On Cannabis, Drug Plants, and World Societies




Moments of radical drug-policy change, like the one in Colorado in 2012, inspire scholars to think differently about "controversial" topics like drug plants. (Image: warondrugs101.com)
Like so many projects, this one was inspired by a question raised in the context of what I once understood to be an unlikely and wholly surprising event: the voter-approved legalization of recreational cannabis in the state of Colorado on November 6, 2012. That night I sat with a group of friends under the heated lamps of a rooftop bar in Fort Collins, watching the election returns, when a big-bodied young man who had been staring at his cell phone leapt from his barstool: “It passed! Amendment 64 passed!” As I watched the man’s back-length dreadlocks writhe in elation, my emotions ranged from happiness—what I had long considered to be an overdue change to draconian drug policy had finally been put into the law books somewhere—to complete astonishment that the change even happened at all. Somewhere between those emotions and the dread-headed man’s announcement that he was now going to smoke a celebratory blunt in his car, a question blared into my head: “Of all places, why is cannabis now legal in Colorado, and of all times, why now?”

It is a question that sparked a year and a half of research, and probably many more, on the cannabis plant and its human history. At this point, I can only hypothesize an answer. But that is no longer my main concern, as in the course of my research the entire story of drug plants, with its remarkable evolutionary twists, poetic dichotomies of tragedy and ecstasy, and penultimate truths, bared itself before me as one of the most fascinating stories in the history of evolutionary life. In plants, humans have found nearly everything they need: food, fuel, shelter, fiber, medicine. With plants that provide these in a reasonably efficient manner, humans have formed ancient, reciprocal relationships, in which immobile plants defy the worst of their evolutionary handicaps. They increase and spread their populations rapidly via means of human waste, locomotion, cultivation, and most recently, transportation. This gives them the edge over plants that either produce nothing of benefit to humans—the rare plant indeed—or whose useful qualities have yet to be discovered. Drug plants derive all of these same benefits from humans, yet they provide us not with sustenance but with another extraordinary, if controversial benefit: The coveted shift in consciousness.

"Justifiable homicide": Marijuana & Tragedy in Humboldt County, 1970



The Eel River in Humboldt County, CA, was the site of a tragic cannabis-related shooting in October 1970.
Everything seemed to be looking up for Patrick John Berti in the fall of 1970. The 23-year-old native of Ferndale, California graduated near the top of his class at Chicago State University the previous fall, and had just spent the summer touring Alaska and Canada. He had applied to law school at San Diego State College and was waiting for a reply.[1]

On October 4, Berti's father, John, enlisted his son to help him carry debris from an old, wrecked store in nearby Waddington. On that Sunday afternoon, Patrick and Jack McCanless, another 23-year-old from Ferndale, took some debris out to be burned on a gravel bed in the Eel River, just east of Waddington near Grizzly Bluff Road.[2]
 
Two days earlier, Roscoe Rich was following his cows near the same spot on the Eel River when he noticed two four-foot marijuana plants growing in containers on the bed. Rich showed the plants to Humboldt County sheriff deputies Mel Ames and Larry Lema. Ames set up a stakeout to see who would come tend the plants. Two days later, Lema was crouched behind some bushes watching the plants when McCanless and Berti happened upon the containers and began examining them. Like many small-town Americans, Berti knew members of the local police force, including Lema. Berti's back was turned and Lema did not immediately recognize him. But he recognized McCanless, and figured he had caught the youth and a partner cultivating marijuana.[3]

His revolver drawn, Lema stepped out and called to the young men that they were under arrest. Berti, who was crouching next to one of the plants, stood up and turned around. He had taken a small twig from the plant. Lema mistook it for a weapon and fired a single shot into Berti's chest.[4]
 
It was only after Berti had uttered his final words - "Christ, Larry, you shot me!" - that Lema recognized him. As Berti lay dying on the gravel bar, Lema began handcuffing McCanless, who pleaded with the deputy to let him go get help. They went to the Rich house, where McCanless called an ambulance and Lema told Rich's son, John, to notify the sheriff's department. Berti was dead when Lema and McCanless returned to the gravel bed.

Earlier that day, Lema had witnessed his own child's baptism; his actions that afternoon ensured someone else’s would have a funeral. Presumably from Berti's limp hand, he took the six-inch marijuana twig as evidence.[5]

To understand how a sheriff's deputy could gun down a young man for simply checking out a potted plant, one has to understand the political and cultural context of California, and to some degree the nation as a whole, in the late sixties and early seventies.

BOOK REVIEW: Isaac Campos, "Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs"


Via an exhaustive review of the sparse historical record on his subject, Isaac Campos has both recast the traditional narrative of the U.S. drug war and introduced a fascinating new approach to drug history with his book Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs (2012).

An impressive collection of newspaper articles, serial novels, laws, pharmacopeia, and other archival sources allows Campos to argue that roots of the popular conception of “Reefer Madness,” typically thought to be an American invention, stretch all the way back through Mexican history, from the colonial through the early modern period (5). He notes that Mexico was no stranger to psychoactive drugs, as “more than half” of the 180 known hallucinogenic substances “are used in Mexico” (44). Though the marijuana analyzed in Campos’ book is basically an adapted version of the Spanish hemp plant (cannabis sativa) introduced in the sixteenth century, by the end of the nineteenth the plant had gone from coveted Spanish crop to indigenous race-polluter.

Campos’ research counters the modern conception of a Mexico forever filled with illicit drugs and users, as he could find very few references of marijuana use in the country before the 1850s (104). Even after that date, marijuana use was consolidated in the prisons and soldiers’ barracks (135). Campos contends that this contributed to the drug’s association with racial degeneration among the nationalist boosters – those who sought to solidify the nascent country’s place among the enlightened nations of the West (132). Nationalists initially perceived cannabis – largely obtained via herbolarias, medicine women who scoured the countryside for useful plants and sold them at market – as a uniquely Mexican plant, and therefore worth celebrating (94, 116). But, Campos argues, as they took up European conceptions of the sensuous and savage “Orient” and attempted to distance their own nation from them, they increasingly came to see cannabis as an indigenous intoxicant that threatened, along with alcohol and others,  to wholly reduce Mexicans to “the ferocious tendencies of the Aztecs” (130).

California's Nascent Marijuana Industry, 1960-63

California's famous marijuana-growing region, the "Emerald Triangle," shown in green.
 In 1954, the Ukiah, California Kiwanis club invited Reno Bartolomie, a special investigator for the DA in Mendocino County,to speak at one of their weekly dinners. Bartolomie, who would later be elected sheriff of Mendocino County, discussed the state's growing concern with drugs and told the group their county "is fortunate in being one of the clean spots in the state" (1).

Eight years later, as sheriff, Bartolomie could no longer make that claim, as by August of 1962 his deputies oversaw the pullup of 121 marijuana plants from the backyard of Mendocino City resident Donald Treadwell (2).

Along with Humboldt and Trinity counties, Mendocino County is now part of northern California's "Emerald Triangle" - the country's hotbed of outdoor marijuana farming. But before the back-to-the-land hippies began cultivating marijuana in the warm, rugged region in the 1970s, large-scale growing operations stateside were few and far between (3). Of course, it has been well-documented on this blog that California's climate allowed dozens, probably hundreds of people to grow their own supply - and sometimes a little extra for the black market - pretty much anywhere (4). One L.A man in 1959 grew 550 plants in his backyard (5). But before the 1980s most of the nation's illicit marijuana was grown in and smuggled from Mexico, Jamaica, or Colombia (6).

However, a healthy foreign supply did not keep enterprising Californians like Treadwell from trying to get a piece of the black pie. Treadwell's partner, Jacques Mion, was an artist from San Francisco, a city that harbored more than its share of pot-smoking beatniks in the fifties (7). It is likely that either one or both partners smoked; deputies confiscated a "pipe" which, given the lack of poppy seeds or plants, was probably not "used for opium" (8). It was the cultural descendents of beats like Mion who would usher in Mendocino County's era of large-scale, high-quality marijuana production.

PHOTO: Marines "burn down" in Chicago, 1957


The caption from this syndicated photo in Eureka, California's Humboldt Standard in August 1957 pretty much says it all. An article in the Hayward Daily Review four days earlier noted that the Cook County sheriff was withholding the exact location of the patch. My guess is most residents could have simply followed the smoke and skunky odor to thegrow site, which does not appear to be in a particularly urban area.

Huge, outdoor grows like this one were rarely found near large cities, where people often grew marijuana in window boxes and vacant lots.

Sources for this post:
"Huge Marijuana Field Burnt Up," Hayward Daily Review, August 8, 1957.
Photo, Humboldt Standard, August 12, 1957, p. 24. 

California, 1956: Honey, what IS this bush?

In 1955 in Hayward, California, Mary Andrade purchased a small plot of land next to her property on Willow Avenue and discovered some "nice looking" plants there.

She decided they would look nice around Aldina Conto's house, and so moved the plants to her neighbor's property. A year later, police were knocking on Mrs. Conto's door with a subpeona.

Police identified the plants as "marijuana," dug them up, and used them for training. Since neither Andrade or Conto knew what they were growing, neither was arrested or charged.

Andrade's ignorance seems strange given the context of 1950s California, where marijuana was in the newspapers almost daily. Reports of arrests, trials, dramatic raids, high school marijuana rings, small- and large-scale growing operations, smuggling rings, and photos of the plants filled the pages of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Hayward Daily Review, Oakland Tribune, the San Mateo Times, and others.


Cannabis plants were routinely discovered in California's urban areas.
Yet amidst all the busts, smugglers, and teenage growers there appear time and again the unintentional cultivators - people like Andrade. Consider, for instance, the following incidents from 1956:
  • In June, San Francisco police officer William Spikes inexplicably took great care of "the biggest batch of marijuana we've found in years," in the words of a narcotics expert. Spikes apparently found the plants growing on his property and thought they were tomato plants. He "tended them carefully" until they refused to yield tomatoes and he attended a lecture on narcotics. Once his fellow law enforcement officials confirmed his suspicions, Spikes quickly cut and burned the five-foot plants.   

  • In July, Long Beach resident Sidney Silverstein and his wife mistook two large cannabis plants in their yard for weeping willows. They were even "happy over having such attractive shade trees." A gardener friend told them it was "marijuana," and police investigated. Although they estimated that the plants would make $4,000 worth of pot, the article reveals a key detail about the plants' origins that calls their estimation into question: The Silversteins had been feeding their parakeets birdseed, which often contained sterile hemp seeds. It is likely one of the non-sterile seeds sprouted and the Silversteins were simply enjoying the shade of tall, non-intoxicating hemp plants.

  • In August, the Alphonse Gielen family of Van Nuys "nursed what they thought was a redwood tree in the patio of their home for five months." They later learned it was "marijuana." The article makes the shaky claim that the "seed was planted ... when it dropped from a Redwood pine." Even if the plant was cannabis, a more likely scenario is the sprouting of another renegade hemp seed.

  • In September, the same month police pulled up Conto's plants, "[a]nother Long Beach woman suffered the embarrassment of finding a marijuana plant." Vetra Redford, apparently more astute than some of her fellow Californians, noticed that the five-foot hemp plant growing in her yard looked like one pulled up and photographed several days earlier. She called the police and they promptly destroyed hers, too. 

  • The same day Redford inquired about her plant, the wife of fellow Long Beach resident Henry Menke gave an eight-foot plant in her yard a "suspicious eye." The Long Beach Independent showed its familiarity with such stories when it reported that the plant was "discovered to be - you guessed it - marijuana." A police officer in the story tells residents "that marijuana may be easily recognized by its speedy growing habit" and its leaves that cluster in odd numbers.

  • In October, Helen Huber of Pasadena "could not identify" a plant in her yard and took a twig to a local nursery, where it was identified as cannabis. She notified the police and the plant was pulled.

Similar stories of unintentional cannabis growth can be found in newspaper records throughout the state during the 1950s, but this spate of reports from 1956 is rare. It shows that while plenty of Californians willingly grew marijuana in all kinds of places, cannabis also found its own way into the personal landscapes of many other people.

Additionally, two recurring themes in these stories can help explain the presence of cannabis in these places. The most obvious theme is the climate. Cannabis, like most plants, grows best when supplied with plenty of sunlight and water. The California cities these plants sprouted in get plenty of sun, and the well-watered, well-tended gardens of Conto, Spikes, the Silversteins, and other city and suburb dwellers offered perfect habitats. Indeed, a 15-year-old nabbed in 1957 for growing marijuana in his bathtub "attributed his success" to La Mirada's "wonderful desert climate" (1). While cannabis grew in nearly every state in the 1950s, La Mirada and many other parts of California had - and still possess - a particularly cannabis-friendly climate.

Another theme is the plants' description. In each of the above examples, the plants in question grew to a minimum height of five feet. Strains of cannabis that produce marijuana grow far shorter, because they are not bred for long fibers. Had the Silversteins cut and dried all the leaves off their hemp trees and tried to sell them on the black market, they probably wouldn't have gotten much. Dried hemp leaves, missing the all-important resin present on marijuana plants, won't get anyone high.

Then there's the source issue. Where did the seeds come from? The source is only explicitly stated in the case of the Silversteins. Hemp seed was commonly used in bird seed back then (2). In many cases of unintentional or apparently random cannabis growth, people or birds or wind likely scattered hemp bird seed. But in other cases, like in that of Andrade's next-door lot, it is possible someone intentionally planted the seeds. Urbanites in California and across the country planted marijuana seeds in vacant lots (3).

Since law enforcement did not distinguish between hemp and marijuana in the fifties (and rarely does today), they probably pulled up and burned thousands of non-intoxicating hemp plants. With marijuana raids and busts in the headlines and lawmakers calling for the death penalty for drug dealers, it is surprising that no one was arrested in any of the above cases (4). In these situations, law enforcement determined that only the plants should be punished, because they could potentially attract unwanted attention from "addicts" or dope slingers. Nature was not where it was supposed to be, and it was nobody's fault but nature's.

If hemp plants could talk, they'd probably complain about years upon years of "plant profiling."

Disclaimer: If you can hear plants talk, you're probably not smoking hemp.

Sources for this post:
"Taboo Plants: Marijuana is Found," Hayward Daily Review, September 18, 1956.
"Officer's Pet Plant Turns Out To Be Marijuana," Bakersfield Californian, June 28, 1956.
 "$4,000 Trees Weren't 'Weeping Willows,'" Long Beach Press-Telegram, July 19, 1956.
"The Light and Heavy Sides of News Today," Corona Daily Independent, August 9, 1956.
"Another Woman Finds Overgrown Marijuana," Long Beach Press-Telegram, September 27, 1956.
"2 More Marijuana Shrubs Rooted Up by L.B. Policemen," Long Beach Independent, September 28, 1956.
"Strange Plant Proves to Be Marijuana." Star News (Pasadena), October 8, 1956.
PHOTO: "Dope Grows in City," Star News (Pasadena), October 12, 1956.

Notes
1. "Nab La Miradan, 15, on Dope Charges," Long Beach Press-Telegram, October 31, 1957.
2. See also: "Bird Seed Field Found To Be Dope Producer," Woodland (CA) Daily Democrat, August 12, 1933.
3. Zachary Falck, Weeds: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010, 76-89.
4. "Senate Crime Prober Asks: Penalty of Death for Dope Peddlers," Long Beach Press-Telegram, June 18, 1951.

Beaumont, Texas, 1958: A Perfect Microcosm of the Drug War

In 1958, in Beaumont, Texas, a sheriff found out just how voracious and stubborn cannabis can be.

Dang nabbit, if that mari-ja-wana ain't gon' go away, I might jest have ta SHEWT IT!! YEEEEHAW!!

No, not him. But that image might not be too far off.

In a wire story I found while combing past editions of The Billings Gazette, I found not only a hilarious story of a law-and-order Texan frustrated by a persistent plant, but also the entire essence of the U.S. drug war in a nutshell.

The headline reads like one the day after a prize boxing match: "Officer Winner Over Marijuana." It was a fight, indeed. Beaumont assistant police chief Willie Bauer wanted to educate new officers on marijuana and decided to grow some himself. Curiously, Bauer was unsatisfied with "the quality of the marijuana the force picked up" in raids, so he "acquired" some seeds - the article does not mention where - and "in 12 weeks" he "possessed marijuana 11 feet tall."

Bauer harvested enough of the crop for his training program, then cut down and burned the rest of the plants. Then things started to get crazy: "Sprouts grew back almost overnight. He pulled them up. More sprouts appeared." Then, "In desperation, Bauer poured oil over the garden and set it afire."

Done deal, right? Nope: "But here came those plants peeping up again and shooting upward fast. For several days Bauer spent most of his spare time trying to mow faster than the plants grew. He kept mowing until mowing in the same spot began to appear odd."

I love how he thought the mowing seemed odd. Call me crazy, but I would have thought dousing your garden in oil and tossing a lit match on it would get more sideways glances from neighbors than obsessive mowing. In any case, the mowing didn't work. So finally, Bauer "telephoned a construction company, ordered a concrete slab poured on his garden and a garage built on top."

There! GROW THROUGH THAT S**T, YOU DEVIL WEED. Clearly, in the sheriff's mind the presence of one particularly tenacious, illegal plant justified the unequivocal banishment of all plants from his garden.

Apart from being one of the funniest cannabis-related stories I've unearthed for this project, Bauer's frustrated grapple with ganja is ripe with drug-war metaphors. To pick up on them, one only has to consider the attitude and approach of law enforcement officials like Bauer, not only in the 1950s but in the decades before and after.