An Alliance of Cannabis for Wellness

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

The cannabis peace movement faces many challenges, but perhaps the most significant one is the limited appeal of cannabis politics to the vast majority of a population that could literally take the plant, or leave it. The Cannabis Alliance, and the organizational work from which it was born, has always been a broad-based, bottom-up effort to broaden the appeal of cannabis issues and markets to society. It’s not just another trade group, it’s a coalition of different individual issues and interests that understands we are stronger together, working for collective empowerment from the bottom-up. We’ve had two major political frames to work with: cannabis provides medical benefits, and cannabis provides economic benefits. Up to this point, medical benefits have been mostly understood in terms of helping the sick; and adult use in terms of helping the economy (including freedom to consume).

These powerful political frames have moved us considerably towards a goal of helping society make peace with the plant, which is the central mission of my nonprofit research organization, the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy (CASP).

Today I want to introduce a political frame that encompasses physical sickness, financial security, and so much more, to help society understand that our struggles connect with broader public interests in a positive way. I want to talk about the cannabis and the politics of wellness, a frame of reference that includes everyone, not just cannabis patients and entrepreneurs. If there is a common ground for an society in which the struggle to exist has led to generalized competition over whose suffering must be addressed, I believe that it must be the concept and practice of wellness.

Medical and adult-use cannabis have been deliberately pitted against each other in a way that overwhelmingly stifles the growth potential of our newly regulated cannabis industry. It does this by unnecessarily posing a tension between protecting public health from a controlled substance, and creating a new industry that can provide jobs and opportunities in a landscape increasingly bereft of both.

Wellness is about diet, exercise, mindfulness, and the regulation of stress. The promotion of cannabis for wellness transcends that tension by posing cannabis use and markets in a positive, inclusive way. Everyone wants to be well, and most people understand that the cultivation of wellness requires developing healthy habits that keep us from being sick and unemployed. An industry that learns about and draws attention to the ways that cannabis can help us be well is one that appeals to a broader public, and a more diverse and conscious consumer base.

My organization’s annual fundraising event, The Original Terpestival, is designed to promote efforts to brand cannabis with the politics of wellness. The consumption and marketing of cannabis as a delivery vehicle for THC is one of the obstacles to broader considerations of the whole plant and its many ways of helping people be well. The event encourages other ways of relating to the plant by focusing on the “delivery” mechanism for cannabinoids, terpenes. Terpenes are essential oils found in all plants, not just cannabis, that can contribute significantly to feelings of wellness beyond the relief of pain associated with cannabinoids.

We know this because our annual keynote speaker, Dr. Ethan Russo, president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, has pioneered the application of aromatherapy research to cannabinoid research. This opens up a world of possibilities for associating cannabis with wellness, but that message needs a delivery vehicle itself — or a fleet of delivery vehicles. That’s where industry comes in. The newly legal cannabis industry faces many challenges associated with what I call THC monoculture, in which a single molecule category dominates both market promotion and public health-related regulations.

The promotion of Terpene education transcends these limitations by promoting the diversity of the plant and its applications — the opposite of monoculture. And an industry that understands that diversity is an industry with a broad, growing consumer base oriented towards broad-based wellness, a political frame that expands knowledge about the therapeutic potential of cannabis while growing a robust and conscientious consumer base. Our popular education panels and keynote promote wellness in the cannabis industry by giving the cannabis industry information that promotes its economic health.

Our delivery vehicle for this information is out Terpene Tournament, a boutique cannabis competition that literally gives the industry new ways to differentiate, create, and market products for a more conscious public.

We are proud to partner with the Cannabis Alliance in this effort because this has always been common ground for our organizations. It is an organic extension of social relationships I have been developing since founding the organization in 2013. Lara Kaminsky, the Alliance’s executive director, is not only a CASP Board member but our event planner. We’ve worked together to promote the emergence of healthy cannabis policy and markets practically since the moment I returned to Seattle, along with many Alliance members that constitute the CASP information and organizational network. Together we form an entourage effect greater than any particular interest or issue facing the cannabis peace movement today.

Together, even when we are sick, tired, poor, and stressed out, we are WELL. This realization helps me get up every day, grateful for my social ecology, and determined to carry our message forward.

Taming THC Inflation: Is There a Silver Bullet?

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Washington State’s approach to cannabis legalization provides many lessons for other states coming on line in the future. One of the really state-specific lessons we have learned over the last four years is that we have created a situation in which measured THC levels on packaged flowers are much higher than those observed during the period of unregulated medical cannabis markets. There are actually two significant problems with this. Please note that this analysis refers specifically to flowers — processed cannabis products can and usually are homogenized in the process, so test results are less of a concern.

  1. High THC levels, which approach and sometimes exceed what is botanically possible, are inaccurate and misleading.
  2. Labs that consistently deliver higher THC results than other labs “corner the market” since higher results make products more likely to sell, under Washington’s particular approach to legal cannabis packaging.

Both of these problems create suboptimal public policy results, with respect to scientific accuracy, on the one hand, and unfair market advantage for untrustworthy labs on the other. Let’s take them one at a time, before examining a simple, completely technical approach that could virtually eliminate these problems.

Suspiciously high THC results can be the consequence of intentional and unintentional behavior or decisions by producers, processors, labs, and rule makers. There’s no reason to point fingers when there are so many factors contributing to this outcome. Instead, let me list a few.

  1. Consumers that are not allowed to sample or smell the product they purchase, due to packaging and retail display rules, are deciding what to buy on very little information. Adult-use consumers clearly show a preference for high THC numbers, which are required numbers found on each package. And like consumers of other products, they are swayed by clever and attractive packaging, which has no inherent correlation to the quality of the product inside. Most packaging provides a fairly limited window to observe the “bag appeal” of the product inside. In fact, “bag appeal” in these conditions refers significantly to the appeal of the bag, not what’s in it, because that all they can see. This is an unintentional outcome of strict packaging and display rules, and there is no reason to suspect foul play. It’s structural, not the outcome of bad intent.
  2. Labs, by rule, have one broad direction with respect to how they go about testing product. They are instructed by rule to follow the guidelines laid out about cannabis in the American Herbal Pharmacopeia. These guidelines were not designed to standardize lab methods in any particular direction. So, Washington’s labs have each independently arrived at how they follow those guidelines. This is also a structural problem, and to their credit many of Washington’s labs have begun collaborating to develop “best practices” to help standardize methodologies.
  3. Lab reference standards — the individual cannabinoid samples they use to compare industry products in order to arrive at numbers — can vary for a number of reasons. Most labs source these from Restek, but there are other suppliers out there. This can introduce variability for obvious reasons. Some non-obvious reasons for reference standard variability include how those are stored, and how long they are used before they are replaced. The temperature and pressure at which reference standards are stored contribute greatly to the their stability. And of course labs may vary in how long they go before replacing “used up” or unreliable standards, for intentional and unintentional reasons. This introduces a lot of potential variability in test results across labs. It is a structural problem faced in any laboratory industry that tests products using chemical reference standards. It could be improved, but not likely eliminated. Here is where the lesson that scientific methods are not perfect, but they can be more transparent.
  4. Cannabis plants are highly variable from top cola to bottom buds. This is a problem of sampling a product that is not uniform. It can be a little helpful to require independent, third party samplers. But even when that happens, the plant is highly variable. It’s a plant, not an industrial product. This is a structural problem, but more of a structural problem for science in general rather than our particular approach to cannabis regulation.

There are other factors that influence the variability of THC lab results, but the lesson is: THC results can be precise, but how accurate they are always an open question. Precise THC numbers are always a guide, not a guarantee. It is absolutely crucial that consumers and policymakers understand this limit. Now, the problem of market capture via THC inflation.

  1. How do producers and processors choose which lab to use? There are many business decisions to make when choosing labs. These include convenience, professionalism, and consistency — but as Dr. Jim MacRae’s work has shown with a high degree of methodological confidence, it’s pretty clear that producers and processors are choosing labs based how high their THC results can be. One caveat: producers and processors are clearly behaving badly when they agree to pay labs more for higher numbers.
  2. Producers and processors are making market decisions when they do this. As mentioned above, THC levels correspond with product velocity and therefore more sales. They may be perfectly aware that this is unfortunate, but they also know that the precision of lab results does not necessarily reflect accuracy in any case. So, given the choice of more sales rather than less, they choose more. I call this a structural problem, although there is certainly an ethically questionable element. Some producer/processors want to evolve consumers away from the importance of precise THC numbers, and choose the more challenging road because they have a long-term vision of the industry in which they operate.
  3. Labs are making market decisions when they choose to follow methods that result in higher THC numbers, AND labs are making unethical decisions when they receive payment for higher numbers, for example, or intentionally introduce methodological variations that favor higher results. We have also encountered the “drylabbing” phenomenon in Washington State, whereby labs literally just make up numbers to report. That’s way beyond the pale, and one lab has already been shut down for this. Other labs that may have done this in the past have cleaned up their act.

 

So, how do we tame THC inflation? Obviously, improved governance has some effect — and that governance includes the public reporting work that Dr. MacRae has done, which has clearly had a strong effect on lab motivation to not look bad. Every lab test result in this state is public information, and any public servant with database skills can request WSLCB data and run the numbers themselves.

However, there is a “silver bullet” technical fix that could absolutely clean up most of the mess. Here it is.

Normalize lab results by lab, and require only the percentile of each result to be listed on the package rather than a precise percentage.

Each lab has its own data population and range of results. For all of the reasons listed above, the numbers they produced are not comparable across labs; nor are they comparable across time (hello, life cycle of reference standards).

For a lab that consistently ranges up to 32% but no higher, for example, a sample that tests at 32% would be reported at the 100th percentile. The number on the package would be 100.

For a lab that consistently ranges up to 25%, a sample that tests at 25% would also be reported at the 100th percentile. The number on the package would also be 100.

Doing this changes the comparisons away from apples to oranges (how we are doing it now), and towards apples to apples.

Simply doing this would eliminate shopping for the highest THC prices immediately. Producers and processors could then make decisions on what lab they used based on best business practices and convenience, rather than unscrupulous behavior.

It would take a simple line of code in the tracking software, and a small shift in packaging information. It would also of course need to by dynamically updated, perhaps by using only the last 100 results. New laboratories would use the industry average for 100 results, and then once they had significant data from their own results switch over.

Listing a normalized percentile instead of a precise quantity would also help shift consumer and policymaker understanding of what lab results mean and how they are used. They should be use primarily to indicate that something is strong, qualitatively, rather than quantitatively, because again, cannabis flowers are variable and precise numbers do not mean accurate numbers.

That’s it. It’s an immodest proposal — an actual silver bullet based on understanding how statistical variability influences market outcomes, and therefore provides “loopholes” that reward unethical behavior.

I want to thank Dr. Jim MacRae especially for making this issue one that the industry and policymakers can’t ignore any more. He’s got his own style for doing so, but you can’t argue with his methods which are absolutely testable by any citizen-scientist that cares to. Fortunately, his work has been amplified by two cannabis journalists whose approach makes it a bit harder for people to ignore, Bob Young of the Seattle Times and Tobias Coughlin-Bogue of Leafly.

The Third Annual Terpestival

by Dr. Dominic Corva, Terpestival Producer and Social Science Research Director

The Cannabis and Social Policy Center is proud to announce the third return of our annual popular education event, the Terpestival (TM). It will take place July 15, 2017, at Sodo Dockside, in partnership with the Cannabis Alliance and Medicine Creek Analytics. Let’s review its key elements!

  1. The Terpestival is a Whole Plant, Whole Society popular education event with particular relevance to industry, consumers, policymakers, and the general public that benefits from conscious approaches to cannabis production, processing, retail, consumption. We use one constituent element of cannabis, terpenes, to promote a wider understanding of what cannabis is and how it can be part of wellness promotion in society.
  2. The cannabis plant is incredibly diverse, not just because there’s more to it than cannabinoids, of which THC and CBD are the most well-known, but because there’s so much more to the plant within these two major constituent elements. The “whole plant” entourage effect of cannabis varies across terpene categories and clusters, each with unique potentials for therapeutic effect. Even the trace terpenes can cause a significant difference in smell, taste, and effect. Think about the difference between “lime” and “lemon.” Both derive citrus flavor and smell from limonene, but what makes lime so distinctive is its combination with minor terpenes that may not even show up on a lab test.
  3. Educating the public about the whole plant through the lens of “terpenes” not only promotes wellness in the public interest, but substantially opens up the field of possibilities for industry branding and marketing. The public and the private interest intersect strongly for our event, and we aim to capture industry as a vehicle for promoting wellness as a result. It’s not just good to know “what else” about cannabis than cannabinoids. It’s good business sense. We see the nascent legal industry struggling to differentiate their products for a number of reasons, but in particular because there’s only so far a THC or CBD score can go to appeal to consumers. This is especially the case in Washington’s legal market, where consumers can’t smell or experience what they are buying until after they are out the door.
  4. Thus, our terpene “tournament.” Historically, cannabis competitions don’t have a lot of categories to work with beyond product type and cannabinoid ratio. Many of the more forward-looking competitions provide categories that reflect how cannabis is grown — in the sun or indoor, for example. This is a welcome step away from a monocultural market that reflects decades of black market commodity chains, to which the new legal markets still cater! The legal cannabis consumer is by definition potentially very different from the traditional cannabis consumer, and the industry is blocking itself by not promoting diverse cannabis experiences to a more diverse and broad potential consumer market.
  5. We prefer the term “tournament” to “competition” because we aim to lift up and empower diversity in cannabis values rather than singular value. It’s not just a matter of giving everyone an award — though the more of these, the better. Rather, there are so many different ways cannabis can be valuable to the people that sell it and the people that buy it. The more different ways cannabis can reflect diverse botanical value, the more likely it is that its economic benefits can be widely realized by cottage industry and small businesses. Category champions in the tournament will be empowered to brand distinct values for market success.
  6. The tournament’s value depends on the strength of our popular education programming. We are incredibly grateful to plant a flag on our annual keynote speaker, Dr. Ethan Russo, one of the world’s most accomplished cannabis scientists and all-around plant person. His talk alone is worth the price of admission and adds profound legitimacy and credibility to the terpene tournament associated with his talks.
  7. But we don’t stop there. Dr. Michelle Sexton, our organization’s Medical Research Director and clinical researcher, is a world-class whole plant specialist. The event is in many ways a showcase for her incredibly valuable contributions as a cannabis scientist and public intellectual for the whole plant.
  8. Drs. Russo and Sexton are the foundation upon which our subject matter expert panels stand. This year, we have three panels designed to evolve the I 502 cannabis industry towards the promotion of wellness in society. Dr. Sexton herself curates the “Terpenes and Wellness” panel, which includes Dr. Russo, Dr. Hatha Gbedawo, and Virginia Hoyer. We will describe the panels in more detail in a forthcoming post, but the other two address “Industry Evolution” as it relates to terpenes; and a contemporary issues panel with an annually rotating theme. This year that theme is “Cannabis-derived and Other Terpenes.”

We are incredibly excited for this year’s event, and look forward to posts about our tournament methodology and categories; judging process; detailed panel descriptions with our already-booked world class Subject Matter Experts; and more.

 

Dr. Ethan Russo: Cannabis Popular Education at the High Dive

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Last night I had the pleasure of watching Dr. Ethan Russo deliver a “Cannabis 101” talk at the High Dive in Fremont. The talk was part of a regular “Nerd Nite” series that caters to Seattle’s tech culture, rather than the crowd of Seattle and Vashon-area cannabis enthusiasts that have discovered the engaging charm of perhaps the most accomplished and knowledgable cannabis researcher out there. A good teacher plans their talk around the audience they will encounter, so it was especially interesting to see how the humble scientist managed to introduce so many nuances of cannabis science — ones that often escape the cannabis industry itself — to an alcohol-oriented audience that was warmed up by a reconfigured marriage proposal about how he mined his own engagement ring. That the warmup show included stale comments about stoners made the brilliance of his talk shine all the brighter.

Yes, there were molecule diagrams in the slide show, but the man has a knack for delivering technical information with a “it’s not as complicated as it looks” tone that helps his audience keep chewing on the rich substance of his talks. As someone who’s done his share of instruction, it’s always impressive to me to see a subject matter expert remain aware of and engaged with his audience. It’s not easy, but the proof is in the sustained attention of his audience. In institutional settings, we “cheat” by structuring the audience for professional students in a professional classroom setting. But popular education has to reach a more diverse and less structurally focused crowd, whether it’s a hundred stoney people packed into the Vashon Grange or dozens of tipsy nerds some of which know something about cannabis. Ethan comes off as a natural in front of a popular crowd, and has been developing a palette of talks that allow him to be himself. I think that’s why people respond so well.

If you missed the talk, and you probably did given that it wasn’t shared through ubiquitous local cannabis media outlets, I recommend his recent podcast interview with Shango Los.  The 90-minute interview allows Ethan to “translate” his 2010 Taming THC article from The British Journal of Pharmacology for a popular audience, with a special focus on major terpenes and their potential therapeutic effects. Russo’s work de-emphasizes cannabinoids while delivering research-grade information about them, which allows him to describe their role in producing “whole plant” effects widely misunderstood as the function of problematic strain names and the useless sativa/indica binary still subscribed to by most of the emerging legal cannabis industry.

Since leaving his long term position as chief scientist at GW Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Russo has been freed from contractual obligations that severely limited his ability to share what he knows. Over the last several years, he has enjoyed a blossoming friendship with Shango, his fellow Vashon Island resident and organizer-in-chief of the Vashon Island Marijuana Enthusiasts Alliance (VIMEA). His public talks at the Vashon Grange and, last month, at the Vashon Theater, have drawn interested attendees from neighboring states.

Beyond the content of his talks, the community vibe that infuses his students and how they come together for them is especially welcome. His organic audience may include cannabis industry, but there’s a humility with respect to knowledge that owes a great deal to the humility and authenticity of the man himself that simply opens up space for conversations that are sidelined at industry events. The best educational outcomes are ones that the students themselves sustain and take with them — perhaps you’ve experienced a class or class talk that couldn’t be contained by the time period or space it happens in, but simply has to spill outside and keep going, because it has connected to the relevance of everyday life in a way most boring lectures can’t.

The mission of our organization is popular education about whole plant cannabis science, culture and politics, and Ethan has been a tremendous ally along the way. He is the headline speaker for our annual Terpestival, the third iteration of which will take place in Seattle on July 15, 2017 at Dockside Sodo. We look forward to amplifying not only the content but the spirit of his work, grounded in a Whole Plant, Whole Society ethic that seems to be in short supply these days when it comes to cannabis policy and markets.

 

Whole Plant Outlooks 2017

CASP founders and co-Executive Directors at the first annual Terpestival, Seattle, Washington.

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Happy 2017 to our readers! It’s amazing how fast January went, and this post serves to locate CASP’s current agenda within the rapidly developing landscapes of cannabis and social change, in the age of formal legalization. We begin with federal, state, and local contexts, followed by CASP developments significant for the year ahead.

Geography and jurisdictional scale

California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada have joined Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, DC in successfully passing initiatives to join the “tax and regulate” landscape. Arizona’s initiative failed at the ballot box. Each initiative offers a different blueprint for evolving their particular “laboratory of democracy,” but California’s laboratory is backed by material significance that dwarfs what has come before. California is the main source of our nation’s cannabis supply (not Mexico), although (southern) Oregon has become quite significant as well.

The presidential election also shifts the context in which each of these laboratories operate, although it remains to be seen how much. The most important actors for Federal context remain the US Attorneys assigned to each State, through which federal enforcement takes place. Other important actors include the US Attorney General; the Food and Drug Administration; the emergent Congressional Cannabis Caucus; and national lobbying organizations.

At the local level, nothing has changed. Congress could legalize cannabis tomorrow and local jurisdictions could still find ways to effectively ban cannabis production, distribution, and consumption within their jurisdictions. Their ace in the hole is called “zoning.” At the end of the day, cannabis politics that do not gain local buy-in, at least with respect to removing punishments associated with the human-cannabis relationship, have failed.

CASP 2017

Our broader informational efforts support, and are confirmed by, our annual Whole Plant popular education event, the Original Terpestival (TM). We intend to return this event to Seattle, Washington, on July 15. This will be our third iteration. Given the State’s hostility to cannabis events, we anticipate a degree of difficulty pulling this off, but are up for the challenge. Last year’s event in Hopland, California, was a great success, but failed to raise funds for CASP operations.

Dr. Corva and Dr. Sexton continue to serve our mission through public speaking engagements, volunteer NGO and individual consultation, and paid consulting work. Our primary regular speaking work includes Seattle Hempfest, The Alliance Summit, and the Ganjier’s annual Southern Humboldt fall light deprivation event, the Golden Tarp. You can find us on podcasts, electronic and print media as the occasions arise.

This is the fourth year of our organization’s existence, and we will begin our third year with our own Federal nonprofit status in July. The Board that got us here is now joined by three new members, signaling an important evolution of our organizational structure and dynamic.

Next Steps

This year, we begin with a lot more clarity and a stronger network than ever in achieving CASP’s purpose, promoting a peaceful human-cannabis relationship based on the broader ecological principle of fostering an ecologically healthy society. I am incredibly grateful, as founder and social science research director, for the support and solidarity my co-founder and Medical Science Research Director Dr. Michelle Sexton; my Board; and our numerous solidarity organizations and allies around the world.

It’s always been a strange new world, and the people who create it together have much to do.

 

 

 

 

CASP Announces New Board Members

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

The Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy is pleased to announce the addition of three new Board members, our first major update in three years. Crystal Oliver, Lara Kaminsky, and Jerry Whiting bring much to the table that will be honored in a more thorough welcome announcement, once paperwork is finished, but for now I observe that these three individuals are outstanding community organizers around Whole Plant Politics residing in the State of Washington with whom we have worked for years on key projects.

Their addition is the outcome of a year-long search for candidates who bring diverse perspectives and unique expertise to our core team. We are honored to have these three amazing people accept our invitation, and look forward to elaborating more once the paperwork is complete!

Whole Plant Politics 2017 and Beyond

Dr. Ethan Russo, who is a true inspiration for Whole Plant Politics, keynoting CASP's Original Terpestival (TM) in Hopland, Califonria, July 23 2016.
Dr. Ethan Russo, who is a true inspiration for Whole Plant Politics, keynoting CASP’s Original Terpestival (TM) in Hopland, Califonria, July 23 2016. Photo by Hillary Bernhardt.

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

I have written a great deal this year about the difference between medical cannabis politics and legal cannabis politics, which are the two most powerful expressions of post-prohibition politics available in the U.S. today. I say this because it is these two forms that have successfully rolled back prohibition laws and practice, so far in the form of voter initiatives between 1998 and 2016. Let’s get concise about their definitions, which are drawn from the legitimating discourses that have accompanied their formal electoral victories. I’m also going to do something controversial and say that these are primarily logics of production and distribution, rather than consumption. I will address this omission as I go along.

Legal cannabis politics are defined by one, and only one discourse of legitimacy, even if it’s two words: Tax and Regulate. The reason there are two words is because they literally cannot exist without each other, Oregon’s brief experiment notwithstanding: cannabis must be regulated by the State for the State to lay claim to revenues associated with its markets. And the cost of implementing regulation isn’t coming from extra cash the public sector has lying around: it has to be taxed in order to be regulated. And it’s the fact that cannabis is taxed and regulated that legitimates the freedom to consume, not the other way around.

Medical cannabis politics are defined by two multiple and sometimes contradictory discourses of legitimacy.

  1. This is because the word “medical” has multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings in our society. The dominant discourse of legitimacy around “medical” in this country is “professional”: medicine is practiced by experts authorized by their objective distance from, not relationship with, patients as the subjects of their care. Professional medicine is sometimes contradictory and multiple because many medical professionals are militant, preferring pharmaceutical-industrial standardized health care in which patients are objects of care rather than subjects with expertise on what is happening to their own bodies. And many medical professionals are heterodox, constantly observing available evidence to support or reject other approaches to care and the patient’s own subjective care of the self. Let’s call this form of medical politics “industrial” or “pharmaceutical” medicine. For militant pharmaceutical politics, what seems to work for patients is irrelevant, because they have not been to medical school and are not licensed by formal authorities. The doctor knows best. This works pretty well in a country where medical care is practiced by strangers on strangers — how can doctors know of this object of care is lying or being duped? There is no relationship of trust to work from.
  2. Since the 1960s, the practice of medicine by “objective” experts has been challenged formally by a movement within the US for the freedom to practice what are formally called “alternative and complementary” approaches to health. These include traditional and non-Western approaches to healthcare, and usually involve herbal (simply processed whole plant, retaining complex molecules) rather than pharmaceutical (technologically molecularized and standardized) medicine. Let’s call this form of medical politics “herbal” or “traditional” medicine. Herbal medicine is by definition a fuzzy category, encompassing Chinese, indigenous, woman-centered (think midwifery), and a host of other practices that have nothing to do with each other but share one bit of common ground: the freedom of the patient, the subject of care, to choose what seems to work for them. This works pretty well in social context where the caretaker and the cared-for know and trust each other — a pre-industrial context that isn’t at all extinct but pretty common if not majoritarian in this particular country. Lots of people do have primary care physicians, or the same doctor all their lives, but it’s relatively unusual in a privatized health care system rather than a public health care system. Lots of people who can’t afford healthcare go years without seeing a doctor, and follow jobs and career opportunities to distant places.

So we have two categories of cannabis politics, within which one of these categories is internally inconsistent and potentially at odds. It should be easy to note here that they don’t have to be at odds, but they are structurally produced at odds in the rest of society so why wouldn’t they be for cannabis as well.

These two categories of politics also don’t have to be at odds. There is nothing in the legal cannabis political paradigm that demands one form of medical politics over the other; or that cannot accommodate cannabis as medicine. So why are we at a point where the promotion of legal cannabis seems to be accompanied by a demand for one kind of medical politics, industrial-pharmaceutical, over the other? And why are we at a point where medical cannabis politics are afraid of and resist legal cannabis politics?

The answer lies in the difference between discursive political logics — the reasons stated for moving beyond prohibition politics — and the material support available to these logics.

  1. Legal cannabis politics have been, until Ohio’s failed 2015 attempt, funded primarily by “grass-tops” organizations interested primarily in cannabis politics as a form of civil rights politics. This is materially expressed as a matter of criminal justice reform. The Drug Policy Alliance concerns itself with “open society” civil rights, where the ACLU concerns itself especially with mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. Neither organization cares the slightest what the politics of legal cannabis are, whether they are in conflict with medical or economic politics. Both are focused on rights, not justice, and it’s not the rights of cannabis users that of concern. And we wouldn’t have post-prohibition laws without them. Cannabis user organizations, primarily NORML, failed spectacularly to legalize cannabis in the 1970s, when they had the chance. They didn’t just fail, they failed hard — our national cannabis politics turned authoritarian in a way that would have blown every anti-war hippie’s mind. For a decade, no one thought the right to consume cannabis had any relevance as a political discourse in this country until grassroots mobilizations like the Cannabis Action Network, funded by illegal pot dealers like Steve Deangelo, emerged at the end of the 1980s. And while these were emergent, they may or may not have been destined for irrelevance.
  2. Contemporary Medical cannabis politics emerged out of the HIV/AIDS crisis at the end of the 1980s and 1990s. The Bay Area, as an enclave of cannabis consumer politics, was also the center of HIV/AIDS politics in the context of a national failure to care for a certain kind of sick person — people with different sexual orientations. That’s the alchemy embodied in the life and work of Dennis Peron, who started California’s Prop 215 effort that was carried to completion by Drug Policy Alliance. The national failure to care for people of different sexual orientation was, let’s be clear, totally homophobic and in that sense pre-Enlightenment in character. But it was Federal policy to deny that medical cannabis could help dying people in any way shape or form, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary presented by patient-focused doctors like Tod Mikuryia, who was himself a defector from the Federal industrial-pharmaceutical paradigm. This shameful, genocidal Federal policy was the context for medical cannabis politics and how they changed the politics of every cannabis producer, distributor, and consumer especially on the West Coast, since 1996.

Medical cannabis politics were forged in the fires of a national healthcare emergency, the clear failure of militant pharmaceutical-industrial medicine to care for patients and in fact the transparently unjust politics of anti-care that resulted. The difference between medical ideology and patient care efficacy was never so clear to State publics in American history, and voters responded by passing extremely broad decriminalization statutes in the late 1990s. The politics of medical cannabis achieved something that the politics of rights had failed (maybe even destroyed), which was the legitimacy of post-prohibition cannabis politics.

What followed, for the next 10 years, was a period in which legal protection may not have been guaranteed, but it opened the possibility for people — not just patients, but providers — to legally protect themselves. And in the United States, that mean lawyers had a whole new field of work, too, challenging the legality of prohibition-policing. And patients, as consumers, became able to self-provision on the one hand and become more directly connected to cannabis producers on the other.

This is because, economically, the legal shield created by broad medical decriminalization acted as an international Industrial Policy. Cannabis producers here began to truly compete with historically international imports, which by the mid-1990s were primarily from Mexico and produced after the fashion of large-scale industrial agriculture. Domestic sinsemilla prices fell dramatically between 1996 and 2010, from $6000/lb wholesale to $1200/lb. In 2010, a California drug task force use a UN methodology to estimate that 60-80% of U.S. cannabis consumption was being supplied by California growers. They intended this message to support more eradication and interdiction within California, but in so doing they highlighted an unintended consequence with enormous socially beneficial implications: the economic weakening of Mexican drug trafficking organizations. Of course, the subsequent focus of Mexican DTOs on the coca-cocaine commodity chain would contribute to massive political and economic destabilization we still see today in Mexico after the Calderon Administration took power in 2006.

This is an ongoing dynamic. We are still capturing share from international organized crime, especially since the price crash of 2010 made our high quality cannabis prices competitive with those of Mexican brickweed.

So the political economy of medical cannabis production remains relevant, even while it has become politically controversial with respect to the political economy of legal cannabis.

The aim of this essay is to identify conflicting post-prohibition cannabis politics, on the one hand, and seek a synthesis in which those conflicts are resolved, because they are not necessary. If they aren’t necessary, they are political — subject to alternative approaches but limited by available material support for such approaches.

Material support for post-prohibition politics have been transformed by the creation of legal cannabis markets through the funding of organizations that do not give a damn about legal cannabis markets, other than that they be taxed and regulated. How they are taxed, and how they are regulated, is where the different political approaches materialize.

With legalization comes a whole new set of actors that choose how to influence how cannabis is taxed and regulated. This set of actors is just like the set of actors that influence how everything else in society is organized: with money paid to lobby legislators in the interest of profit. The failed 2010 Ohio initiative was their first material effort, but the successful 2016 California initiative is their first material victory, a model for future successful post-prohibition change.

The private sector, most prominently Facebook moguls Sean Parker and Peter Thiel, rather than grasstops NGOs played the pivotal funding and messaging role for Prop 64. Up until the spring of last year or so, this was not the case. Prop 64 was a DPA initiative, until Sean Parker’s support of the DPA initiative was inverted into DPA support for Sean Parker’s initiative. It seems that at some point, DPA’s Prop 64 funding (at the time, quoted to me at $5 million) seemed to be mostly coming from Parker anyway, so Parker and the DPA decided to invert control. It’s not clear how much this changed the initiative itself, but for growers the main regulatory difference between MCRSA (an overhaul of 1998’s broad statute passed in 2015 by the legislature) is the permittable size of regulated grow operations. These are now 5 acres, as opposed to say Washington’s largest permittable legal grow at 30,000 square feet.

It should be stressed that this is substantially different from the failed Ohio initiative, which sought a 10-person monopoly for cannabis production. And it’s also substantially different from agricultural regulations, which don’t to my knowledge put any limit on how big one’s farm can be.

The main critique of this private-sector-led regulatory approach is that it creates an economic injustice problem. This is a controversial perspective, and strongly divided advocate support for Prop 64 in California. Many cannabis consumers really don’t care how their cannabis is grown or by whom, as long as they don’t risk prison to possess or consume it. And consumers outnumber cannabis producers and distributors who this affects, by tens of millions.

The fact that cannabis legalization seems now to mean agricultural economic centralization doesn’t bother most Americans, much less most cannabis consumers. This is a political problem, for supporters of economic justice at large — not just supporters of decentralized cannabis production.

We can think of this as parallel to the industrial/traditional medicine conflict. Heterodox industrial medical professionals and herbal medical practitioners have made tremendous progress towards institutionalizing the legitimacy of herbal/nonWestern/traditional medicine since the 1960s (it’s not a coincidence, eh hippies).

Now, the minority politics of economic justice for cannabis producers has to find and work with the minority politics of economic justice in the U.S. and, I might add, the rest of the world. Your arguments are theirs. They don’t seem to have made much headway in the U.S., given the dominance of Consumer politics through the most marketized society the world has ever known. It doesn’t matter how our food is producer, where, or by whom: what matters to the U.S. Consumer is the lowest price and the greatest ease of access for everything.

The most successful economic justice movement of our time, and that’s not saying much but it does say a lot about the politics of possibility, is the Conscious Consumer movement. Conscious consumption politics reject the militant absolutism of low prices, and express their preference for commodities that may be more expensive, but are successfully branded as “Free Trade,” “Organic,” “small-scale,” “local,” and so forth. This is not a politics that is outside the system: it’s quite capitalist and depends on conscious brands to be able to succeed in highly competitive marketplaces. It’s “postcapitalist” in the sense that while exchange value (price) still dominates the logic of transaction, it’s not the only value that matters for the transaction.

That means that there is an alternative to conflicting economic politics of post-prohibition. It won’t happen naturally, and it won’t be terribly successful without coordinated organization that learns from the Fair Trade movement et al.

But let’s put a name to it, provisionally, as a heterodox political discourse. We need something that captures the common ground of lots of different logics at work here. Let’s call it Whole Economy politics, for now, because I need that to make this final point.

Cannabis markets are relevant to cannabis medical politics because there would be no medicine, in either the traditional or pharmaceutical fashion, without the black, gray, and white markets that give patients (as well as “adult users”) access to outcomes that challenge the basic premise of cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance, without medical value.

Many medical cannabis patients respond well to non-standardized cannabis consumption. Many medical cannabis patients respond well to more standardized, refined cannabis products. The politics of medical cannabis that seems not only most appropriate but reflective of existing medical politics tolerate a heterodox and alternative approach to medicine, focused on patient experience and reports as well as double-blind clinical trials. There’s room for both, politically, and technically to rid our society of the harm of prohibition — all of it — it makes no sense to prohibit herbal and patient-focused approaches to cannabis medicine. It’s not only unnecessary, it is contrary to ending the drug war. Let’s call this heterodox approach “Whole Medicine” medical politics. It really means not excluding alternative and complementary approaches to modern medicine, when it comes to cannabis. So, everything.

In a parallel fashion, absent logical irregularities most evident in the Washington model’s ban on home grows and strict possession limits, there’s room for decentralized market production. We still have our Tier 1, 3000 square foot legal cannabis producer license here in Washington, and somehow many of these remain in business. The prospect of commodity-style industrial production (which is WAY bigger than even our largest, formally prohibited but materially tolerated multiple license operations) is a Bummer for decentralized production. But craft cannabis producers can carve out and grow market space, generally by organizing cooperatively and mastering “Whole Economy” branding.

The parallel logics converge on the concept and the practice of the “Whole, ” or holistic social organization. The logics are inclusive, cooperative, creative, and open space for experiments in creating a better approach to medicine, the economy, and society at large.

When it comes to cannabis, Whole Economy politics and Whole Medicine politics are really about cannabis as a plant with which our species has had a largely peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence, with some exceptions, until the 20th century rolled around. Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire (1995) really made this point well, and not just with respect to cannabis.

So I suggest that there is a concept that can be named, that includes all peaceful approaches to creating a post-prohibition society: Whole Plant Politics. The challenge is to define peaceful approaches that move us towards the moment when cannabis is just a plant, and doesn’t require politics at all to grow. This is our task for 2017 and beyond.

 

Post-prohibition politics 2017

Policy Ecology Relationships, visualized
Policy Ecology Relationships Visualized

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

I’ve been using a “policy ecology” metaphor to describe the complex development of national (and global, implicitly) cannabis policy landscapes, and this post’s attention to Federal evolution provides an opportunity to strengthen and clarify that interpretive frame. Please forgive the informality of the whiteboard photo, but today’s post focuses on the “Federal” node and its implications for especially the “Federal-State” relationship. It’s also a helpful reminder that this ecology is a living one, not a fixed or static one, and its dynamics are always evolving even when not in an election year.

Presidential Elections set the stage for actual change, of course, and don’t in and of themselves mean anything. They set the stage because each new administration picks new people for institutional positions, and these people always start from where the institutional position was, not where the new people are. The new people then exert their agenda on the institutions, and, it should be noted, vice versa. The institutional positions through which the president has the power to evolve Federal drug policy is not the DEA chief, but the Attorney General, who heads the Department of Justice. In the Obama Administration, that position was held by Eric Holder and then James Cole.

It should be noted that the President himself (still no women, of course) theoretically can exert more radical change through Executive Order, but those carry much broader political risk and reward calculations. We’ll get to that later in the essay.

It should also be noted that legislative elections also set the stage for actual change, but in the aggregate rather than at the individual level. Individual Congresspeople lead, but their political agendas have to accommodate horse-trading around ALL the other national political issues, of which cannabis policy reform remains pretty minor. We can elaborate but it would take us a bit too afar from the focus of this essay and perhaps will be revisited in a later post.

So, what does a Trump administration mean for cannabis policy landscapes in 2017, and at least the next three years?

Directly, it means that Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions will succeed James Cole as the Attorney General [EDIT: it’s Loretta Lynch, but she continued to implement rather than revise the AG Memo]. Because Donald Trump is not a “normal” Republican President-elect, this AG pick is more than the difference between a Republican AG and a Democrat AG (under a prospective Clinton administration)). Let’s explore the ways.

Trump’s politics, for the election, were “outsider” politics: populist and demagogic, rather than continuous with standard Republican politics. That means he said a lot of things that appealed to the people who elected him, rather than the Republican establishment which he excoriated as part of the swamp he would drain.

Trump’s politics for running the country now that he has been elected, may diverge considerably from the anti-establishmentarian rhetoric established on the campaign trail. This applies to all aspects of national policy development, for which cannabis policy is, again, relatively insignificant. It seems likely he will move forward with some of his anti-establishment populist agenda, while walking back an unknown but perhaps majority share of the rest of it for political and practical reasons.

So we have to pay attention to Trump’s election politics on the one hand, and his probably divergent administrative policy moves, especially his AG selection, to try to figure out whether the cannabis policy landscape will change and how.

His election politics with respect to the DOJ’s area of influence were fairly textbook, for 1968. He used the exact domestic political frame as Richard Nixon, calling for “law and order” and promising to reduce crime by getting tough on criminals. The appeal to American voters to support “law and order” politics in 1968 meant especially that voters were favorably inclined to crack down on anti-poverty, civil rights, and antiwar mobilizations, the convergence of which was noted by Dr. Martin Luther King a year before his 1968 assassination. Scholars usually interpret “law and order” politics, in practice, by its results: the decimation of dissent in this country and the birth of the greatest carceral state the world has ever known, by far.

Nixon didn’t start the fires of coded racial warfare, but his successful adoption of  post-Jim Crow coded racial politics (and a related ecology of imperialist and anticommunist authoritarianisms) nationalized and normalized it. Who doesn’t want “law and order,” after all? It’s not Jim Crow, and it doesn’t explicitly target labor and people of color. Compound this with the fact that many Black communities and their significantly religious political leadership mostly supported the idea of reducing crime and drugs. New York  Representative Charles Rangel earned his political capital that way, and would partner with other white Democratic politicians like Joe Biden to pull the Democratic Party into a full-fledged bipartisan global War on Drugs in the 1980s.

Nixon’s “law and order” political agenda was, in practice, a mixed bag rather than a consistently applied doctrine. His administration funded addiction rehabilitation strategies that helped most of the mostly heroin-addicted Vietnam veterans go clean upon their return home, for example. And the fledgling DEA, born on his watch from the ashes of Harry Anslinger’s 1930s-style outfit, the Bureau of Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs, had nowhere near the institutional power and generalized legitimacy it would achieve under Reagan. As a Keynesian anticommunist Republican, Nixon also drew down the Cold War while paving the way for the neoliberal (read: anti-Keynesian) economic policy dominance we still live under. The “law and order” politician was also the most publicly criminal President we’ve ever had. The ironies abound, but the reality constructed out of these contradictions changed American politics like the 1960s changed American culture.

It’s taken a very, very long time for the politics of mass incarceration and militant drug warfare to begin to dislodge from the national political consensus consolidated during the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton administrations. Quite frankly, it would seem we simply stopped being able to afford such costly and transparently counterproductive approaches. We are publicly broke while privately rich, as a country. So how would a throwback “law and order” politician (a) reconstitute the legitimacy of “law and order” and (b) pay for it? The first has to happen through the Attorney General, and faces potential backlash. And the second has to happen through Congressional approval of budgets. What Jeff Sessions thinks about people who consume cannabis is probably irrelevant.

It’s unclear whether or how either will happen, but the prospect has post-prohibition cannabis stakeholders much more nervous than they were under the Cole memo, Obama’s cannabis policy change vehicle, and certainly more nervous than what was anticipated under a Clinton II administration.

Much consternation has developed over Sessions’ personal cannabis politics, but let’s remember that the other options were probably Rudy Giuliani, the “law and order” former mayor of New York; and Chris Christie, who is also ardently anti-cannabis. Sessions will make his mark with a revision or replacement of the Cole memo (which formally made the rules for the Obama administration’ “laboratories of democracy” State approach under which cannabis policy has been nationally liberalized), but probably not explicitly as an anti-cannabis Memo. What Sessions and Trump share with establishment Republican discourse are the politics of State autonomy to deviate from Federal policy. Those politics lost the Civil War but won Jim Crow. And yes, they were largely code for racial politics that had to be overthrown with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

But in 2016, State rights can mean a lot of other things besides or in addition to the power of States to roll back civil liberties established at the Federal level: Roe v Wade and gay marriage come to mind. The de-institutionalization of the drug war’s desirability, legitimacy, and economic feasibility has happened through Republicans like cannabis banking reform leader Dana Rohrbacher as well as Democrats. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that the drug war was and remains bipartisan political capital. Also, it was Republican intellectuals like Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley Jr. who publicly fought against the drug war when no one else would touch it for fear of losing political legitimacy. Those two are also libertarian political figures, and libertarian politics have largely been subsumed into the Republican party.

I doubt Donald Trump has a consistent political ideology: he’s a populist demagogue who can and does say whatever comes to mind first, and then figures out his actual policy approach later. When it comes to cannabis policy, I’m guessing that he’ll stick to the Republican establishment’s States rights discourse, and that will be the basis of the post-Cole memo to come through Sessions’ office.

Which isn’t all that different from the actual Cole memo. What are “laboratories of democracy” but the expression of State rights politics, applied liberally to the promotion of democracy as a socially beneficial national policy? The fact that States can choose democratic authoritarianism as well as democratic liberalism is irrelevant to the broader political meaning and potential outcomes.

Which is where I see the Sessions Memo potentially diverging from the Cole Memo. States, perhaps Sessions’ home state of Alabama, will be as free to conduct their own crackdowns on Federally banned cannabis markets as they are to tax and regulate them. Trump’s DOJ will be there to help them, just like Obama’s DOJ was when they asked for it. That’s the nature of the DOJ, as an institution: they work with State stakeholders to enforce Federal criminal law, but they generally can’t force it. They work through their State-institutional officers, the U.S. Attorneys, to do so.

So if you want to figure out what’s going to happen in your state, look for your U.S. Attorneys on the one hand and your State willingness to fund crackdowns on the other. The Sessions Memo, all other things held constant, will reinforce the quilt-like nature of the Federal crime policy blanket, where the Cole memo enforced the blanket nature of the Federal crime policy quilt.

The question of how it will be paid for, should it happen, is of great relevance. Unlike election words, which are really marketing gimmicks, the policies that result from political agendas follow funding. And our public sector coffers have shriveled up in the age of neoliberalism, which is really the age of monetary policy (Federal Reserve rate control) dominance over fiscal policy (government spending).

If there will be money for crackdowns, it is unlikely to flow exclusively through Federal agencies. Instead, look for “public-private” partnerships common to neoliberal governance. Look no further than how Trump plans to pay for the populist mega-infrastructure project to understand. Private corporations will bid on whatever “law and order” politics puts up for sale, and they will be provided with tax breaks and low-interest loans to carry out those agendas. Sales of military equipment to police departments will continue to flourish. This has already happened in California, where Blackwater-style contractors have been contracted to surveil and eradicate cannabis crops regardless of local jurisdictional notice or interest. I suggest that it will continue to happen in California, although the focus will shift/has shifted to the much more politically legitimate purpose of environmental protection.

Of course, all of this assumes that something unexpected happens to change the national cannabis policy calculus, such as Congressional action around the Controlled Substances Act upon which prohibition policy stands. Or something much more unexpected, a wildcard akin to Trump’s presidential victory.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, President Obama offered an intriguing peek into the logic of his mostly disappointing (to post-prohibition cannabis advocates) approach to cannabis policy change. As President, Obama enabled the Cole Memo but that’s about it, formally. His public politics have been ideologically consistent, however. He prefers post-prohibition approaches, but has insisted that institutional change at the federal level come from Congress rather than Executive Order. Whether one agrees with that approach or not, his compelling justification is that change that comes from Congress is likely to be on much more stable ground than change that comes through the Executive branch. It’s hard not to disagree, given Trump’s promise to cancel Obama’s executive orders and policies like the Affordable Care Act.

How does Congress change its mind? Congress changes its mind when, by sheer financial seduction or broad-based citizen action, individual legislators decide that the political calculus is in their favor and will help them get elected or re-elected. Obama has been telling post-prohibition cannabis organizers to figure it out.

The wildcard, however, is that perhaps Obama himself, as the most powerful of private citizens, will take a leadership role in fulfilling his own insistence that change happen through Congress. “I will have the opportunity as a private citizen to describe where I think we need to go,” he tells Rolling Stone.

This may be grasping at straws. But it’s pretty clear that Obama is the first person that who has been, at some point in his life, a stoner, to be elected President of the United States. This by the way is an argument that comes from my friend Vivian McPeak, organizer of Seattle Hempfest. The man was part of a clique called the Choom Gang while in high school. If he did decide to make post-prohibition a part of his post-presidential agenda, as a private citizen, it seems not completely farfetched that he would join up with the ACLU in their turn away from funding state initiatives to a national anti-mass incarceration policy approach.

 

 

What and whither post-prohibition cannabis politics after 2016?

obama
The outgoing president as a young man. Photo credit unknown.

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

The national landscape for post-prohibition cannabis laws changed substantially in November as eight states delivered change: four out of five legalization and four out of four medical voter initiatives. California, Maine, Nevada, and Massachusetts passed taxe-and-regulate recreational laws; and Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota and Montana passed medical cannabis initiatives. Only Arizona failed at the ballot box this year, and to understand why one would have to dig into my home state’s strange brew of right-libertarian-Mormon politics. Briefly, however, it’s important to remember that Arizona voters passed the most radical drug reform initiative in the US back in 1998, as it included other schedule I substances besides cannabis, but implementation was blocked by various state elements. It also has an extremely liberal authorization policy — I know Humboldt growers that use an online Arizona doctor who apparently has prescription authority in both States.

This analysis, however, is about how to make sense of cannabis politics in a national context after the Big Whale, California, has embarked upon its own tax-and-regulate journey. This comes tightly on the heels of a substantive update to its 1998 medical law, 2015’s Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA). MCRSA actually is a year into developing and implementing regulatory rules that will “absorb” Prop 215’s tax and regulate provisions, so California already has a running start on the materialization of its legal landscape.

There are at least three aspects to cannabis politics I want to address. I want to use this space to open up questions and define terms, each of which can be developed further. I will introduce three here, and elaborate on one. This is because I started this essay intending to address all three, but the first one filled out into a post of its own.

First, now that the simplifying and “black and white” political discourse of election season is behind us, what are post-prohibition cannabis politics, beyond getting either tax-and-regulate or medical initiatives passed? The election season brought into sharp relief major differences amongst proponents of cannabis legalization.

Second, how do the surprising national election results, which bring a different political party with a very, very different administrative cadre to power affect how legalization landscapes play out at the State level? Whither the Cole memo, is the fundamental question.

And third, where do we go from here with respect to “medical” and “legal” discourses for post-prohibition politics? Can they be complementary, or will the polarizing election trend in which proponents of one have to discredit the other continue to divide whatever it is we call cannabis culture?

The first one: What are post-prohibition cannabis politics?

Post-prohibition cannabis politics refer to any approach for replacing the Federal/Global ban on cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance. These include at least: rescheduling, descheduling, taxing, regulating, prescribing, recommending, authorizing, growing, distributing, banking, profiting from, losing money on, researching, and consuming cannabis sativa (hemp varieties included). This array of formalized stakeholders do not share a common interest, other than operating in a legal and policy environment associated with State-experimental “laboratories of democracy.”

The ecology of prohibition politics is much simpler and cohesive than the array of post-prohibition possibilities, but for the latter the main obstacles remain the Controlled Substances Act of 1971 and the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics and Controlled Substances, which was updated in 1973 to complement the US turn to medical prohibition rather than the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, struck down in 1969 by the Supreme Court in Leary v. United States.

Post-prohibition stakeholder interests diverge considerably. The benefits of State-legal cannabis experiments are popularly promoted as social, on the one hand; and financial, on the other.

“Grass-tops” funding for State initiatives from organizations like the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU, and the Marijuana Policy Project have shared an explicitly social political logic beyond “cannabis shouldn’t be prohibited”: criminal justice reform, usually with primarily racial justice benefits associated with mass incarceration.

Financial benefits to State experiments have two, maybe three, distinct and not always complementary logics. First, direct revenues go to both the public sector, through taxes, and to the private sector, through “profits.” The third is consumers. Indirect revenues accrue primarily to real estate, finance, and ancillary services.

In 2016, across the country, public sector coffers are empty. This is why arguments for “sin tax” rates resonate with policy makers. In Washington State, this discourse has primarily driven legislative changes from targeted social policy budgets (schools, research, and so forth) to the general fund, because Washington has been sued by the Federal government for not fulfilling its basic public education mandate.

In 2016, across the country, private sector profits accrue to “industry” at large but within “industry,” revenues are captured by retailers and distributors rather than producers of commodities. The US farm sector is an anomaly, given its vast subsidies that primarily benefit industrial domestic agriculture, at the expense of small farmers home and abroad. Even then, the basic story of our postwar economy is one in which huge retailers dominate commodity producers, seeking the lowest wholesale cost in order compete by providing the lowest possible prices to consumers. For the rest of the economy, this has happened by outsourcing production to places where labor is cheapest. This is called the “race to the bottom” by critics, and it certainly applies to cannabis as well, given the prohibition risk differential between cost of production and wholesale prices.

In 2016, across the country, consumers have consistently rewarded retailers who master the race to the bottom. However, the conscious consumer movement has gained substantial market share over the last decade or so: this refers to consumers who are willing to pay more for items that can be branded as, for example, “fair trade” or “equal exchange.” This is most obvious for coffee. Consumers have also rewarded “craft” or “boutique” commodities. This is most obvious in the Pacific Northwest with respect to craft beer and microbreweries.

The reason I say “maybe” to consumers as a class that directly benefits financially from legal cannabis lies between the “race to the bottom” and the conscious consumer movement. Anyone with experience in cannabis retail, of any sort, has to recognize that cannabis consumers include low-price seekers, on the one hand; and cannabis culture-oriented consumption.

This may be uncomfortable news to many in the cannabis culture, but the evidence doesn’t lie. Most of the market seems to be totally normal, American-as-apple-pie-at-WalMart, low price seekers. Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee broke the news way back in 2010’s Prop 19 initiative campaign. Lee, the primary funder of that initiative, told me the month before its fate was decided that the market looked a lot like the beer market, in which Coors and Bud take in the vast majority of the revenues. That hypothesis has been confirmed in Washington State, where controversial retailer Uncle Ike’s proudly embraces and extolls the virtues of a race to the bottom, high-volume, low-price approach that helps them lead the market. One could even hypothesize that this is what kept the Mexican exporters dominant until about 10-15 years ago, despite the subpar, mass-produced brickweed it made widely available. Consumers may want high quality cannabis, but they certainly want cheap cannabis.

So a class of cannabis consumers who constitute a majority of the market –let’s call them “commodity consumers” may benefit, but only if legal prices fall below gray- and black-market prices. That’s not a given, certainly not initially. This is for at least two reasons: State taxes, and diverse, non-flower product availability.

State taxes that are set too high create a heavy inertia to legal cannabis prices. It’s not that a 37% tax, a la Washington, can’t be accompanied by a $3 gram. But wholesale prices have to really plummet before that tax is adding only $1.11 to the gram instead of, say, $3.70 to a $10 gram. And the lower the price goes, at some as yet undetermined elasticity factor, the less State revenue becomes. And State legislators want to maximize their revenue.

Second, we use flower and flower prices as a proxy for what is by now a much more diverse cannabis product market, especially on the West Coast. Approximately 40% of medical cannabis revenue derived from concentrates and edibles. And concentrates and edibles have much more complex and expensive basic testing requirements — so much so in Oregon that small processors who can’t do larger lots or win the volume revenue race are in danger of outright extinction. On the plus side, legal cannabis processors in a mature system benefit from MUCH lower raw material costs than informal markets.

Finally, what’s good for low-price industrial consumers is not necessarily what’s good for consumption, in general. Cheap, mass produced food is not actually healthy relative to organic, small-scale production. If, as seems to be the case, legality is consolidating industrial approaches to production and consumption, then consumers are not better off just because they have cheaper weed. As always, though, the access question should be considered. Post-prohibition Cannabis won’t just be cheaper: it will be more accessible (Washington’s unnecessary medium-term retail bottleneck notwithstanding) , and that may be a social benefit.

I’m not sure, or rather, I’m sure it’s a mixed bag. Many, many people will now get the chance to develop a peaceful and healthy relationship with the plant that did not before. However, many, many people will now get the chance to develop a negative relationship with the plant because they pull a Maureen Dowd and freak out on edibles. I’m not one of those people that thinks cannabis works well with or for everyone. I’ve seen many otherwise positively disposed people get very anxious with even the slightest puff.

So, what are the post-prohibition politics of the plant?

They are the competitive and complementary negotiations of all the above reasons for and results of legalizing cannabis. Most concretely, of course, they are the power effects of the different stakeholder groups angling to maximize the financial benefits of a successful criminal justice reform movement. Cannabis culture, for which the exchange value of the plant is just one piece of the value puzzle, seems so far to have minimal input or effect on the formal politics of cannabis legalization. But the cultural politics are there, and they include what remain values heretical to modernity: herbal medicine, syncretic spirituality, whole earth consumption.

This is the depressing dynamic that makes me reluctant to engage in a public conversation that can only be about things that do not matter (much) to me: private sector ideologies of industrial production and consumption. This includes industrial-pharmaceutical approaches to cannabis as medicine. But even if it is ideologically depressing to me, it is of immense social value to understand how formal sector politics and markets encounter and transform a plant that isn’t just banned anymore.

I will turn to assess the other two significant contemporary questions for 2017 before leaving for the Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa next week. By way of transition, let me say that the complex ecology of politics and markets addressed here as “post-prohibition” isn’t terribly complex when it encounters the ongoing continuation of Federal prohibition, so how Federal prohibition changes is pretty important for everyone. And the new administration is likely to be at least a little bit discontinuous with the previous one.

So that’s next, the Federal prohibition landscape. After that, I will address how the relationship between medical and legal cannabis politics is changing, and plead for a “whole plant” politics in which they are not at odds.

 

The Endgame is Local

California Board of Equalization (BOE) crew, featuring Fiona Ma, at the end of the Light Dep tunnel on a Spring 2015 BOE tour.
California Board of Equalization (BOE) crew, featuring Fiona Ma, at the end of the Light Dep tunnel on a Spring 2015 BOE tour.

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

The mission of our nonprofit research organization is to “learn lessons from legalizing landscapes.” Endorsing or not endorsing legalization initiatives is not part of what we do, but given what I am about to say, it seems important to highlight my personal opinion — not the endorsement of this 501(c)(3) organization — that I am positively disposed towards the passage of all 9 legalization initiatives, plus all the medical ones, on ballots this election season.

That said, state-level legalization is one significant part of ending the war on drug plants as we know it. As lifelong cannabis grower, activist, and organizer John Sajo of Douglas County, Oregon keeps telling people, the endgame is local. Right now the Umpqua Cannabis Association is fighting a ban on legal cannabis cultivation in Oregon, a situation that illustrates the limits of state-level legalization and highlights how the endgame of ending cannabis prohibition is local. Let’s review why that is the case before critically examining intra-cannabis discourses for and against legalization.

It’s pretty simple. As long as Federal prohibition stands, and maybe even after, localities will be allowed to opt out of state-legal rules and regulations that permit cannabis cultivation, processing and sharing (not so much with consumption except with respect to where one can consume, interestingly).

This is fundamentally because local jurisdictions have the right to zone, period. They also have the trump card of suing States in Federal courts for their right to ban, outright, but even if they don’t do that, they can zone cannabis businesses out of the landscape.

Legal cannabis business owners will have to change or consolidate local political buy-in to realize the possibility (not the promise!) of actually operating a taxed and regulated business. There are at least two aspects to the endgames of local politics.

The first aspect to local politics is that formal zoning decisions are made by City and County councils. And those councils are responsive to the political constituencies that elect them; and stakeholder institutions with which they are already enmeshed. Law enforcement is probably the most significant stakeholder institution that has to buy in to the rules, zoning and otherwise, that affect the possibility of local cannabis legalization, because local law enforcement enforces local rules (as well as State and Federal ones, though discretion is fundamental to practices of enforcement and discretion is shaped by local enforcement culture as well as local political pressure to enforce or not enforce. Humboldt County, California is a great example of this. Law enforcement could pick and choose, on any day of the week, where and who to police, without ever running out of people to police. And that’s exactly what happens.

The second aspect to local politics is cultural. Local Councils are elected, and they respond to the organized expression of voters who elect them. They don’t respond, by the way, to unorganized expressions of voter interest. There are ways to be heard and engaged with; and there are ways to be heard and then marginalized as the result of how voters express themselves and to whom they seem to belong (desirables and undesirables, basically). Local voters organize around a variety of cultural values.

The variety of cultural values include basic opposition to cannabis because of stigma: “cannabis is bad.” It’s a form of bio-racism, really, and I mean that both literally and symbolically as many voters hate the perceived race of those who are associated with it, culturally.

But it’s not just the irrational bio-racist that stimulates the continuation of local prohibition. It’s the rational bio-racist voter, the one who voted for legalization, just not in their back yard. It’s the one whose local agricultural industry is impacted by rising real estate prices and competition for inputs, or even local industrial economic power. It’s the one who thinks that having cannabis businesses nearby drives down their home values. It’s the one who keeps reading about edible overdoses. And yes, it’s the one who is sickened by industrial greed, which has always been with us because greed has always been with us, but who is finally able to see it nakedly flying the flag of legal cannabis. It’s the voter that does not understand the relationship between cannabis prohibition and the institutionalization of racialized mass incarceration in this country. And it’s the voter who thinks that they are protecting the children — at least, their children, because they don’t understand how cannabis prohibition is incredibly bad for children and families who are already politically and economically invisible in this country: the poor, and people of color.

So, what are cannabis stakeholders getting angry at each other about? Not much of the above, and very little about what’s still to be done after legalization. Here are some observations about that:

  1. Voter initiatives are unlikely to fail or succeed based on how cannabis people, pro or con, decide to vote. That applies to growers especially, who represent such a miniscule percentage of the voting population as to be pointless. Yes, Humboldt County will vote no. Humboldt County also voted something like 80% for Bernie Sanders in the primary.
  2. Cannabis consumers are estimated to represent about 10% of the population. Latino voters represent 12% of the population, much greater in California — especially in Southern California, where they are predominantly against cannabis, period. This is cultural-religious, and goes wayyyyy back, since Mexico actually prohibited cannabis before the US did, and Latin American countries — despite what you might think — have prohibited cannabis and other drug plants for their own analogous reasons (hint: they have racial and class politics, too).
  3. The vast majority of the yes/no votes for legalization will come from normal political demographics: Baby Boomers (who gave us the drug war!), religious groups, women, people of color. These are the people to focus one’s energy on, not other cannabis people who disagree with each other.
  4. The Prop 64 organizers are definitely focusing on swaying non-cannabis voters; as well as doing a little hysterical stigmatization of totally insignificant cannabis voter blocs, like growers and medical cannabis retailers. These are two very different groups usually at industrial odds, with retailers having captured significant margins for the last 10 years as the wholesale price per lb dropped significantly while the retail price per gram barely budged.
  5. Eyes on the prize, yes or no on Prop 64-ers. Mudslinging contests make the endgame of local political work — which has years if not decades in front of it — much, much harder. Here’s a couple of ways:
  6. Yes on 64 people, when you stigmatize and paint everyone who opposes you with the same broad brush, you are cutting off your nose to spite your face. Greedy industry, onerous tax burdens, pesticide problems, corruption, problematic real estate, local bans and moratoria await you on the other side of State-legalization. In fact, most of the really greedy people from pre-legalization have enough capital to get into State-legal schemes. The people who won’t be able to be a part of it are the ones who have not been greedy. In fact, get working on barriers to entry to build bridges for historically marginalized groups because legality isn’t going to change that and probably will make it worse.
  7. No on 64 people, when you stigmatize and paint everyone who opposes you with the same broad brush, you are cutting off your nose to spite your face. This is the wildly successful outcome of your effort to Overgrow the State. You are the ones who domesticated cannabis agriculture — you are the ones who defeated external producers often associated with violent organized crime. You are the ones who kept the plant alive and available enough to make what’s happening now possible. You are the ones who risked life and limb every step of the way to do so. You may not have planned to end the war on drug plants (many of you actually did plan for that) and take away a key tool for unjust, racial, and genocidal State incarceration and punishment, but you made it possible.  This is your opportunity not only to own what you’ve done politically, but to finally bring Economic Justice to the Public Conversation in an age where all such organizing seems to fail for lack of funds.

I’ve tried to avoid calling anyone in particular out, and to avoid promoting anyone’s point of view in particular other than John Sajo, whose life and work embody the best politics of the plant to which I aspire, and I hope inspire others to listen with extreme non-prejudice. This is the moral ground on which I stand, but it’s also the strategically political ground on which I hope others can too. There’s a whole lot of behavior going on in the public discourse around cannabis legalization this electoral season, but implying that anyone who disagrees with you is evil or representative of broad positions only stigmatizes the people of the plant and postpones the endgame of the war on drug plants, which goes way beyond cannabis and towards a more ecologically healthy society.