Among the manifest insanities currently being addressed by what we used to call the culture is the debate over the legalization of pot. Forty years ago virtually everyone I knew was certain that it would be legalized within 10 years. Full disclosure: I inhaled. Regularly.
What has happened in the interim has led us to the point where legalization is no longer the issue. What was seen as, and perhaps was, a fairly harmless diversion has developed into an underground economy based on a substance which bears little resemblance to the Wacky Weed musicians used to hit up between sets, and lovers squirreled away for those special Friday nights. In the old days, weed was mostly imported from Mexico, and connoisseurs regaled the rest of us with tales of Acapulco Gold and Oaxacan, Panama Red and Colombian. Man, if you think this stuff is good, wait’ll I tell you about the stuff my cousin brought back from vacation…
In the ’70s, the stories changed from the Senior trip to Puerto Vallarta to the year-long sabbaticals in The Land Of Bad Things. Young Nam vets would talk about nightmares in the jungle, firefights and ambushes from the perspective of being so wasted the whole thing looked like a fireworks display, with the added frisson of the possibility of getting killed. Overnight, dope stories weren’t very funny anymore, and the stuff these guys were talking about didn’t sound much like what you’d been sneaking at your sister’s wedding party. The new tales were of seabags full of Thai stick, Dopp kits stuffed with Afghani hash, and hallucinating about Custer while facing down hordes of little men in black pajamas with an M16 on full rock ‘n roll. Talk about your buzz kills.
They brought the war home in more ways than one. Along with the lifetimes of horrible dreams, America was introduced to Cannabis Indica, Cannabis Sativa’s evil twin. The percentage of Tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana, was later discovered to be almost 3 times that of Mexi-pot; getting the giggles was replaced with getting helpless. Sharing Peace ‘n Love with your Brothers became Trying to Get Up The Scratch for a score big enough to feed your habit. “Let’s get stoned and go to a party” turned into “Let’s lock the door and fire up another bowl of that Polio Weed, and fuck ’em all.” And nobody seemed to notice except the rapidly aging avatars of the Age of Aquarius, who dimly remembered the days when “getting loaded” meant being unable to stop laughing instead of the festivals of paranoia brought on by One Toke Over The Line.
Enterprising young Luther Burbanks had long dreamt of making use of those pesky seeds that appeared down at the bottom of your stash. Wonder whether you couldn’t grow your own? Apocryphal tales were passed around of hemp fields gone to weed in the Midwest, remnants of Government attempts to grow rope fibers during WWII; everybody heard about the hippies who pranked the cops by planting seeds in the flower beds in front of the Mayor’s office somewhere back East. There must be a way to grow this stuff inside, where a guy could avoid the embarrassing questions about those weird trees growing in the back yard.
Along the way, underground developments in botany produced new strains of Nature’s Bounty. THC levels soared apace; the Hazeldon Foundation reports that the amount has increased 5 times since 1974, with the typical strength today 15 per cent. Strains are now advertised with THC levels of up to 25 per cent. What used to sell for $10 an ounce now commands up to $20 a gram. Generations of back-to-the-land dropouts discovered that National Forests in places like Northern California had thousands of acres of essentially unregulated growing opportunities. Grow lights were developed, and electric bills outstripped rent payments in urban apartments across the country. It began to look like Mexico was out of the market. How could a bunch of campesinos in tire-tread sandals ever compete with an army of college-educated young entrepreneurs with their Eyes on Freedom? The worst thing we gotta worry about is The Man, and cops are way too stupid to outwit English majors, right? No problem.
What was conveniently ignored was that higher quality meant higher prices; higher prices meant higher profits, and higher profits meant greater attractiveness to people a lot worse than the cops. Drug cartels quickly figured out that California could support a lot more than illegal grape-pickers, and the weed patches back in the hills became marijuana plantations staffed by hard-eyed hombres with AK47’s, the Peoples’ Peacemaker. Since the ’80s, the underground economy of marijuana growing had replaced the newly-moribund culture of Big Timber, as forests were clear-cut once and for all and the Growing-Marijuana–28614logs shipped offshore to toothpick makers, closing the local mills and making available cheap land that wasn’t much use for anything but growing, uh, weeds. Families of out-of-work tree-fallers and green-chain pullers found themselves with neighbors who parked brand-new pickup trucks beside their humble cathedrals-in-the-pines built from old-growth redwood; their children went to school in second-hand sneakers alongside kids in brand new Air Jordans. Mendocino county sheriffs freely admitted that without the money infused into the local economy by marijuana planters whole communities would have become ghost towns. Marijuana is now widely assumed to be California’s biggest cash crop, at an estimated $14 billion annually – or almost twice the totals of vegetables and grapes combined. Big, big business, and money talks.
In 1996, California passed Proposition 215, allowing “compassionate use” for cancer patients and other chronic sufferers, notably AIDS patients. Today, “dispensaries” in Los Angeles number almost 1,000. In my current county of Sonoma, medical marijuana certification is itself a big business, and anybody with a hundred bucks can spend it on a license to buy, consume and grow the weed for a year from a duly-certified physician who often has no other practice. Billboards are seen on freeways advertising the service to one and all, with discounts offered to vets and anybody over 65. While some dispensaries are cleanly and professionally run like drugstores, perhaps the majority of such businesses in the state are candy stores aimed at anybody who can get in the door. Oakland prides itself on the label “Oaksterdam” in honor of the crime-ridden swamp that was once famed for its tulip industry.
Why does any of this matter? I mean, it’s just a bunch of hippies gettin their groove on, after all, even if you ignore the need for chronic pain relief. Except that any attempt at regulation produces uproars like the one in Sonoma county a few years ago, when the number of plants allowed per user was reduced from 75 to 25. The lack of compassion to the chronically ill produced editorials, protests, letters to the editor and all-round calumny. How could they?
Well, consider this. Any grower with a few years’ experience and the foresight to purchase any of the myriad how-to books, to say nothing of the information online, can count on plants capable of producing up to a pound of high-quality ganja a year. Prices for this bounty in the cities are upwards of $4,000/lb if sold in quantity, and of course more if it’s broken down into smaller pieces with the attendant annoyance of getting rid of it. Since marijuana is still illegal under federal law, it’s probably a good assumption that none of this is being declared on income tax returns. Four thousand dollars a plant, times 25. One hundred thousand dollars a year tax-free per patient – and that assumes that the only people growing it are people with a prescription. And surely no one would assume a crass profit motive in the face of the need for medicine, would they?
The social costs of this disaster are a subject for another time. Suffice it to say that I have my own tales of woe, and some spine-chillers from having seen the consequences of unrestrained hippiedom from my own front porch. A San Francisco-area fifth grader was recently busted at school for having brought marijuana-infused “Fruity Pebbles” in her lunch bag. She freely admitted that she knew what was in the candy, given to her by her older sister who had bought it at a marijuana dispensary. “Pittsburg police are investigating whether the sister had a legitimate card to obtain the pot.” That oughta stop it, all right.
My point here is that any new-found self-righteousness about fighting this scourge with tougher law enforcement is whistling in a wind that has blown through the culture like Hurricane Katrina. The war on drugs is over; drugs won. While parents and some social leaders are arising to fight legalization, the usual gang of idiots are busily mounting campaigns for full legalization on the grounds that taxation and regulation will mean the end of Mexican drug cartels and cottage industries like the recent discovery of rental homes throughout California dedicated to indoor cultivation. And everybody knows how the repeal of the Volstead Act spelled the end of the Mafia, after all.
What’s to be done? Beats the hell out of me, but what is unavoidable is that drug education in the family is no longer optional, and that everybody involved better start paying attention to what has already happened. Government ain’t gonna save you. folks; more laws have never been the answer, and assuming that re-criminalizing marijuana use and sale will eliminate them is the equivalent of believing that more gun laws will eradicate gangsterism. Ain’t no hidin’ place down here.