Culture

RSS Feed for this category

Chronicle Book Review: Cannabis Nation and Marijuanamerica

Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008, by James Mills (2013, Oxford University Press, 292 pp., $65.00 HB)

Marijuanamerica: One Man's Quest to Understand America's Dysfunctional Love Affair with Weed, by Alfred Ryan Nerz (2013, Abrams Image, 271 pp., $19.95 HB)

The United States and the United Kingdom seem to be in two quite different places when it comes to marijuana and marijuana policy. On this side of the Atlantic, two states have legalized the weed, and in all likelihood, more will follow in 2014 and more yet in 2016. Meanwhile, medical marijuana continues to expand, and states that aren't quite ready for legalization are moving toward decriminalization.

National polls here are consistently showing that support for marijuana legalization has crossed the threshold into majority territory, weed-smoking is now the stuff of casual comment instead of horrified gasps, and, in what could the clearest sign of marijuana's growing acceptance, profit-minded entrepreneurs are beginning to line up for a chance to grab the grass ring. It's almost, but not quite, as if we have already won, and all that's left is clearing the last holdouts of pot prohibition.

On the other side of the Atlantic, things seem to be heading in the opposite direction. Heeding the advice of its drug experts (an increasingly rare thing there), Britain in effect decriminalized marijuana in 2004, but backtracked four years later, pushing it a notch back up its dangerous drug schedules. The British press is full of reports of raids on "cannabis factories," or what we would call indoor gardens, and replete with the sort of Reefer Madness nonsense that would make Harry Anslinger blush.

Fertilizer becomes "poison cannabis chemicals," the deadly "skunk" turns kids into homicidal "feral youths," and anti-cannabis crusade victims regularly appear before the courts to go through the self-abasing ritual of explaining that they should have mercy because their cannabis addiction ruined their lives. They know what they're supposed to say. When it comes to marijuana, in feels like 1963 in Britain instead of 2013.

Cannabis Nation and Marijuanamerica certainly reflect those differences in style as well as substance, even if they don't explain them. (And why should they? Neither makes a pretense at being a comparative study.) The former is a stately academic review of British pot policy in the last century, relying heavily on governmental files, diplomatic archives, commission reports, and police arrest records, while the latter is an impressionistic journey through American weed's Wild West, relying heavily on interviews, first-person reporting, some participatory journalism, and copious amounts of the chronic itself.

Despite their differences in tone and subject matter, both are worthwhile contributions to the rapidly increasing literature around marijuana and marijuana law reform. Cannabis Nation is authored by respected British drug historian James Mills and is the sequel to his 2003 Cannabis Britannica, which traced Britain's involvement with the herb from 1800 into the beginning of the 20th Century. In this second volume, Mills not only tracks the emergence of marijuana consumption in the metropole, but also the impact of Britain's legacy as a colonial power on its encounter with the weed.

There are parallels with the American experience, but also differences. In both countries, marijuana was the province of outsiders. Here, it was Mexicans and black jazz musicians who were the original consumers; in Britain, as Mills shows, it was South Asian, Caribbean, and Arab colonial subjects who brought pot-smoking to Albion. And before the aftermath of World War II, when Commonwealth citizens flooded into Britain, marijuana use was rare indeed. Mills shows the pre-war pot arrests were almost nonexistent, counted in the dozens annually, and almost entirely of merchant seamen of Arab or Indian descent enjoying their shore leave.

It was only in the post-war era that British marijuana consumption began to spread rapidly, first among the Commonwealth emigrants, for whom its use was long-engrained in their home cultures, and then among working- and middle-class Anglo-Saxon youth. By the 1960s, the issue of marijuana exploded with the arrest and jailing of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard and subsequent campaigns for liberalization led by the Beatles and other counter-cultural figures. But Mills downplays the importance of the counter-culture rebellion, arguing that for many young British consumers, marijuana was no more (and no less) than something to get intoxicated with, not a token of cultural revolt.

In fact, the British marijuana reform movement gets relatively short shrift, as Mills concentrates on the doings of the politicians, ministries and constabularies. It is worth noting that, thanks to the drug diplomacy in the era of the League of Nations, Britain not only got a broad understanding of the plant's widespread use (British India lobbied hard for a relaxed approach, while British Egypt lobbied equally hard for a tough prohibition), but British police were mobilized to police marijuana early -- before there was any consumption to speak of.

One of Mills' key points is that nearly a century later, the police continue to play the key role in British pot policy. In the wake of the 1960s' pot controversies, politicians adopted the "British compromise," maintaining existing marijuana prohibition, but leaving the level and intensity of enforcement up to the police. As he shows, with politicians treating marijuana as a political football, that's still the case. Such a stratagem may work for the police, less so for marijuana growers and consumers, but it raises the question of whether law enforcers should be de facto policy-makers.

Overall, Cannabis Nation is a key contribution to the history of British pot politics, an academic treatise that is also quite readable and provocative, and one that disentangles the political and social forces behind marijuana use and reform in Britain. Given its $65 cover price, though, you're probably going to want to read it at your university library, or else hope that an affordable paperback edition appears.

Alfred Nerz inhabits a different world from James Mills. His Marijuanamerica is only among the most recent of dozens of popular accounts of the reefer revolution sweeping the US, and he traverses lots of familiar territory: He attends Oaksterdam University, interviews Richard Lee and Harborside Health Center's Steve DeAngelo, then heads for Humboldt County to smell the revolution for himself.

Amidst his travels, Nerz takes detours to address the issues around marijuana use -- is it helpful or harmful? What are its physical effects? Is it addictive? And should I quit smoking so much? -- and does so with verve, wit, and an engaging way with the science.

But what makes Marijuanamerica stand out in an increasingly crowded field is Nerz's own story of getting involved with California marijuana "outlaws." The book opens with him cruising eastbound down Interstate 80 just outside of Omaha with 100 pounds of weed in the trunk and a Nebraska State Patrol trooper on his tail. For someone carrying a personal pot stash down the nation's interstates, such an encounter is frightening; for someone carrying several felonies worth, it is absolutely terrifying.  You'll have to buy the book to discover how that experience turned out.

In Northern California, a mightily stoned Nerz managed to hook up with a marijuana grower and distributor nicknamed Buddha Cheese, spend time at some of his grow sites scattered throughout the Emerald Triangle and the Sierra, and get a very close-up look at outlaw marijuana production without even the pretense of it being destined for the medical marijuana market. It's a sketchy, criminal scene, with lots of riff-raff and shady characters, just as one would expect in an underground criminal economy. It's a load of Buddha Cheese's product Nerz is driving to the East Coast, hoping to pocket $200 a pound for his troubles, a nifty $20,000 for toting his hundred-pound load. (Given the pot glut and dropping prices on the West Coast, getting the weed to the other coast can be the difference between $2,000 a pound at home and $6,000 a pound in New York or Philadelphia.)

Nerz's sojourn with the outlaws is eye-opening and somewhat disturbing, but also refreshing. There have been an awful lot of words written about medical marijuana, with its noble purveyors working to alleviate human suffering. And most of them are true. But California also produces one hell of a lot more pot than even its wide-open medical marijuana market can absorb, and so do growers in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and other medical marijuana states. It's the All-American combination of enthusiasm for a wonderful plant that gets you nicely high, the desire to stick it to "the man," and the impulse to get rich quick. That's been part of America's pot culture for the past half-century at least, and it's nice to get past the sanctimony of medical marijuana and back to the outlaws.

You will want to read Cannabis Nation if you have a serious interest in the history, politics, and diplomacy of marijuana in England, and you'll have fun doing so. You don't need to be nearly as serious with Marijuanamerica, and you'll most likely have more fun, especially hanging out with those shady pot outlaws and Nerz himself. But both would make nice additions to your drug literature bookshelf.

Documentary: How to Make Money Selling Drugs

A new documentary from Tribeca Films has hit the wires. How to Make Money Selling Drugs was produced by Adrian Grenier ("Entourage") and Bert Marcus, and directed by Matthew Cooke. It features interviews with celebrities Russell Simmons, Susan Sarandon, David Simon (creator of "The Wire"), and Arianna Huffington. Some of my colleagues also figure in the movie, including Neill Franklin, Eric Sterling and Howard Wooldridge, among others.

It is opening in select theaters in some cities (see the web site for info), and is available through iTunes and OnDemand. There's also an iPhone app, Tug of War on Drugs.

Cameron Douglas Writes from Behind Bars

Actor Cameron Douglas was serving five years prison time for a drug law violation, when he was tested positive for drug use. The judge added 4.5 more years to his sentence, the heaviest penalty ever dealt out in that situation. He wrote an editorial, "Words Behind Walls," submitted by his girlfriend on his behalf to the Huffington Post.

"Words Behind Walls" is not mainly about his own story -- although he goes into being kept in solitary confinement for 11 months -- but mostly about the tragedy and injustice of half a million nonviolent drug offenders in the prisons and jails, many simply in a cycle of addiction and relapse like he is.

His piece, linked above, is worth reading -- but not before I remark on the incomprehensible cruelty shown by the judge in this case. That judge must be some kind of lost soul himself. At least that is how it looks from here.

Celebrities Urge Obama Forward on Drug, Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

A coalition of more than 175 artists, actors, athletes, elected officials, and civil rights and civil liberties advocates Tuesday sent an open letter to President Obama urging him to redouble his efforts to shift from a punitive, repressive federal criminal justice policy to one emphasizing prevention and rehabilitation.

Russell Simmons, 2012 Tribeca Film Festival (courtesy David Shankbone via Wikimedia)
The US is the world's leading incarcerator, with more than 2.3 million people behind bars. The US leads the world both in absolute numbers of prisoners and in prisoners per capita, with 715 per capita, comfortably leading the nearest per capita contenders, Russia (584) and Belarus (554).

Of those 2.3 million people behind bars, more than 500,000 are charged with drug offenses. While the number of prisoners being held by the states and the number of drug offenders held by the states have begun to decline slightly in recent years as state-level policy makers grapple with economic problems, the federal prison population continues to grow, driven in part by drug offenders. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were some 95,000 federal drug war prisoners at the end of 2011, nearly half the federal prison population. That's up from only 70,000 a decade ago.

"It is critical that we change both the way we think about drug laws in this country and how we generate positive solutions that leave a lasting impact on rebuilding our communities," said hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who helped organize the star-studded effort. "We need to break the school to prison pipeline, support and educate our younger generations and provide them with a path that doesn’t leave them disenfranchised with limited options."

In the letter, the coalition praised Obama for criminal justice reforms he had undertaken, such as the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced (but did not eliminate) the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, but urged him to do more. "Mr. President, it is evident that you have demonstrated a commitment to pursue alternatives to the enforcement-only "War on Drugs" approach and address the increased incarceration rates for non-violent crimes," the letter said. "We believe the time is right to further the work you have done around revising our national policies on the criminal justice system and continue moving from a suppression-based model to one that focuses on intervention and rehabilitation."

The coalition called for specific reforms.

"Some of the initial policies we recommend is, under the Fair Sentencing Act, extend to all inmates who were subject to 100-to-1 crack-to-powder disparity a chance to have their sentences reduced to those that are more consistent with the magnitude of the offense," the letter said. "We ask your support for the principles of the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 (Senate Bill 619), which allows judges to set aside mandatory minimum sentences when they deem appropriate."

The letter also implicitly chided the Obama administration for its failure to make much use of his power to pardon and commute sentences. In fact, Obama has pardoned prisoners or commuted sentences at a much lower rate than any of his recent predecessors. He has granted only 39 pardons and one commutation (of a terminally ill cancer patient) in five years in office, while failing to act on such deserving and well-publicized cases as that of Clarence Aaron, who is now 20 years into a triple life sentence for a cocaine deal in which he was neither the buyer, seller, or supplier of the drugs.

"We ask that you form a panel to review requests for clemency that come to the Office of the Pardon Attorney," the letter said. "Well-publicized errors and omissions by this office have caused untold misery to thousands of people."

The letter also applauded Obama's "staunch commitment" to reentry programs for prisoners who have finished their sentences and urged him to expand those transition programs, and it urged him to support the Youth Prison Reduction through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support, and Education (Youth PROMISE) Act (House Bill 1318), "a bill that brings much needed focus on violence and gang intervention and prevention work."

The coalition also asked for a meeting with the president.

"We request the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these ideas further and empower our coalition to help you achieve your goals of reducing crime, lowering drug use, preventing juvenile incarceration and lowering recidivism rates," the letter said.

From the Hollywood community, signatories to the letter included: Roseanne Barr, Russell Brand, Jim Carrey, Cedric The Entertainer, Margaret Cho, Cameron Diaz, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Woody Harrelson, Ron Howard, Eugene Jarecki, Scarlett Johannson, the Kardashians, LL Cool J, Eva Longoria, Demi Moore, Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Chris Rock, Susan Sarandon, Sarah Silverman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, and Mark Wahlberg.

From the music community, signatories included: Big Boi of Outkast, Sean "Diddy" Combs, Chuck D, DJ Envy, DJ Pauly D, Ani Difranco, Missy Elliot, Ghostface Killah, Ginuwine, Jennifer Hudson, Ice-T, Talib Kweli, John Legend, Ludacris, Lil Wayne, Natalie Maines, Nicky Minaj, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, RZA, and Angela Yee.

From the civil rights and civil liberties community, signatories included: Harry Belafonte, Julian Bond, Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition leader Neill Franklin, Rev. Jesse Jackson, NAACP head Benjamin Todd Jealous, National Urban League leader Marc Morial, Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann, Rev. Al Sharpton, ACLU head Anthony Romero, Families Against Mandatory Minimums head Julie Stewart, and Dr. Boyce Watkins.

From the faith community, signatories included:  Bishop James Clark, Bishop Noel Jones, Bishop Clarence Laney, Bishop Edgar Vann, Dr. Iva Carruthers, Deepak Chopra, Father Michael Pfleger, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Rabbi Nina Mandel, Rev. Jamal Bryant, Rev. Delman Coates, Rev. Leah D. Daughtry, Rev. Dr. Fredrick Haynes, Rev. Michael McBride, Rev. Dr. W Franklyn Richardson, and Rev. Barbara Skinner Williams.

Media and academic figures who signed on include: CNN's TJ Holmes, Radio One's Cathy Hughes and Alfred Liggins, former MSNBC host (and now hydroponic farmer!) Dylan Ratigan, "The New Jim Crow" author Michelle Alexander, Michael Eric Dyson, Naomi Klein, Julianne Malveaux, and Spelman College's Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Also signing were businessmen Virgin Airlines magnate Sir Richard Branson, US Black Chamber of Commerce head Ron Busby, and St. Louis Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom, elected officials Congressman Tony Cardenas (D-CA), Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL), and Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), and professional athletes Brendon Ayanbadejo, Lamar Odom, Isaiah Thomas, and MikeTyson, among others.

"The letter is intended to be a respectful appeal to the Obama administration asking that we develop productive pathways to supporting families that have been harmed by the War on Drugs," said Dr. Boyce Watkins, author, entrepreneur, and current scholar in residence in entrepreneurship and innovation at Syracuse University. "Countless numbers of children have been waiting decades for their parents to come home, and America is made safer if we break the cycle of mass incarceration. Time is of the essence, for with each passing year that we allow injustice to prevail, our nation loses another piece of its soul. We must carefully examine the impact of the War on Drugs and the millions of living, breathing Americans who've been affected.  It is, quite simply, the right thing to do."

"So called 'tough on crime' policies have failed our nation and its families, while 'smart on crime' policies work," said NAACP head Benjamin Todd Jealous. "When we know that drug treatment is seven times more effective than incarceration for drug addicts, basic human decency demands our nation makes the switch. The fate of hundreds of people and the children who need them home and sober hang in the balance. Great progress is being made in states from New York to Georgia with strong bipartisan support. The time has come for all of us to do all that we can. The future of our families, states, and nation demand it."

Will President Obama respond to this clarion call for action? Stay tuned.

Happy 4/20

It has been one hell of a year since we last celebrated the increasingly official holiday of the cannabis community. It's been a bumpy ride for marijuana reform, but no one said this struggle was supposed to be easy. The challenges of 2012 are also an opportunity to build a bigger and better movement, and that's exactly what we'll do.

Anyway, look at me getting all serious when a lot of people just wanna have fun today. Go for it. You deserve it. Enjoy yourself. But be safe and come back on Monday ready to fight.

Freedom Fighter of the Month

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/hightimesfreedomfighter.png

I’ve been named Freedom Fighter of the Month in the November issue of High Times. I think this happened either because of that incident where we crashed the White House contact page, or because they ran out of other people to give it to. In any case, I think it’s pretty cool. I remember years ago I was just out of college, doing unpaid internships, living with my parents, reading High Times at the office and hoping I would one day be worthy of this particular honor. Well, thanks guys, and yes my offer still stands, I suppose.

NORML Night: The Marijuana-Logues at Arlington Drafthouse (DC area)

Performances Friday and Saturday night. More information (including a ticket discount code) available at https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=143778015713969.

NoVa NORML show 8:30pm before Saturday night performance. (Update: the meeting has been postponed.)

Date: 
Sat, 10/01/2011 - 9:50pm - 11:59pm
Location: 
2903 Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA
United States

NORML Night: The Marijuana-Logues at Arlington Drafthouse (DC area)

Performances Friday and Saturday night. More information (including a ticket discount code) available at https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=143778015713969.

NoVa NORML show 8:30pm before Saturday night performance. (Update: the meeting has been postponed.)

Date: 
Fri, 09/30/2011 - 9:50pm - 11:59pm
Location: 
2903 Columbia Pike
Arlington, VA
United States

Drugs, Freedom, and Responsibility at Burning Man

Editor's note: This is a repost of the piece I wrote about Burning Man last year. I couldn't top it, so I'm sharing it again. Enjoy.

Having just emerged from one of the most epic experiences of my life, I'd like to share a few thoughts before returning to my usual news-skewering routine. Don't worry, it's about drug policy, although I'm proud to say I did manage to go an entire week without thinking about the drug war much at all.

I just spent seven days in the desert with 50,000 very enthusiastic adventurers, more than a few of whom engaged in the recreational use of mind-altering substances other than alcohol. Now, Burning Man is about much more than drugs, and even among those choosing to consume, beer seemed to be the most popular choice. But there was also a robust and visible psychedelic culture to be found there, making the event a rather vivid depiction of what happens when you release thousands of rabid psychonauts in harsh desert conditions and let them do whatever the hell they want.

Let's just say the outcome is substantially more graceful and orderly than even my own wide-open mind could have anticipated. I've seen far more sloppiness and idiocy at any football game I've ever attended than I did at Burning Man, even after dark when the serious weirdos really get down to business. Not even an abundance of liquid acid can unravel the inherent civility that takes hold when an intentional community of caring and curious people unites to celebrate free-expression on its own terms.

No major festival is entirely immune to the disruptive influence of individual trouble-makers, but Burning Man has established an impressive track record of general safety and cohesion going back many years now. It's a brilliant exhibit in the viability of expanding the boundaries of acceptable human behavior, particularly insofar as anyone who doesn't want to see naked people driving around in fire-breathing dragon-cars can simply choose not to attend.

The whole experience for me became yet another reminder of the profound stupidity of attempting to purge the psychedelic experience from our culture. If the paranoid fulminations of the anti-drug demagogues even approached the truth, an event such as this could never exist, for the playa would be soaked in blood and tears before the first sunrise. Once it's understood that the post-legalization drug apocalypse we've been taught to fear for so long is nothing more than a mindless fantasy, the justification for war evaporates faster than sweat under the desert sun.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy "Legalize It!" Party

Dear David,

Everyone in the nation's capital seems to be talking about marijuana policy. Well, here's your chance to join the conversation! On Wednesday, September 14th, Students for Sensible Drug Policy will be hosting our first annual Washington, DC reception to thank our students and allies for their amazing work and support for marijuana legalization.   

We're particularly excited to announce our special guests - Niambe Tosh, daughter of legendary musician Peter Tosh, The Wire's Tray 'Poot' Chaney, and the Honorable Jared Polis (D-CO)!  

  • Date: Wednesday, September 14th 
  • Time: 6-10pm
  • Location: K St. Lounge, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, DC 
  • Tickets & more info: legalizeit.eventbrite.com

Please invite all your friends by sending them this linklegalizeit.eventbrite.com

Can't wait to see you there!

Sincerely,

Irina Alexander
Chair, Board of Directors
Students for Sensible Drug Policy

Connect with SSDP

 

Date: 
Wed, 09/14/2011 - 6:00pm - 10:00pm
Location: 
1301 K St. NW
Washington, DC
United States

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Pill Testing, Safer Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psilocybin / Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School