me as completely insane. Because you know what? It’s not a nuclear warhead. It’s not a deadly virus. It’s a plant.” (p. 106-7)
Thank you, sir! 

Anyone who doesn’t know how to feel about the rising tide of cannabis legalization in the United States should read Barcott’s book, because he is right there with you. Or rather, he was, before he finished Weed the People. As Barcott points out, weed in America is a lot like gay marriage in America; the younger generations consider the legalization of both common sense, but it has taken the older generations a few more years to recover from their indoctrinated stupor and let exposure and experience guide them into the light.

Through his well-balanced, thoroughly researched, and highly compelling book, Barcott offers just such a re-education. His success rests partly on the fact that while researching Weed the People, Barcott underwent the same re-education, the same dissolution of his preconceptions against cannabis and those who use it, that many of his readers are likely to experience. 

But make no mistake, Weed the People is no narcissistic trot through its author’s epiphany; rather, the brilliance of the book lies in Barcott’s ability to bring his own thoughts, reflections, and prejudices into honest dialogue with the reality he finds in the field. 

And—this is shocking for a pot book written by a journalist—there is plenty of reality in Weed the People. It is an outstanding work of journalism that covers nearly all the current issues in a refreshingly responsible and un-sensationalist way: The “weed is great” crowd will love the first 12 chapters, in which Barcott details the medical utility of the plant, his own experience getting a medical card and making his first sweaty, anxiety-ridden legal weed purchase, and all the unjust evils that have befallen the plant and its champions over the ages. But that same crowd will undoubtedly wince at chapters 13-16, in which he puts the “100-percent safe” myth directly to bed by examining the very real and very concerning evidence surrounding cannabis’s effects on young minds and the mentally ill. 

But Barcott is no prohibitionist. At one point he has dinner with Kevin Sabet, the leader of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (pp. 168-71). SAM is perhaps the nation’s largest anti-pot group, pushing for a complete rollback of legalization in states where it has occurred. Barcott hears Sabet out over some pork shoulder and tries to point out the flaws in Sabet’s claim that, since nobody is getting arrested for joints anymore, legalization doesn’t need to happen (the main flaw is that thousands of people—a disproportionate amount of them black—still do get arrested for possession, with real consequences for their loved ones and life chances). 

When he realizes that Sabet wants to hear none of this, Barcott does the right thing, if not the “objective” thing—he tosses Sabet and his ideas right into the dustbin of cannabis ideology. No more print space for you, Kevin. Barcott wastes little time with prohibitionists in his book. As he should—they are truly a dying breed, and it’s time more journalists stopped giving their arguments print space and airtime. 

The book clocks in a bit long at 317 pages, and there are too many chapters (30). But I found myself so engrossed in Barcott’s straightforward and oft-hilarious writing that I hardly noticed how many of those chapters I was blazing through. Barcott also does something that more journalists need to start doing—he balances concern for the negative effects of cannabis with facts and figures on alcohol and other drugs, arguing that “we need to consider marijuana within the context of other inebriating substances and their effects on society” (p. 241).

I mentioned that Barcott covered nearly all the current cannabis-related issues, and one that he left out is hugely important: the environment. There are some 30,000 cannabis grows in Northern California, most of them unregulated and environmentally destructive. In Colorado regulations make it nearly impossible to grow outdoors, using natural light instead of fossil fuel-burning electricity. It takes two pounds of CO2 emissions to produce a single joint. Barcott points out none of this in his book; the closest he comes to it is when he asks a large warehouse grower in Denver how much he spends on electricity each month (p. 141). This struck me as a bit surprising—isn’t Barcott from Seattle, one of the most environmentally conscious places on Earth?

Nevertheless, Weed the People is a journalistic triumph, one that will likely convince many people still on the fence about pot legalization that OK, yes, he’s right, we need to be more rational and regulate this stuff. In that, Bruce Barcott has done a favor for not only himself but also for the majority of level-headed Americans who are sick and tired of mainstream lies and failed drug policies. The legalization movement owes him a "thank you."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mapping Cannabis Cultivation in California, 1900-1960

Thanks to a plethora of books, articles, documentaries, and TV and radio stories, many people across the country know Northern California as the hotbed of cannabis agriculture in the Golden State. Today, the region is home to an estimated 30,000 grow sites. But before the Back-to-the-Landers seeded a revolution in the redwood-covered hills during the 1960s and '70s, nearly all California-grown cannabis came from the farms, ranches, cities, and suburbs from Sacramento on south.

The following maps show a total of 142 instances of cannabis cultivation in California from 1900-1960; of those, 75 instances were reported between 1950 and 1960. The map on the left shows cultivation sites from c. 1900-1950 (the colors mark the decade but aren't relevant in this post), and the map on the right shows sites from 1950-1960. Note the relatively scarce amount of reports on Cannabis cultivation over the first half of the twentieth century (left), as well as the conspicuous absence of cultivation in Northern California throughout both periods:

These maps also demonstrate an important shift in the location of cannabis cultivation, from rural sites such as farms and ranches to urban and suburban sites such as backyards, gardens, and parks.

Zoomed-in versions of these maps more clearly demonstrate the shift. First, the map of cultivation sites from 1900-1950. Note the sporadic locations of sites in the rural Central Valley, as well as on the outskirts of cities such as Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles:

Now, the map of the 75 reports on Cannabis growth from 1950-1960. Note the lack of reports from the rural Central Valley, as cultivation sites (as well as instances of natural growth) clustered in the San Francisco and Los Angeles Metropolitan Areas. The high density of cultivation reports in both locales reflects an emerging cannabis culture amongst the rapid urbanization and population growth after World War II:

Cannabis cultivation was prevalent in many urban areas across the country during this period, from New York City to Chicago to Denver. But as opposed to other states, whose populations of cannabis users, dealers, and growers were dominated by the working class, California's sunny climate and rampant growth translated into people from all walks of life trying their hand at cannabis cultivation; growers included Hollywood actors, middle-class couples and beatniks, and suburban teenagers, as well as members of the working class.

During the late 1960s a number of factors, including increasing urban crime rates and the decline of urban counterculture enclaves such as San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood, many young counterculturals left the cities for the countryside. A great many of them headed north and ended up in the rugged hills and dense forests of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties; in these remote areas, some began to experiment with cannabis growing for personal use or to make a living. In time they and their descendants would build an entire cannabis-based economy, leading to the region's current nickname, the Emerald Triangle.

All maps copyright 2015 by Nick Johnson. Map data obtained via

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Modern Day Reefer Madness: After shootout, Louisiana sheriff claims legal pot will bring "insurmountable havoc," totally forgets about the gun thing

Just listen to Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand's epic anti-cannabis rant, given at a press conference two days after his deputies gunned down an armed pot dealer in a shootout on the streets of New Orleans:

For those of you too lazy to watch, Normand is incensed that the media is bothering to inquire about the role of his deputies in the shooting, as witnesses reported that the victim, 25-year-old Desmond Willis, fired at officers after he was pulled over:
"We are thinking about decriminalizing marijuana, and we think all of this s*** is going to go away when we do, so, hello?" Normand said. "The havoc it will wreak on our streets will be insurmountable."
Whew, that is some grade-A Reefer Madness lingo right there. Sheriff Normand's bout of eloquent hysteria would've made Harry Anslinger proud. Good thing the CBS news crew in New Orleans did its homework and squashed this uninformed claim where it stood:
"In fact, crime stats in Colorado shows both violent crimes and property crimes are down since pot became legal, and [Kevin] Caldwell [executive director of pro-legalization group Commonsense NOLA] said part of that is because of the jobs and economic boost the marijuana market has created for the state."
Indeed. I live by South Broadway in Denver, near at least a dozen legal Cannabis dispensaries, and the streets are noticeably free of havoc, insurmountable or otherwise. After nearly fifteen years of legal medical marijuana and nearly sixteen months of legal recreational pot, Colorado is decidedly not the crime-ridden, degenerate wasteland that prohibitionists hoped it would be. Regulation works, however imperfect it may be, and it can help prevent deadly black market-related shootouts like the one Normand's deputies were involved in.

It's not surprising that a good-ol'-boy sheriff like Normand blamed Cannabis for the shootout; like the DEA and many other police departments across the country, he views drug-related crime as a symptom of the drug itself rather than of the draconian laws against it. It's pretty simple: pistol-wielding street dealers have no place in a legal, regulated Cannabis market.

Unlike the sheriff - who wondered quite loudly at his press conference "[w]hy are we not talking about the drug dealing!?" - I don't wonder why Willis was dealing pot; the illegal drug racket is an alluring option to those who grow up in a world of poverty, limited or no education, and few other options for making a living.

Instead, I wonder why nobody is talking about the seemingly effortless acquisition of firearms by anyone and everyone who wants them. After all, it was the obvious and deadly threat presented by the firearm, not the pot, that threatened the lives of the deputies and the public, in this case and many others like it.

I wonder if Normand's office has done any investigations into how these drug dealers are acquiring their guns and how the flow might be stopped, or at the very least combated? If anything is causing "insurmountable havoc" on American streets, it is the deadly combination of arcane, simplistic anti-drug laws and an unchecked, and seemingly unscrutinized, underground firearms trade. These two phenomena are responsible for more "drug-related" violence than any amount of pot ever. Our inability to discuss and engage these two huge oversights in public policy is what ultimately provides the impetus for broad-daylight shootouts like the one in New Orleans, which could have very easily claimed the lives of law officers as well as innocent bystanders.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mapping Cannabis Cultivation Across the American West, c. 1895-1950

Each pin on the following map represents an instance of drug cannabis (Cannabis indica) cultivation in the American West between 1895 and 1950, based on evidence collected from dozens of contemporary newspaper reports. The pins are color-coded according to decade, with instances before 1900 marked by brown pins, 1900-1910 by red, 1910s by yellow, 1920s by blue, 1930s by green, and 1940s by purple.* 

Copyright 2015 by Nick Johnson.

As the dearth of brown, red, and yellow markers indicates (in this view, these markers are mostly obscured by later instances), there are few instances of cannabis cultivation before 1920. This is largely in agreement with the existing scholarly literature on cannabis cultivation in the United States, and the explosion of later instances reflects the influx of Mexican and Mexican American immigrants to the agricultural fields of the West during the first half of the twentieth century. Many of these laborers grew, sold, and dealt in the plant as a recreational and medicinal substance, as well as a cash crop that helped offset meager incomes in the beet fields.

The map is far from finished; I will continually update it as I find new sources for this period, and I will eventually build it out to include the decades between 1950 and 1990 as well.

Though it took a good deal of time to research and put together, this map is still no more than a quick and dirty sketch of where cannabis was cultivated during this time period. The sources for most of these markers are newspaper articles from an online database,; I had to work with the sources available in the database - which, as is obvious on the map - yielded few or no articles from papers in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

As someone who lacks both the time and resources to go galavanting around the great public libraries of the West, this is the best I could come up with. Nonetheless, based on a close reading of the sources I do have access to, I believe the data shown on the map is sufficient to draw a few important conclusions about the spread and purpose of cannabis cultivation across the West.

Some highlights/analysis of the map in its current state:

-A total of 62 instances of cultivation across 5 decades are shown. Most of these were recorded only after a grower was arrested or a patch of plants was found, so the figure of 62 surely represents only a fraction of the cannabis cultivation that actually occurred during that time period.

-A few of these instances may be attributable to wild hemp that sprouted from birdseed, although  I was careful to map only instances where I was confident that the plants were being cultivated by someone. Wild specimens of Cannabis indica produce only small amounts of psychoactive cannabinoids, so a cultivator is needed to produce a marketable drug product.

-The earliest instance of cultivation mapped is a 1895 hemp field near Stockton, California, operated by Syrian immigrants. An article in the San Francisco Call from June 24 of that year describes the farm as a center of production for "large quantities of hashish."

-The earliest instance of cultivation by growers of Mexican descent on the map (it's not clear from the source whether they were immigrants or Mexican Americans) is in 1905 in Redlands, California. The plants were found growing in an "enclosure" at a property where authorities also found a cache of stolen articles. The instance was also reported in the San Francisco Call.

-Many of these instances involved laborers in the sugar beet fields. As such, even with the lack of newspaper reports from other states, it is not surprising that Colorado and California had the heaviest concentration of cultivation instances; those states were the no. 1 and no. 2 sugar beet producers in the nation between 1931 and 1935.

-Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common locations of cannabis cultivation include farms and ranches (20 instances) and gardens and backyards (14 instances). Growers on farms and ranches most commonly hid their crop among corn - a phenomenon that continues to this day - although there is one report of cannabis found amongst an alfalfa crop.

-Other reports of cultivation do not name specific locations, choosing to refer instead to "the Mexican quarter," the "Mexican district," or simply a "patch." Other grow locations include window boxes (1), vacant lots (2), and municipal parks (2).

To get an idea of how drug cannabis cultivation spread across the American West during this period, see the succession of maps below, which show the explosion of reported instances between 1920 and 1950 associated with the spread of Mexican and Mexican American labor across the region:




All maps copyright 2015 by Nick Johnson.

*The one light green marker documents an instance of use by worker in the 1930s, who likely obtained it from a grower in the area.

Sources for this post include articles from The San Francisco Call, Oakland Tribune, Corona Daily Independent, Bakersfield Californian, Daily Heyward (CA) Review Woodland (CA) Daily Democrat, San Mateo Times, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Las Animas (CO) Leader, Salt Lake Tribune, Las Vegas (NM) Daily Optic, Albuquerque Journal, San Antonio Light, Walla Walla Union Bulletin, Centralia Daily Chronicle, Montana Standard, Helena Independent, Billings Gazette, Bisbee Daily Review.

The article on the 1895 hashish farm near Stockton was found in Dale H. Gieringer, "The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California," Contemporary Drug Problems 26, no. 2 (Summer 1999), 7-8.

Friday, February 27, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Chris S. Duvall, "Cannabis" (2015)

Clearly written, comprehensive, and rigorously researched, Chris Duvall's Cannabis (London: Reaktion Books, 2015) is a superb, easily digestable crash course on the history of the remarkably diverse human-Cannabis relationship. As one of the few true scholarly histories of the cannabis plant produced in the last decade, Cannabis clarifies or refutes many of the widely accepted claims about the plant’s origins, dispersal, and history found in a wealth of semi-scholarly works.

But the book is much more than a corrective of existing cannabis literature. Perhaps Duvall’s most important contribution to current conversations about the plant, scholarly or otherwise, is his observation that people’s diverse experiences with the plant, as well as the profound symbolism they attach to it, have shaped, complicated, and confused our understanding of it. This is something that everyone writing or speaking about cannabis should be aware of, yet Duvall, a geographer at the University of New Mexico, is the first cannabis writer to dedicate two entire book chapters to it. Additionally, the book’s framing of the history of cannabis as a plant instead of a drug (perhaps unsurprising, given its inclusion in Reaktion’s Botanical series) helps to push cannabis scholarship in a more honest and valuable direction.

In fewer than 200 pages, Duvall marshals an assortment of sources in several languages to sweep the reader around the world not once but twice; he covers the global use and spread of both primary species of cannabis, sativa (hemp) and indica (drug). One of Duvall’s major contributions here is emphasizing the under-acknowledged African contribution to both the dispersal and naming of the plant, especially in the New World. Noting that “etymologists have barely considered possible African etymologies” for the plant, he explains the term “marijuana”—the most popular official word for the plant today—as being a Spanish mispronunciation of mariamba, a “plural of riamba, meaning ‘cannabis’ in several Central African Languages” (p. 15).

Cannabis is not only the history of a human-plant relationship, but also of how the multiple experiences within that relationship have confounded attempts to understand it. For example, Duvall notes that “what people mean by any Cannabis term is conditioned by their experience with the plant” (p. 25). “Marijuana aficionados,” he notes, routinely use sativa and indica to differentiate between drug plants that produce a stimulating or relaxing high, even though botanically speaking all drug cannabis is indica.  Duvall also emphasizes drug cannabis’s historical association with “labour underclasses,” (p. 155) people whose experiences are often absent from the historical record and thus only scarcely inform current understandings of the human-cannabis relationship.

Importantly, though, Duvall also stresses the role of the plant itself in producing such distorted and incomplete understandings of the plant: “[t]he unusual character of Cannabis—a cosmopolitan genus with two cryptic species and two symbolically charged uses—has strongly shaped how people have generated information about it” (p. 179). Overall, Duvall’s largely botanical treatment of cannabis offers a more complete view of the plant than other histories, scholarly or not, which mostly treat it as a drug.[1]  

Duvall’s Cannabis joins Jim Rendon’s Super Charged (2012) and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire (2001) as plant-centric cannabis books written for a broader audience. Yet Duvall’s Cannabis is more comprehensive in its history and more robust in its documentation, and so helps immensely in the important task of re-framing the scholarly discussion about cannabis from drug to plant.

For all its contributions to that scholarly discussion, Cannabis is also brief and highly readable—a remarkable achievement, given the inherent complexity of the plant and the cultures surrounding it. Readers will find that Duvall’s book moves at a brisk and steady pace, riddled with vibrant illustrations and peppered with historical anecdotes integrated so seamlessly that they bely what was surely an excruciating research process.
On account of its accessibility, focus on cannabis as a plant, and upfront grappling with the confusion and myths surrounding the complex human-cannabis relationship, Duvall’s Cannabis is perhaps the most important scholarly work on the plant to date.

[1] See Peter Hecht, Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot went Legit (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Isaac Campos, Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012); Martin A. Lee, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana—Medical, Recreational, Scientific (New York: Scribner, 2012); Martin Booth, Cannabis: A History (New York: Picador, 2003); Larry Sloman, Reefer Madness: A History of Marijuana (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1979).