Three Questions for the Reform Conference

by Dominic Corva, Executive Director

This year, the International Drug Policy Reform Conference (Reform) will be taking place next week in Atlanta, Georgia. This post lets our readers know about CASP’s presence at the Conference and what I will be doing there, as a participant in a panel titled “How has the Drug War Reshaped Space, Place, and Relationships?”

There are three kinds of public events CASP gets invited to speak at. Industry events provide a platform for addressing cannabis policy and markets in a way that reflects our commitment to optimizing cannabis legalization as a strategy for ending the drug war. Academic events provide a platform for reflecting on and improving the models of the world I work with and encounter. And Policy events provide me with a platform for direct intervention into ongoing discussions of policy formation.

The Reform conference is a bit of a hybrid between Academic and Policy events. It’s an international NGO (nongovernmental organization) production, hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance and the ACLU, which often partners with the DPA on domestic efforts. You can see from the title of the panel how academic the conversation is to be on my panel, which could be the title of a panel at the annual Association of American Geographers (AAG) Conference I presented at for most of my academic life.

As a result, it’s probably the sort of panel that I feel most comfortable in. I’m not industry, and in Policy conferences where bureaucrats and policymakers dominate I’m usually the most radical voice in the room, since my central concern is ending the drug war rather than doing politics. Or bureaucracy.

This panel is especially cool because it’s a conversation, rather than a group of individual presentations. The moderator for the panel recently reached out to prepare for the conversation by posing three or four questions with which we would like to engage. I offer the questions I sent back, and the reasons for doing so, here:

What is the relationship between legalizing cannabis in certain places and ending the drug war — in those places but more broadly?
This question places CASP’s mission into the context of an international drug policy framework. Cannabis legalization to this point has until recently been “sold” –and funded — on the assumption that cannabis legalization is an important step towards ending the drug war. These days, it seems that it’s now being sold as an engine for economic growth and associated tax revenue. As a result, the policies being called for, designed and implemented don’t seem to be all that interested in removing criminal penalties altogether for cannabis-related activity. On the other hand, there is no doubt that significant room for exception to criminal penalties is opening up, especially from the perspective of say, the Philippines, where drug war crimes and outright genocidal State policy continue with the support and funding of the U.S. government. There also doesn’t seem to be much carry-over from ending the war on cannabis to ending the war on drugs, full stop. Is cannabis being carved out as a militant particularism, an exception that allows the drug war to continue unopposed? If it is, and key voices and actors in the U.S. are “co-opted” by letting them have theirs, does cannabis legalization mean the continuation of the drug war? These are difficult questions, but they must be considered given the evidence so far.
What is the relationship between (neo)liberalizing space and demobilizing the drug war?
This is a question that has to do with the relationship between economic governance and prohibition. My interest in the relationship between the drug war and economic liberalization was sparked by trying to puzzle through the tension between the promotion of liberty, via “free market” governance, and the promotion of authoritarian control on certain populations, during the latest period of pretty intense economic globalization (since the 1970s). Whose liberty matters, politically, under conditions of intense economic inequality that is supposedly being remediated by neoliberal market governance? The hollowing out of State (this term refers approximately to governments at large, not just to Federal States) revenues under conditions of privatization absolutely blew up during the financial crisis of the last decade. U.S. federal States like Washington want and need cannabis tax revenue to replace budget shortfalls that used to be covered by income taxes and Federal transfers. As a result, policy discourse about cannabis legalization explicitly condone the punishment of informal sector markets and actors to protect State-designated monopolies. That’s how we lost medical cannabis in Washington State.
How are processes of creative destruction associated with drug war zones?

“Creative destruction” is a political economy term I learned about from studying Karl Polanyi, the Austro-Hungarian economic historian. It means that there’s a cost to market formation — that previous market and social orders are destroyed to make way for new engines of growth. It’s usually associated with urban gentrification or crisis profiteering. Under conditions of prohibition, the whole world is a drug war zone, as anthropologist Howard Campbell observes, but some spots are hotter than others: borders, inner cities and so forth. This is a broader question for which cannabis legalization provides some insight, particularly with respect to who can own the means of cannabis production in highly controlled markets with high barriers to entry. Headlines splash how many jobs are created by such markets, but what goes unsaid is to whom the gains accrue. The democratic aspect of informal cannabis markets was that everyone could be an owner or take a much better margin of the flows than they could as a $15/hour waged laborer. This spread the economic benefits of market development much wider than under conditions where you need half a million or a regulatory job to make much of a living. At the same time, however, there is a lot of truth to the claim that legal cannabis displaces the ability of highly organized crime to make much off of cannabis, any more. Cartel profits don’t accrue to the little people so much, and while I insist that cartel profits have been dwindling under conditions of medical cannabis (with a far more democratic and widely shared economy), I can’t ignore the truth that in general, we want to destroy the ability of those who use violence to manage risk to make anything.

So, that’s it. Those are my questions for the panel, and my preliminary thoughts about them. It will take place next week, Thursday, in Atlanta, Georgia. I am grateful to the Drug Policy Alliance for covering my flight and hotel room, for full disclosure.

How has the Drug War Reshaped Space, Place, and Relationships?

Thursday, October 12th4:30-6:00pm | Dogwood B Room, Floor M1

From prison towns to million dollar blocks (where more than a million dollars is spent to incarcerate men from one city block), drug policy is shaping what our communities and relationships look like. This session will explore: How has the drug war reshaped geography in the U.S.? What impact do these changes have on individuals and families? How does spatial shifts over time affect communities most impacted by the war on drugs? What are some current projects and solutions underway to address these shifts in geography?

Barriers to Understanding, Barriers to Change (Spanish translation)

Many thanks to our Colombian reader, Ramiro Borja, for providing this translation to us! The original article in English can be found here.

Translated by Ramiro E. Borja / Colectivo Nueva de Abril

Dominic Corva, Director de Investigación en Ciencia Social Center for Study of Cannabis and Social Policy

En la presentación de ayer conté cómo empecé a explorar los mercados de cannabis y la política pública, y cómo se configuran entre sí. Mis amigos académicos reconocerán esto como un “marco teórico” -una técnica consistente en construir un modelo de mundo para que podamos entenderlo e intervenir.

Es un modelo de “economía política”, lo que significa que el usuario de esta técnica -el analista- necesita considerar cómo es que nuestra manera de ganarnos la vida y gestionar recursos conforma y está conformada por el poder que circula dentro de la sociedad. Eso es muy distinto de los modelos de la ciencia económica que suponen que todo ocurre por eleccion racional y utilidad marginal, modelos que aprendí cuando recibí mi grado como profesional en Economía.

También son distintos de los modelos de mundo que tiene la ciencia política, los que suponen que el Estado tiene en mente los intereses de cada quién cuando hace leyes y políticas públicas, y que distingue con claridad la seguridad de sus ciudadanos de la de los enemigos de éstos.

Mi audiencia ya no es pesadamente académica. Pero es importante que usted entienda cómo es que mi modelo de mundo es la base de mi modelo de la cannabis en el mundo. Como la mayoría de las aproximaciones académicas, debo equilibrar qué tan significativas quiero que sean mis explicaciones con el rigor analítico, para que tengan un efecto en la manera en que la gente piensa y actúa en el mundo. Quiero escoger batallas que pueda ganar, en vez de simplemente tener la razón y sentirme bien por eso.

Esto es especialmente difícil cuando se trata de responder a las preocupaciones que tienen las personas que hacen las leyes y las políticas públicas. Sus modelos de mundo simplemente no reflejan las realidades de los mercados y las políticas del cannabis, que sí entiendo mediante mi modelo. Ontologías inconmensurables, de verdad. Ellos no entienden qué tanto ha durado esto, no entienden de dónde sale la compulsión de prohibir, o quién está siendo prohibido; lo más importante es que no aceptan un modelo que dice que nuestra sociedad ha estado en guerra contra sí misma, una guerra real en la que se han perdido millones de vidas ante el complejo industrial de la seguridad, que es claramente peligroso y anti-paz, lo que mi modelo del mundo muestra.

El problema no es lo que ellos saben, sino cómo lo saben. Su modelo de mundo mira a la guerra contra las drogas como una metáfora, no como una realidad. Su modelo de mundo piensa que la peligrosidad de las drogas prohibidas está dada históricamente, y proviene de decisiones racionales hechas de buena fe por los representantes de la voluntad pública. Su modelo de mundo piensa que solo necesitamos reducir el daño de las drogas, más que considerar la guerra de la sociedad contra sí misma, la que causa no solo los daños de las drogas (que sí existen, parte de un problema social más amplio llamado sobreconsumo), también causa de Cosas Malas que no tienen nada que ver con los daños de las drogas, como hacer de la guerra perpetua una condición de bienestar económico.

¿Será que el problema aquí es una falta total de consenso entre nuestros modelos del mundo? Piénselo: para que la guerra contra las drogas termine de verdad, por razones que reflejen la realidad más que la política, nuestros políticos y formadores de política pública tendrían que admitir que nuestras leyes prohibicionistas y nuestro sistema de justicia penal no corresponden a un modelo de mundo en que suponemos que vamos mejorando en todo -que la Modernidad está venciendo la Barbarie, siempre mejorando nuestra seguridad en vez de presentar a cada paso nuevos modos de destruirnos. Que somos herederos de la tradición de la Ilustración. Que nuestro instinto es apoyar a los que son vulnerables entre nosotros y que las personas que actúan de buena fe pueden apropiarse de éste. Que se conoce el Bien y el Mal y que nuestras instituciones son diseñadas y operadas para hacer que las cosas sean mejores y no peores.

La situación contemporánea de la legalización de la cannabis ilustra este concepto a su modo, y puesto que afecta un segmento tan pequeño de la población que sufre de muchas otras maneras el hecho de que la modernidad resulta una fábula, y no una historia, de progreso e Ilustración, parece que tenemos que dar un paso atrás para seguir avanzando. Los políticos y los intereses económicos, quienes no tienen compromiso alguno con evaluar seriamente qué es lo que ha salido mal y cómo arreglarlo, son los que se están apropiando de las propuestas de legalización de la cannabis que han tenido éxito y de su radicalidad.

En cada Estado esto se da distinto, pero hasta ahora la promesa de legalizar la marihuana como estrategia para acabar la guerra contra las drogas está siendo reemplazada por intereses políticos que todavía están obsesionados -sin fundamento científico- con supuestos daños de la cannabis. Intereses que piden reformar nuestras leyes y políticas públicas pretendiendo que la guerra contra las plantas -y contra las personas cuyas vidas han sido un largo acto de desobediencia civil y de autonomía frente a los destrozos de la guerra racial y clasista- sea más suave y amable.

Las propuestas de legalización estatal son absolutamente revolucionarias frente al orden político de este país, donde la Ley de Sustancias Controladas centraliza en la autoridad Federal la decisión de dónde y cuándo ejercer violentamente sus prerrogativas contra la población, pasando por encima de la autoridad del Estado y la libertad Local.

En cada caso, sin embargo, las legislaturas Estatales están reconfigurando la legitimidad de la prohibición más que haciendo la paz con una planta que ha sido, a lo largo de toda la historia humana, una de las sustancias terapéuticas más seguras para el hombre. Ya es claro que luego de una era de marihuana médica caracterizada por la desmovilización política, la era de la marihuana legal estará caracterizada por un creciente pánico moral frente a la producción y el consumo de cannabis que se colorean por fuera de las barreras tan restrictivas puestas por los marcos legales. Pregúntele qué sentido tiene esto a las comunidades Hmong del norte de California.

¿Qué hacer? ¿Qué batallas escoger? Depende de su modelo de mundo, no solamente de su modelo de lo grandiosa que es la cannabis para el recaudo público y las arcas empresariales. Esto último puede ser una estrategia productiva al momento de apelar a los políticos y las poblaciones dedicadas a mantener el orden económico y político vigente -la gente que piensa: ‘sí, hay cosas malas que están pasando pero no hay que cuestionar hasta el fondo nuestras suposiciones, sino mejorarlas y reformarlas’.

En mi modelo de mundo, esta aproximación alimenta un complejo industrial de la seguridad que está destruyendo a la mayoría de nosotros, para beneficio de unos pocos y de las carreras políticas de muchos. Y lo hace no porque haya gente Mala haciendo cosas Malas (aunque la hay), sino porque hay gente completamente normal que trata de ayudar. Pero como su modelo de mundo no puede acomodar la realidad histórica o presente -o solo una parte- entre más quieren ayudar, más van siendo reemplazados los guerreros culturales como motor de la prohibición por el capital.

Lo que estamos viendo acá, compañeras, es la continuidad de la prohibición más que su fin. El apremio por castigar y estigmatizar ciertas poblaciones se renueva y reempaca para reproducir el orden de cosas vigente. Un modelo de economía política honesto cuestiona este Problema Social.”

Barriers to Understanding, Barriers to Change

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Yesterday I introduced a trailhead to exploring how cannabis markets and policy help shape each other. My academic friends should recognize this as a “theoretical framework” — a technique for building a model of the world so we can understand and intervene in it.

It’s a “political economy” model, which is to say that it requires the technique user — the analyst — to consider how power in society shapes and is shaped by how we mobilize resources and make livelihoods. It’s distinct especially from economic science models of the world that assume everything is happening because of rational choice and marginal utility, models I learned to get my undergraduate degree in Economics.

It’s also distinct from political science models of the world that assume that the State has everyone’s best interests in mind when they make law and policy, and that there is a clear distinction between the security of its citizens and the security of its citizen’s enemies.

My audience is not terribly academic, anymore. But it is important for you to understand how my model of the world informs my model of cannabis and the world. Like most academic approaches, I have to balance analytical rigor with just how much I want my explanations to mean something, to have an effect on how people think and act in the world. I want to pick battles I can win, rather than just be right and feel good about it.

This is especially difficult when it comes to addressing the concerns of people who make laws, who make policy. Their models of the world simply do not reflect the realities of cannabis markets and policy that I understand from mine. Incommensurable ontologies, really. They do not understand how long this has been going on, they do not understand where the compulsion to prohibit comes from, or who is being prohibited; most importantly they do not accept a model of society that says ours has been at war with itself, a real war with millions of lives lost to what is clearly a dangerous and anti-peace security-industrial complex, in my model of the world.

The problem is not with what they know, it’s how they know it. Their model of the world looks at the drug war as a metaphor, not a reality. Their model of the world thinks that the dangerousness of prohibited drugs is historically given, and comes from rational choices made by in good faith by representatives of the public will. Their model of the world thinks we only need to reduce the harm of drugs, rather than considering the harm of intrasocietal warfare as the cause not only of drug harms (which do exist, part of a larger social problem called overconsumption) but of Bad Things that have nothing to do with drug harms, like making perpetual war a condition for economic health.

Is it too much to say the problem here is a total lack of common ground in our models of the world? Think about it: to truly end the war on drugs, for the reasons that reflect reality rather than politics, our politicians and policymakers would have to admit that our prohibition laws and criminal justice policy don’t belong in a model of the world that assumes we are getting better all the time at everything — that Modernity is stamping out Barbarism, always making us safer rather than introducing new ways to destroy ourselves at every turn. That we are heirs to an Enlightenment tradition. That our instinct to help the vulnerable among us can be appropriated by good people acting in good faith. That Good and Evil have been worked out and that our institutions are designed an operated to make things better instead of worse.

The contemporary situation of cannabis legalization illustrates this concept in its own very specific way, and because it affects such a tiny segment of a population that is suffering from so many other ways in which the Modernity is a fable, rather than a story, of progress and Enlightenment, that it appears we must go backwards to go forward. The radical nature of successful cannabis legalization initiatives is being appropriated by politicians and economic interests who have no compulsion to seriously assess what has gone wrong and how to fix it.

It varies from state to state, but so far the promise of cannabis legalization as a strategy for ending the drug war is quickly replaced by political interests still obsessed with the scientifically baseless assumed harm of cannabis itself, that requires reforming our laws and policy to reflect a kinder, gentler war on plants and the people whose livelihoods have been one long act of civil disobedience, on the one hand; and autonomous from the ravages of the racial and class warfare on the other.

State legalization initiatives are absolutely revolutionary with respect this country’s political order, where the Controlled Substances Act centralizes Federal authority over State and Local freedom to decide when and where to exercise its prerogative on violence against its population.

In every case, though, State legislatures are reconfiguring the the legitimacy of prohibition rather than making peace with a plant that has been, in human history, one of the safest therapeutic substances known to man. It’s clear at this point that after a medical marijuana era defined by policy demobilization, the legal marijuana era will be defined by increased moral panic about cannabis production and consumption that colors outside the incredibly restrictive barriers to access put up by legal frameworks. Ask the Hmong communities of Northern California how this makes sense.

What to do, and what battles to pick? It depends on your model of the world, not just your model of how great cannabis is for public revenue and corporate coffers. The latter can be productive strategies for appealing to a politicians and populations invested in maintaining the current political and economic order — people who think yeah, some bad things are happening, but the assumptions we have don’t need to be fundamentally challenged, merely improved and reformed.

In my model of the world, this approach nurtures a security-industrial complex that is destroying most of us, for the profit of a few and the political careers of many. And it does so not because of Evil people doing Evil things (though there is that), but because of totally normal people trying to help. But because their model of the world can’t accommodate historical or present reality — or only partially accommodates reality — the more they help, the more money capital takes over from the culture warriors as what props up prohibition.

What we are looking at here, folks, is the continuity of prohibition instead of its end. The urge to punish and stigmatize certain populations gets rewired, retrofitted into the reproduction of the present order of things. An honest political economy model presents some challenge to this Social Problem.



Field Guide to Cannabis Markets and Policy: A Starting Point

by Dr. Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

How are cannabis markets and policy experiments changing society? The first thing to understand is that cannabis markets, like all markets, exist in relation to State policy. We understand State policy through the lens of prohibition: the total ban on some drugs and drug plants. Clearly, there’s a radical transformation going on that means we really need to understand how prohibition is being transformed — radically — by State “experiments in democracy” associated with the paradox of States choosing to opt out of Federal law without leaving the Union itself.

This assertion, or axiom, or assumption, depending on one’s point of view, contradicts a lot of what you read in the headlines. Isn’t legalization changing cannabis markets by creating regulations and licensing schemes at a rapid rate? The answer is yes, but not as fast as media advertisers would have you believe. There are three up-and-running State-supervised legal cannabis markets right now — Washington and Colorado, who were first; and Oregon, which chose to fast-track its market development by taxing first and regulating later.

In the grand scheme of things none of these states are particularly significant relative to California consumption and production, for example –or, I would argue, New York City, where cannabis delivery services have been effectively decriminalized for decades.

The first question to ask for this introduction is, what are cannabis markets and how have they changed over time? Let’s narrow down our field of inquiry by time and place, focusing narrowly on the United States and the last 40 years or so. But let’s also start with the present.

At the present, there exists three discretely identifiable categories of cannabis market: black markets, medical markets, and taxed adult-use markets. Let’s simplify by using a color spectrum: black, gray, and white. Please note this is a spectrum, with both with and black bleeding into gray and vice versa. Later on perhaps we will try to think three dimensionally by looking at how white and black markets are more integrated than you might think.

It’s important to note that these colors, as I deploy them here, reflect a stigma-free taxonomy. None of these are assumed to be morally superior to the other, in my analysis here or at any time. This is a sharp difference from the way most people talk about them. I’m not trying to convince anyone to desire or not desire one over each other — in fact I insist that given their interdependency, it is not useful to do so.

I also reject arguments that using a color spectrum for taxonomy is inherently racist, since to accept that argument would mean applying it to all sorts absurdity, like the meaning of “black boxes” or “black operations.” We can argue about that later if readers insist.

The next thing to understand is that state policy is also a (possibly circular) continuum, from extremely punitive to bureaucratically regulated. This way to think about it is indebted to sociologists Harry Levine and Craig Reinarman, who insist that we think about prohibition as a continuum that reflects State interests that generally have to do with controlling undesirable populations; or geopolitical arrangements; or many other things that have nothing to do with drugs.

Levine’s framework accomplishes two things especially useful for figuring out current dynamics in landscapes of cannabis policy reform and market transformation.

The first has to do with understanding State Policy as an outcome of complex politics, rather than rational review or reformist attempts to improve the governance of free societies. This insight, drawn from the history of prohibition, helps us understand how cannabis legalization remains subject to highly political dynamics, to the exclusion of rational policy consideration.

The second has to do with understanding punitive prohibition, usually in the form of authoritarian policing, carceral fundamentalism, and sentencing policies, as a form of regulation. That is, prohibition doesn’t succeed in prohibiting. Instead it creates landscapes of risk of exposure to enforcement that are capitalized on by illicit (and now licit) market actors. Plenty of people do get caught! But those that get caught simply territorialize, or make real in the landscape, the value of avoiding getting caught. At times of high intensity, where lots of people or product get caught, the resulting market scarcity raises prices which make not getting caught far more profitable. Punitive policing creates more high risk, high reward markets, reflected in the trajectory of commodity prices at different parts of the value chain.

This insight helps us understand how current efforts to govern cannabis legalization are being pulled in many different directions, because they drastically shift the landscape of policing by introducing a much more robust and extended “other side” of punitive prohibition, that is marked by State efforts to regulate a market that was already being regulated (through policing); and remains in a sort of schizophrenic, bipolar relationship with different scales of government trying to do different things, from local municipalities that ban or zone out legal policy to an overarching Federal framework for which legal cannabis remains eligible for punitive prohibition, even if it isn’t being acted on right now.

This gets us to the highly volatile and dynamic contemporary phenomenon of cannabis legalization and market evolution. Or phenomena, since the policy geography of policy change is highly decentralized, while the new market processes are also highly decentralizing, as a tendency, because they create new spaces for cannabis production, processing, and distribution that are highly circumscribed by state borders.

We have two “axes” of analysis, State Policy and markets, that shape each other dialectically rather than being independent variables. And we have several dimensions of each to grapple with, since State Policy combines regulation and punishment even in the context of legalization; and since black-gray-white markets co-exist in the same territories of policy formation. Now we can begin to unpack the material realities to answer the question “how are cannabis markets and policy changing society.”

The Chemovar and the Cultivar

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director and Terpestival Producer

Our popular education panels and keynote talk by Dr. Ethan Russo at the Third Annual Original Terpestival represented an advanced seminar in whole plant education. I am incredibly grateful to and proud of our audience, who came to listen, learn and participate as well as any university seminar I have taught. I want to reflect on the complex whole after the fashion of a reaction paper, which in the formal educational setting is a method for making a short conversation about a substantive and often intense volume of readings or material on a particular topic that is rich with avenues for further exploration and engagement. It’s a way to dip one’s toe in one part of the pool, not to summarize the whole but to represent a recurring theme that has sparked the curiosity of the student.

As the organizer of the popular education content (the seminar leader, if you will), I was especially interested in listening to what people “got,” given the complex information presented, that they can apply to their industry and cultural practices around the whole plant. I have the advantage of having been present and paying attention not only to all of the speaker content for the day, but also our event’s “prologue” — Kevin Jodrey’s Thursday evening talk at the Vashon Grange organized by Shango Los and VIMEA. Seen this way, Kevin and Ethan provided “bookend” lectures for shorter and more collective conversations in the panels. It’s pretty clear that there are two ways of thinking about the plant around which industry evolution will happen: the cultivar and the chemovar.

Before explaining, I want to amplify the response of panelist Rick Pfrommer to a terrific question from the audience, on how to map new terms and better information into a consumer landscape that is already confused by older, less accurate information. In particular, I’m going to allow myself to use the term “strain” in this reaction piece, even though so much of our information throws the viability of the term into question. In his years as the lead wholesale buyer for Harborside Wellness Center in San Francisco, Rick is especially tuned in to the need to be understood, and he emphasized the importance of retaining familiar words in conversation with patients and other kinds of consumers.

The cultivar is the plant, the reality behind the branding that up till now has been problematically assumed to equal “strain.” It’s more than the phenotype, or physical expression of a plant’s genes from seed or clone to processed product. Kevin’s themes were about propagating and growing for terpenes, but perhaps the most eye-opening element for even the most advanced folks who heard him was the assertion that the the cannabinoid and terpene content of a plant is shaped especially by the environment in which it’s grown. This has tremendous implications not only for research on genetics and “strains,” but on the production, branding and marketing of terpene configurations. Your nutrient line matters. Your lighting matters. Your physical geography, if your plants are grown in the sun, matters considerably. A Banana OG “strain” grown in one environment can differ considerably if grown in another. It can even differ considerably if it’s fed a different nutrient line.

The cultivar is the domain of the grower. What we know about it today is what growers communicate about it. In the informal market historical context, that knowledge was highly classified and shared in secret, for obvious reasons. It was limited by the imperative to NOT record, because doing so could catch you a much bigger case, as Kevin found out in the early 2000s. As a result, it’s mostly a matter of oral history, found and lost in the memories of the growers over decades, with few exceptions. Kevin’s decades of expertise are unique in his drive to network together knowledge about cultivation of the plant especially through “strain” hunting, propagation, and crucially, functioning as a nursery from which the identification of cultivars could be matched to market opportunities across the globe.

The chemovar is the molecular composition of given cultivar. It’s the terpene profile plus the cannabinoid profile plus every element of the whole plant that is not inert, like lipids and waxes that give form but do not interact with human physiology when ingested. It’s what Dr. Russo talks about when he talks about the whole plant and how research on it evolves. The research scientist looks into the plant, literally, to engage with the consistency and variability of how people are affected by it. He needs a laboratory and lab equipment — in fact, the chemotype is the snapshot of the chemovar that analytics laboratories produce, with raw material created by the producer and processor. The chemovar is an ensemble of numbers about which considerable possibilities for branding emerge, especially in the Washington legal context where the consumer is not permitted to experience the product’s smell or effect before buying it.

The chemovar is the domain of the scientist. What we know about it today comes from an extremely small number of licensed researchers on the one hand and the databases of cannabis analytics labs, which are absolutely exploding under conditions of legalization but remain really small in comparison of what’s to come. Pioneering researchers like Dr. Russo were able to produce this knowledge under very specific and limited historical conditions.

In Ethan’s case, it was his position as Senior Medical Advisor for GW Pharmaceuticals. GW itself was created out of a perfectly legal arrangement between UK entrepreneurs, outlaw botanists with a legal cannabis genetics bank in the Netherlands, and philanthropic seed money from the late Peter Lewis, arranged by his nephew Don E. Wirtschafter, the moderator of our panels last Saturday.

The basic concepts here are not new, and this way to think about the Terpestival’s popular education elements was not planned, but the cultivar and the chemovar frame a conversation about the cannabis plant that will shape the branding evolution of the craft cannabis economy represented at the Third Annual Terpestival.

The question itself is important not just for scientific knowledge and better education, but to reconcile the marketing of cannabis with its botanical reality. The marketing of cannabis to this point has predominantly mobilized the discourse of “strains,” usually typologized as indica, sativa, and hybrid. You can see this most prominently in the ubiquitous Leafly posters hung up in most dispensaries and retail outlets in existence.

These two plant identities reflect advancement in the understanding of cannabis as a plant and as a delivery mechanism for entourage effects loosely grouped under the notion of “high” — more properly understood as a highly variable consumer experience than includes therapeutic effects rather than simply recreational drug consumption.

The frames here — from the scientist and from the grower — aren’t contradictory, but they can be confusing for an industry that is already reeling from the reconstruction of knowledge about the plant under conditions of lab testing, a vast and growing array of nutrient lines, and methods for producing cannabis. Under conditions of legalization, knowledge about the cultivar can at last be recorded and advanced considerably with knowledge about the chemovar, outside the barrier to entry posed by global cannabis prohibition. That information is going to be incredibly useful for consumers of all stripes — patients who need to know which chemotype is likely to come from which cultivar so they can get consistent and effective medicine; and adult-use consumers who need to know which chemotype is likely to come from which cultivar so they can choose what kind of experience works for them; and so on.

But it will take an industry that is paying attention to these advancements to deliver the plant itself to the people. The Third Annual Terpestival made a space for that to happen, one which I hope will grow leaps and bounds in the coming years. I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who made it possible — the popular educators, the budtenders, the sponsors, the Terpene Tournament entrants, the volunteers, the paid staff, my incredible friends and Board members, and the City that worked with us to make it possible.


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.

Enter the Terpene Tournament

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

Example Certificate of Analysis from Medicine Creek Analytics, including full range of terpenes that will be analyzed by the lab (and thus included in “Total Terpenes” award).

Eventbrite tickets to the event here.


This year’s Terpene Tournament (TM) has been carefully designed to maximize entries and minimize costs to entrants. Let’s review the logic of our unique, entrant-friendly competition!

Many categories instead of few

The emergence and prevalence of terpene testing for Washington’s legal cannabis market allows us to diversify our award categories without diluting the value of each award. The whole cannabis plant is incredibly diverse, thanks to several decades of highly decentralized experimentation within North American cannabis markets; with a relatively common gene pool that was distributed historically through Amsterdam-based seed banks and breeders. That sentence itself would be the subject of a whole other essay (or series of books, really), and the geography of cannabis hybridization has certainly decentralized in the last ten years. The point I want to drive home is that while breeders focused especially on potency, they were also  focused on finding different, overpowering smells and tastes.

What consumers demanded was not only high THC, but “loud” cannabis. At our first Terpestival, Wonderland Nursery’s Kevin Jodrey remarked that he now understood his own market-making journey as primarily a practice of “hunting for terps.” There are more complex layers to what this means besides looking for loud and unique terpene expressions for national and global markets, but perhaps most importantly this insight complicates the dominant narrative of black market cannabis as one strictly focused on maximizing THC. THC-maximization, prior to the widespread availability of actual testing results, really refers to potency maximization.

And potency maximization isn’t just about THC quantities and/or minimizing CBD presence, which also complicates the question of what potency is or does. Terpenes are the delivery vehicles for cannabinoids: potency expression and type vary greatly by the ensemble/entourage of terpenes that “carry” cannabinoids to receptors. So, on the one hand, potency maximization (how much cannabis hits you) depends on terpene quantity and quality. And potency type also varies by terpene quality, of which “uplifting” and “couchlock” are two common examples.

This observation unsettles a basic foundation upon which cannabis markets — or marketing, really — have been founded for quite some time. Cannabis doesn’t come in two types, “indica” and “sativa,” commonly associated with “couchlock” and “uplifting” in every legal retail store and medical dispensary up and down the West Coast for the last decade. Briefly: the uplifting tone of “sativa”-branded cannabis primarily comes from the dominance of pinene; and the “couchlock” tone of “indica”-branded cannabis comes from the dominance of myrcene. And there’s way more to it than those two terpenes and those two effect qualities. We know about this in no small part through the work of Dr. Ethan Russo, our keynote speaker, and his extension of aromatherapy research principles to cannabis.

Which is why we don’t just have two categories, myrcene and pinene. Our categories reflect the available resources and capabilities of our lab partner, Medicine Creek Analytics. Different labs have different capabilities with respect to detecting and measuring terpenes, which undoubtedly will be a factor in how the legal market accommodates and standardizes terpene diversity in the years to come. We have chosen 8 terpenes that are fairly common across lab testing capabilities as our foundational award categories: alpha-Pinene, Myrcene, Limonene, Linalool, Beta-caryophyllene, Terpinolene, Ocimene, and Humulene.

There are five more categories: Total Terpenes, THC and total terpenes, CBD and total terpenes, Most Broadly Therapeutic (closest to 1 THC: 1 CBD plus total terpenes), and Judges’ Choice. In the next section, I describe how all these categories follow an objective and transparent methodology involving quantitative and qualitative stages.

The Path to Winning a Category

The path to winning a category starts with Medicine Creek Analytics‘ quantitative results. The top three “quant” scorers in each category are grouped as a competition field, after which they are evaluated by our Subject Matter Experts qualitatively to establish a winner. The judging process, coordinated by seasoned global cannabis competition expert Alison Draisin, does not try to judge entries based on what terpene is their category.

The subjective, qualitative aspect of the process takes over once the objective, quantitative aspect establishes the field. This is because cannabis quality is inherently subjective, given not only material variation in the cannabis itself but variation in each consumer’s individual biology and psychology. This fact challenges efforts to standardize how cannabis is marketed and branded, considerably. We aim to help the industry evolve not only by establishing quantitative methods for branding purposes, but for understanding variance and diversity of cannabis consumer markets — all of which can be captured by focusing on subjective consumer experience, as well as objective terpene presence.

So: each entry gets a terp test from our sponsoring lab, the Puyallup Tribe’s Medicine Creek Analytics. The top three alpha-Pinene scorers, for example, then go to our judges, who have been carefully curated by our judge coordinator, Alison Draisin, for their palate expertise. This doesn’t mean they will all taste and smell the same thing. It means they are qualified by experience and vetted by Alison, who is a veteran of numerous cannabis competitions around the world and locally due to her historical participation and flourishing medical cannabis business, Ettalew’s Medibles.

Each entry may qualify for multiple categories. A top-three Myrcene scorer, for example, is highly likely to be a top-three Total Terpene scorer, given the predominance of Myrcene in contemporary cannabis cultivars. Having lots of categories opens up space for entrants with unique or less-common terpenes to win, too. And we have created categories that combine Total Terpenes with cannabinoid ratios, because although cannabinoids are de-emphasized in our Tournament they are still part of the Whole Plant and important to recognize.

The last category, Judges’ Choice, isn’t just a consolation category for entrants that don’t make a quantitative cut. The fact is, quantitative testing can’t 100% confirm or correlate with terpene volume or quality. There are a lot of reasons for this, but perhaps most obviously, trace terpenes — those minute amounts that labs don’t test for because they are so small — can make an enormous difference. And sometimes cannabis that doesn’t test well, for whatever reason, can smell and taste incredible. That’s a limit to establishing an objective methodology to evaluate a subjective experience. The numbers never tell the whole story, because they represent an incredibly complex plant interacting with incredibly complex human biologies and psychologies. That’s the story of the Judges’ Choice, and perhaps the story of learning how to reach markets with quantitatively modest cannabis.

User-friendly Tournament Entries

The I-502 legal cannabis system allows us to do something most competitions can’t, fairly easily: reduce and minimize the actual cost of entering the competition. Many don’t realize that the cost of entering a cannabis competition includes not only the entry fee, but the opportunity cost of handing over a quantity of product sufficient to be judged, usually a few hundred dollars’ worth of product that could otherwise be sold. That opportunity cost is minimized in our competition because we only require QA samples to be submitted before the three-product field is established — at which point entries have a 1 in 3 chance of winning, rather than a 1 in 100 chance of winning.

Once the Tournament fields are established, entrants will submit one ounce of flower or 14 grams of extract manifested legally through the 502 system for qualitative judging. Those entries must correspond with the lot or batch number associated with the State’s seed-to-sale system, or they will be disqualified. Once they have qualified for 12 of our categories, entrants will receive instructions on how to proceed. The thirteenth category is optional and open to all entrants who have not qualified based on test results. This allows entrants to decide for themselves whether to part with the market value of their entries.

The Terpene Tournament (TM)

That’s it! We hope this description of our Tournament provides transparency and education for interested parties. Over the next month or so, we will be accepting flower and solventless extract submissions, the total of which are capped at 100. To enter, simply provide a QA sample with to Medicine Creek Analytics in Puyallup; a Terpestival Entry Form and your $250 per entry in either cash or check made out to CASP, which can be delivered in person or sent to


6701 Greenwood Ave N

Seattle, WA 98103

For more information, please don’t hesitate to contact me, Dominic Corva, at my email address Thank you, and good luck!



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.


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.




The Salience of Dangerous Classes: a Prelude

Seattle Hempfest 2016  Hemposium panel moderated by Dr. Corva.
Seattle Hempfest 2016 Hemposium panel moderated by Dr. Corva (front). From Left to right: Karl Keich, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Dr. Jim MacRae, Allison Bigelow, John Novak.

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

This post is an exercise in returning to themes initiated for the summer, just in time for the fall. My writing process has always been difficult and spastic, coming in torrents of prose or long dry stretches where for any number of reasons I just can’t complete a focused few paragraphs. The reasons themselves don’t matter, but there are strategies to shift states of incompletion and it’s time to deploy them. So today we’ll start with a little of where we left off, a little of where we are, and maybe we’ll get to a little of where we are going.

Where we left off:

The book project has evolved from one that centered the experience of “medical transitioners” to one that should centers the persistence of prohibition culture in shaping policy and market outcomes related to Phase I of Legal Cannabis in Washington. The biggest reason for this is that so many of my medical transitioners did not, in fact, transition — certainly not by July 1, and for several not at all.

The assumption that the stories would logically inflect on July 1, 2016, turned out to be unstable and problematic. The main way this was problematic was that it focused too much on ownership as an indicator of transition, when so many people who lost their livelihoods as relatively autonomous and entrepreneurial actors — owners included — have adjusted by finding a place in the legal market as waged workers, managers, and sales people.

Or, many have started to find a place. There are quite a few false starts in those stories, as people who once cultivated very autonomous or independent livelihoods find it pretty difficult to function in rigid, relatively poorly paid positions in the formal economy. Some are thriving, of course, but it has been surprising to me how many experienced, knowledgable medical/informal market budtenders have struggled to land a basic budtending job in the legal system.

Or, maybe it’s not surprising. Maybe I’ve been using the wrong tools to understand the cultural dynamics of transformation. Maybe it’s not about, or only partially about knowledge and experience. If it’s not, then we might need to think outside the toolbox at hand. We might need to think structurally, rather than individually, about the cultural politics of transition and transformation.

To do that, we are going to need to think about the politics of social exclusion in a way that decenters cannabis itself. After all, if dynamics of inclusion in the new market were about “normalizing” cannabis, as I keep hearing from self-identified activists, then we should see some sort of demand for people who really know and have experience with cannabis in the new legal market. We should see policy that caters to them, in deference to the vast ignorance about the plant present in “normal” society.

The fact that we don’t — that we have seen the absolute opposite — highlights a fundamental contradiction that shapes weird policy and market dynamics in a field that’s supposed to be characterized by “normalization.” The State clearly wants to normalize cannabis commerce, because normalization means taxation and therefore revenue capture in a cash-starved public sector. I 502 market actors — increasingly defined by investor-owners — want to normalize cannabis commerce, because normalization means income or return on investment (ROI).

There are a few clearly defined limits on “normalization” shared by the State and investors: normalization means “responsible adult (21+) consumption.” Normalization means at least the appearance of regulation, although it’s pretty clear that the promise of regulation is a work in progress. The former is probably the single greatest inhibitor of the latter, as I have pointed out many times that the “black market” is significantly under-21 consumption and has been since the 1960s.

This contradiction between youth culture as the driving force of cannabis market creation and the impossibility of its normalization under a “like alcohol” approach to policy begins to point us in the direction of another toolbox, other tools for understanding dynamics of exclusion under evolving conditions of cultural prohibition. It decenters cannabis by shifting our analytic optic towards culture and society at large: what about the children becomes what about the cultural economy, in which intergenerational conflict plays such a significant role.

The question resolves into less blurry focus when that question shifts, for me, into the following: why must cannabis people be legally treated like children? Children aren’t allowed to make their own decisions, they aren’t responsible, they must learn discipline, they must be watched over and controlled because there’s something about them you just can’t trust, because they haven’t grown up yet, because they aren’t responsible.

The problem here is not the children, or in this case the culture that gets treated like children: it’s the social consensus about what’s responsible or not — what does normalized responsibility look like? Who bears the burden of that cultural adjustment? Is it as simple as translating alcohol responsibility and alcohol culture to cannabis responsibility and cannabis culture? Is it about “law and order,” when legal cannabis policy poses such an existential threat to the foundation of drug war policy — which is demonstrably racist, exclusionary, authoritarian, and genocidal?

What would it mean to turn policy discourses of responsibility and normalization on their cultural heads — to think about the children as having been right, all along?

We are a very long way from doing any such radical, revolutionary thing, of course. But it would mean re-centering the radical purpose of I 502 legalization, which was about ending the authoritarianism and harms of the drug war itself, rather than excluding the people whose “irresponsible” behavior provided the cannon fodder that brought us to the possibility of social peace. Of course, it’s not so simple — excluded people are welcome in the new legal landscape, as long as they can clean up their acts, behave responsibly, be a normal wage worker, and so forth. So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that it’s not about the normalization of cannabis, not about the exclusion of cannabis experience from policy and market leadership. It’s about something much bigger and broader — the development and production of socioeconomic exclusion itself, in society at large.

And that’s where we are going with this, readers. We have to engage social theories of the underclass, the lumpen, the dangerous classes, the precariat. We have to think about this in the broader context of social change. Where the heck in the world are we, after all? What is the world coming to? How can we make a difference that matters to more than just cannabis owners and consumers? Because if we aren’t doing that, we aren’t doing cannabis and social policy, that’s for sure.