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, Newspaperarchive.com; 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:

1895-1920


 1895-1939

1895-1950

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).

Monday, February 16, 2015

Pumping the Presidents with Pot: A New February Tradition

Happy Presidents Day!

As many of us get a Monday off in honor of the country's most esteemed caretakers (or maybe because we live somewhere in the one-half of the country that is currently being blanketed by snow and/or ice), some members of the pro-cannabis crowd take Presidents Day as an opportunity to remind Americans just how friendly our founders were toward their highly esteemed herb.

Today, the Facebook page "MJ Headline News" dropped one of these unfailingly misleading "historical" nuggets onto my news feed:

"Did George Washington Use Medical Marijuana?"

Look, a totally legit eighteenth-century portrait!
The original article at the Daily Beast notes:
George Washington’s rotting teeth and the dentures that replaced them—made of hippopotamus ivory, gold springs, and brass screws—caused enormous pain, which some believe he alleviated with weed as evidenced from a passage from one of the president’s letters:
“Began to separate the male from female plants rather too late...Pulling up the (male) hemp. Was too late for the blossom hemp by three weeks or a month."
To the dismay of weed enthusiasts, however, the article's headline question is answered in the next paragraph:
However, it’s most likely that the female plants he refers to were used for seeds to grow more hemp and the male hemp plants were pulled up for fibers.

Daily Beast writer Nick Sheppard's conclusions seem to be the ones that most historians come to.

Cannabis prohibition in the United States has produced some peculiar cultural side effects; one of them is the urgent desire for many cannabis enthusiasts, in an attempt to legitimate their own movement and cultivate a more favorable public perception of the plant, to re-interpret or exaggerate the relationships that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other popular "Founding Fathers" had with cannabis.

Other examples of this reactionary myth-building include:

-The half-true notion that both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper; it is more likely that drafts of both documents were scrawled on hemp paper.

-The utterly bogus claim that "James Madison was once heard to say that smoking hemp inspired him to found a new nation on democratic principles." (I think we can all agree that "was once heard to say" is not proper historical documentation)

-Claims that Jefferson and Washington exchanged "smoking blends as personal gifts." This assertion and the previous one apparently come all the way from 1975, in a fabricated article in the pagan magazine Green Egg. (Here's a link to the magazine's current digital iteration - WARNING: Content is extremely hippie. Avoid clicking link if you hate hippies)

To the movement's credit, there are those among its ranks who actively decry and objectively evaluate these historical stoner fantasies, but misinformation persists nonetheless, especially within the broader cannabis culture.

Personally, I know these myths are simply an overreaction to prohibitionist rhetoric (which, like all propaganda, also bends the facts), and find them more amusing than irritating. That pic of Washington smoking a J is priceless - can someone please doctor all the presidential portraits in a similar fashion?

Plus, I don't think the story of George Washington and other founders growing hemp needs exaggeration to be politically effective. After all, simply pointing out that the first framers of our government found considerable value in the cannabis plant already makes the point that more modern framers of government perhaps overreacted when they declared the plant to be utterly useless and dangerous via the 1970 Controlled Substances Act.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Moving on from “Marijuana:” Why Names and Plants Matter in the Age of Cannabis Legalization


Marijuana. Everyone in America knows this word, regardless of how they feel about the offerings of the cannabis plant. But its roots in this country stretch back to a time that very few of us are still familiar with—a time when the drug was widely considered to be as harmful and addictive as opium, and when newspapers blasted out bold, sensationalist headlines linking the psychedelic herb to violent acts of madness, rape, murder, and general mayhem.

For younger generations and cannabis enthusiasts (not assuming the two are mutually exclusive), perhaps marijuana conjures up more of a satirical image, such as its use in the beginning of the Sublime song “Smoke Two Joints.” The song features a gravely concerned male voice from the infamous film Reefer Madness (Duncan McLeod, playing Porter Hall in the 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) saying he “wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to learn that all four” of the young adults living above him “habitually smoke marijuana cigarettes—reefers.”




Of course, newspapers today are much more objective on the subject, and outside of Nancy Grace and a few other hardline prohibitionists, nobody really believes that cannabis creates murderers or rapists, or turns everyone who uses it into perpetually stoned human derelicts. For that, we can largely thank the dogged persistence of the medical cannabis movement; it has refused to let the plant’s ancient and valuable medicinal properties be run roughshod over by the federal government’s relentless crusade to stamp out all psychedelic substances. 

Despite all the progress we’ve made in understanding the cannabis plant, we still hear the word marijuana—but curiously, never from anybody who actually uses the herb. They usually call it by one of its bazillion nicknames, by far the most common of which are “weed,” “bud,” or “pot.” The dealer who goes to his clients and asks, “wanna buy some marijuana?” will likely be regarded as either a first-time pot dealer or the world’s worst undercover narc (probably the latter).

Though it is starting to compete with cannabis, marijuana remains the “politically correct” term, the term overwhelmingly preferred by lawmakers, physicians, journalists, and even some legalization advocates (who are usually seeking to appeal to lawmakers, physicians, and/or journalists). In addition, many members of the general public who don’t use or aren’t familiar with cannabis also refer to it as marijuana—probably because their experience with cannabis is largely filtered through “official” channels such as news reports, police statements, medical textbooks, or political debates. Even the text of Amendment 64, the ballot initiative that legalized adult use of cannabis in Colorado in 2012, reads “the people of the state of Colorado find and declare that the use of MARIJUANA should be legal for persons twenty-one years of age or older.”

So how did we get here? Why do we still use an outdated and botanically inaccurate term for a plant that most Americans want to see regulated, and that some states are already regulating? More importantly, does it even matter what we call it?

USA Today's Denver correspondent Trevor Hughes wrote an excellent op-ed on this exact subject this past week, in which he notes that some in the cannabis industry are calling for the word's retirement::

"For some, the old and frequently used words evoke the scare tactics long employed by governments and police. There's a school of thought that "marijuana" opponents ginned up the word because it sounded scary and foreign. (Although I can't find evidence that that's the case, despite what Wikipedia might say.)"

He goes on to say that this issue "highlights the challenges of changing how we describe things": 

"You may have noticed I've used a variety of words when referring to marijuana. It's hard to argue readers don't understand that reefer, pot, weed and ganja all mean the same thing. As Shakespeare's Juliet might muse, does the name really matter, be it marijuana or Montague?"

I'd say it does. Here's why (and I promise not to quote Shakespeare):

As the geographer and cannabis historian Chris Duvall has convincingly pointed out, marijuana is likely a Spanish derivative of mariamba, a hybrid Angolan-Portuguese word for drug cannabis with roots in the slave trade of the sixteenth century. Mariamba is the pluralized Portuguese equivalent of the indigenous Angolan word for drug cannabis, liamba. The term crossed the Atlantic on slave ships to Brazil, where it was disseminated to Spanish-speaking parts of the New World, eventually evolving into marijuana.

During the first few decades of the twentieth century, US citizens and politicians appropriated the term marijuana from Mexican Spanish as a way to racialize the cannabis plant. In an era where many Americans were deeply paranoid about foreigners and their corrupting influence, using a Mexican word, marijuana, instead of cannabis emphasizing its foreignness and thus its inherent threat to American society.

So, while Hughes is right that US officials didn't invent ("gin up") the term, they did appropriate and deploy it for racist purposes, namely to drum up popular support for federal cannabis prohibition (and it has been well-documented in books such as Martin A. Lee's Smoke Signals, Richard Bonnie and Charles Whitebread's The Marijuana Conviction, this article, this article, this article, and other sources)

It is true that many public officials and citizens did not initially realize that Mexican marijuana and the cannabis sold in US pharmacies were the same plant; however, newspaper reports suggest this fact became widely known even before federal cannabis prohibition began under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. Calling cannabis by its foreign name successfully “othered” a plant that had been in the United States for decades, and that was only now attracting the concern of drug-wary public officials on account of its alleged introduction by brown-skinned foreigners (not to mention its well-known affiliation with what the architect of the Marihuana Tax Act, the racist bureaucrat Harry J. Anslinger, called “satanic” jazz musicians).

I should mention that in Mexico today, the term marijuana has largely been replaced by other words, such as “mota.” This is possibly in response to the Mexican government’s adaptation of marijuana in laws that prohibit cannabis use or production; it could also be, as it is in other Latin American countries, a rejection of the United States’ appropriation of marijuana as an official term for cannabis.

The fact that the term marijuana was historically used by racist public officials to stereotype and imprison non-white Americans is reason enough to limit our use of it, especially when it refers to a plant that has been universally coveted by nearly every human society over time.

In places such as India and China, the plant has held an important place in human culture for thousands of years. In that context, using a term appropriated by US racists for racist purposes, all within the last century, seems inappropriate, even negligent. But then again, cultural sensitivity and a stoic appreciation of the past have never been strong suits of an “exceptional” America.

I'll be the first to admit I have bought into this official language business and used marijuana many, many times on this blog. In fact, when I began my research, it was in the subtitle. But as I read more and thought more about it, I've come to better understand and appreciate the history of cannabis in the US, and to disdain the term. I plan to use it much less frequently hereafter.

So if not marijuana, you ask, what should we call the drug product of the cannabis plant? Honestly, both “weed” and “bud” are more accurate terms: “weed” quite accurately describes elements of the plant’s nature, while “bud” accurately describes the parts of the plant that are actually smoked (the flowers). In official language, cannabis (Cannabis indica for pot, Cannabis sativa for hemp) should prevail. 

As Hughes argues, it is highly unlikely that marijuana will ever leave the lexicon of American cannabis culture. Nor should it; as a word that reminds us of the fraught history of the plant in our society, it is an important cultural artifact, worthy of lampooning in Sublime songs, satirical cartoons, or in stoned laughing sessions the nation over.

But for all the reasons mentioned above, the American cannabis culture and industry should at least try to get marijuana out of the official discourse. It shouldn’t be used in the text of official legislation for other states (although as Hughes points out, it will probably have to be). Dispensary owners should avoid using marijuana in the names of their stores, and be judicial about using it to brand their products. These actions, as well as the inevitable legalization and acceptance of cannabis across the nation, will go a long way toward snuffing out all serious usage of this outdated and inaccurate term.

Plus, if you’re like me, you’d agree that ANY effort to limit the number of times public officials drawl out their godawful, nasally pronunciation of “MARE-eh-wanna” is well worth it. Seriously, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just tune in to any televised or radio debate about cannabis—the way Americans pronounce the word can be classified as aggravated assault on the human ear.

So yes—to respect the universal value of the plant, to deny the racists behind American cannabis prohibition their most effective legacy, and for the sake of our own precious ears, let’s just call it by a better name.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Cannabis in the Cornfields: Then and Now

Cannabis is grown in cornfields all over the United States. This plant was found in an Indiana cornfield.
In August 2006, clad in safety gear that protected her from the scraping stalks, Wisconsin ecologist Kaitlin Whitney was collecting ecological data in one of the Dairy State's numerous cornfields when she came upon five marijuana plants "bursting with buds ready to harvest." Her presence even spooked the bud tender, who just so happened to be tramping through the corn to check on the plants. The anonymous grower split, leaving Whitney with both an interesting story to tell and more excitement than she probably expected that day (she was, after all, walking through cornfield after cornfield for her job).

That story became the lede in an article Whitney wrote for The Atlantic this past fall on cannabis growth in Wisconsin cornfields. "Almost every corn grower I spoke to that summer had a tale of discovering marijuana in their cornfields at harvest time," she wrote. "Which led me to ask: What is it about the nation’s largest crop that has made it so attractive to marijuana growers in recent years?"

Whitney attributes the "recent" phenomenon to modern technology, such as auto-harvesting combines and GPS field mapping, that keeps farmers out of their fields. She argues that marijuana growers have quietly moved into this blind spot in modern agriculture, siphoning the water, soil, and chemicals meant for the primary crop. The technology that turns today's cornfields into more isolated environments may indeed be one reason why growers prefer them. But Americans had been growing weed in cornfields - whether their own or someone else's - long before the advent of helicopter pesticide application and tractors with WiFi. See, for example, the following clippings:
From The Oakland Tribune, July 28, 1948.

From The Denver Post, August 15, 1934.
From the Woodland Daily Democrat (CA), September 7, 1934.


From The Denver Post, July 18, 1948.




AP story from November 22, 1967.

From the Rocky Mountain News, June 13, 1946.

















From the Corona Daily Independent (CA), July 15, 1947.
There are more, but hopefully my point is made: growing pot in cornfields is not a recent deal. But even after a slight redaction to make it less historically ignorant, Whitney's original question is still valid and important:

"What is it about the nation’s largest crop that has made it so attractive to marijuana growers in recent years?"

It's relatively simple, actually. Corn (Zea mays) grows tall and green; so did the first few strains of pot (Cannabis indica) grown by Americans from about 1910 - 1975. Both plants are also camp-followers: plants that thrive in open, human-disturbed environments. The neatly organized, irrigated landscapes of cornfields give pot plants everything they need. Plus, as Whitney notes, cornfields are dense, uncomfortable, and disorienting places where very few people go stomping around. Of course, growing cannabis in corn was even less risky if the pot grower happened to own or lease the farm, as was the case in several of the examples above.

The millions of acres of corn added to the American landscape after mid-century to support livestock and produce ethanol have only given the nation's outlaw horticulturalists millions more acres to grow pot. Whitney hit on this as well, and even mentioned Ralph Weisheit's study of cannabis growth in rural, Midwestern America, Domestic Marijuana: A Neglected Industry (1992).

Finally, economic downturns such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, the recession of the 1980s, the so-called "Great Recession" of the late 2000s, and others provided Americans with plenty of incentive to grow pot in their own or someone else's cornfield; as Dave Carter of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union said in 1986, "I would imagine these days there's probably a couple farmers with some pot growing between the corn rows - any way to make some money these days." As the landscape historian J.B. Jackson would put it, the "official" landscape and the unapproved, improvised, "vernacular" landscape overlap in the world of cornfield pot growing.

The logical follow-up question to Whitney's first is "should anyone be concerned about this?" She starts to answer this question, but only extends it to farmers who've found pot growers pilfering their soil, irrigation water, and chemicals. Understandably, they're upset - and more than a little jelly, as small-time weed farmers are making a killing with a few plants while they're often struggling to profit from thousands. And although Whitney nearly ran into one by accident, apparently finding and arresting cornfield pot growers is really hard;  members of law enforcement she interviews say confirmed reports of marijuana grows rarely result in arrest.

This illustration from the Rocky Mountain News in 1986
 shows cannabis growing between two corn plants.
My biggest concern is not for the farmers - who honestly aren't giving up that much in the way of resources by unknowingly sharing their cornfields with a handful of cannabis plants - but for the unknowing black-market consumers of marijuana that has been doused with industrial-grade fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

Do these cornfield cannabis growers wash their crop after harvest? Would that even do any good? I imagine the ones who care would, but participants in a black-market economy don't normally give a shit about any of that. They just want the money.

In the end, the story of cannabis in cornfields yields yet another compelling reason why we need regulated, responsible cannabis production in the United States.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Did you know joints were sold legally in the US in the 1870s? Neither did I.


Yesterday I stumbled across this ad for Grimault & Co.'s "Indian Cigarettes" in an 1876 edition of the Daily Argus in Rock Island, Ill. I was aware that, during the nineteenth century, Cannabis indica was used in a variety of remedies and carried in pharmacies across the nation. But I had never heard of anyone selling joints before the early twentieth century, when cops started rounding up pot-puffing Mexicans along the border.

The folks over at the Antique Cannabis Book have more details on these early legal reefers. They note that Grimault & Co.'s Cannabis cigs were available since 1870, and they were apparently the only ones on the market. This, along with the general dearth of reports of intoxicating Cannabis use during the nineteenth century, seems to suggest that Americans at the time just weren't that interested in using Cannabis to get high. Opiates could also be legally obtained then, too, so maybe those who wanted a trip just chose the stronger stuff instead.

Isn't it funny how some thirty years later, when poor, migrant, brown-skinned, non-English speakers started bringing the same exact product across the border, we completely lost our $hit and banned them?

Granted, the middle and upper classes in Mexico didn't exactly paint a sparkling image of marijuana for Americans, and the unruly behavior of pot-smoking soldiers and prisoners didn't do the plant's image any favors, either.