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.

 

 

 

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.

 

WHERE DID ALL THE MEDICAL PRODUCT GO?

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[Editor’s note: Danielle Rosellison is a longtime friend and cannabis industry organizer, as well as one of CASP’s interview subjects for our forthcoming book on Phase I of Washington State Legalization. She posted this piece about conditions and strategies for producing medical product in Phase II of Washington State Legalization, which began July 1, 2016, on her Linkedin account. We are re-posting, images and all, with permission because the information it contains is of much public interest — Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director]

All photos by Danielle Rosellison

Author bio: Danielle Rosellison is a wife and mother and has been part of the Cannabis Community for decades.  She is also the owner/operating manager of Trail Blazin‘, a licensed cannabis farm cultivating award-winning, pesticide free, sustainably grown legal cannabis.

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By Danielle Rose-Ellison, Owner/Operating manager of Trail Blazin’ Productions

People keep asking us about medical cannabis.  How’s the transition going?  Who is growing medical cannabis?  Why aren’t you getting medically certified?  I wanted to take a minute to explain the circumstances from the farmers perspective.  First a quick history:

Spring 2015:  SB 5052 is the piece of legislation that changed the medical laws in Washington.  I don’t want to get into a big discussion, but the vast majority of 502 farmers were not proponents of the bill.  They saw the issues with it from a mile away.  Most of the farmers I have had the pleasure of meeting, have been part of the cannabis community for a long time and care deeply about patient access.  They also know several people in the medical market that had worked hard and didn’t want them to suffer at the hands of 502.  On the same token, when your whole life’s savings is wrapped up in a new business, and there are un-taxed, non-tested, completely unregulated businesses selling cannabis for the same price a few doors down, there is a whiff of unfairness about the situation.  Something had to change.   The vessel of that change was SB 5052, right, wrong or indifferent.

July 2016:  All medical stores have been shut down or raided and patients have been asked to go to adult-use stores to secure their medications.  Medical cannabis has been integrated into the 502 system.

So, where is the medical grade product? A recent March 2016 survey by The Cannabis Alliance revealed that although 67% of the growers who participated in the survey were growing a medical grade product, only 13% believed the chances were “high” that they would grow medically certified product by July 1, 2016 and only 31% believed the chances were “high” that they would do it by July 1, 2017.  If all these growers are growing a medical grade product, why not get it certified?  Let me walk you through it:

First, the product needs to be grown in compliance.  When you’re use to going somewhere, purchasing cannabis and consuming it, this may not seem like a large achievement in itself.  However, if you’ve ever grown cannabis, or anything for that matter, you’ll know that taking something from seed or clone to harvest is a process; a process in which any number of things could go wrong.  Agriculture is continuously threatened by pests (insects), molds and mildews that naturally exist in our environment. Mold and mildew spores are floating in the air around you right now.  If you’ve walked through a park or field  or garden or any natural environment recently, you probably have microscopic insects on your shoes and clothes.  To navigate these threats without using pesticides and fungicides in our gardens is extremely difficult.  That’s why organic food is more expensive than non-organic.  For the indoor gardeners, if an environmental control fails, the garden skids sideways in shock, and if the entire crop isn’t wasted, it is usually less than a premium product upon harvest.  All the while every single plant is barcoded and anytime it is combined with another plant, tested, or sold, the barcode changes and you have to retag them.  If anything goes wrong, there are still bills to pay and employees counting on you.  Each time we bring down a harvest we celebrate; we made it!  We didn’t realize that you can hold your breath for 4 months!

Once it’s harvested, trimmed and cured the harvested totals of flower, other (trim), and waste are entered into the system.  This is where medical starts to change from adult use.  You have to declare that the harvest is medical and get it tested for heavy metals and pesticides.  If it passes, then it is sorted into 3 pound lots instead of 5 pound lots (which is required for adult use) and those are sent in for microbial testing.  Don’t even get me started on the lots.  In our case, we have small rooms that are all subject to the same nutrients, water regime and environment.  When we have a 50 pound harvest, we have to pay for ten tests, even though all the plants were treated exactly the same.  For one harvest, we’ve had test results vary up to seven percent in total cannabinoids.  Furthermore, we can’t average the results, so you have varying results with retailers and consumers requesting the highest test results, when it’s all exactly the same product.

Once that box is checked, once you’ve declared it medical, if you fail a pesticide or heavy metal test, the DOH says you have to destroy the entire harvest.  This adds a HUGE risk to the farmer.  What if the farm is downwind from an apple orchard and the 700+ pesticides that apple farmers are allowed to use but we aren’t blow onto our crop? What if we get a false positive from the lab?  What if the nutrients we use had undeclared pesticides?  The list goes on and on.  And you’re telling me if anything goes amiss, we have to destroy the entire harvest?  I’m not sure if you know this, but there are several options out there to process failed material into passing material.  Wouldn’t that be a better use of the product?  It gets even better, if you talk to the LCB, they say if you fail a test “you would be permitted to request a re-test through the LCB”.  So one agency says you have to destroy the harvest, but the other says you can retest it.  Which is it?  I’m so confused.

Well at least if the grower goes through all this, they will benefit from it, right?  In order to benefit from the added risk, who is going to shoulder that increased costs?  Sick, usually on a fixed income, patients.  That’s exactly who good farmers DON’T want to capitalize on!  There is a target audience out there who makes purchasing decisions based on the environmental and social footprint of the product. They pay 60% more in the grocery store to avoid pesticides and purchase locally sourced goods.  Those are the people who should pay a premium for clean cannabis.  Being a patient and paying a premium should not necessarily go hand in hand.

It gets even better.  If it’s medically certified, then at least that’s the only product that the patients save a whooping eight to nine percent sales tax right?  Nope.  Patients registered in the database get to save the eight to nine percent sales tax on ANY product they purchase.  Which is really cool, however we’re back to why would a grower ever take the risk of possibly destroying their entire harvest if patients can buy non-medically certified product for normal price and still save the sales tax?  It just doesn’t make any sense at all, from a grower’s and patient advocacy perspective, to accrue the added risk for the exact, same product.

Now the question becomes if you don’t get medically certified, how do patients KNOW your product is as clean as you say it is?  There are a couple options.  At Trail Blazin’ Productions, we have taken the step to have all of our strains tested for pesticides and we post those pesticide results on our website.  We also post our terpene profiles and potency tests so that we are truly transparent.  All of these results can be linked back to harvest date and lot number on the package.  Another option is to get certified by the Safe Cannabis Project or Natural Clean Cannabis.  Basically, a neutral third party selects a sample, the grower pays for the pesticide tests, and if you pass, you get a little logo and a QR code that the consumer can scan to know that the product is within the regulations for pesticides. These are all great options that help consumers make better choices with their cannabis spending money.

So, it’s not that growers don’t want to get medical cannabis certified.  It’s that the risk is too great based on the rules in place and any reward would be solely on the backs of ill and dying patients.  As a patient, and even as an adult consumer, you have a choice to make with your dollars.  You can spend them on the cheapest weed possible.  Or you can spend it on the farms that are working hard to bring you pesticide tested cannabis, enhance your quality of life and save you money.  What will you decide?

Danielle Rosellison is a wife and mother and has been part of the Cannabis Community for decades.  She is also the owner/operating manager of Trail Blazin‘, a licensed cannabis farm cultivating award-winning, pesticide free, sustainably grown legal cannabis.

 

Phase II of Legalization Begins at the End of Accessibility

Map of relative medical to I 502 storefronts as of January 2015, by Dr. Richard Morrill, Professor Emeritus of Geography, University of Washington. This map was made for Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles during the SB 5052 legislative session. It was unsuccessful then, but the basic point remains.

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Today is June 30, 2016, the last day of two eras. It’s the last day of Medical Cannabis as a tolerated parallel cannabis access system in Washington State, and the last day of Phase I of Legal Cannabis in Washington State. Let’s review what’s changing with respect to “Access,” a topic I was asked to address on Sunday, June 26, at the “22 too many” Veterans for Medical Cannabis fundraiser in Olympia.

  1. Storefront access. In the fall of 2015, BOTEC found 404 medical cannabis access points across the state, according to information provided in a public information request. 73 of those were “not verified” although they were listed because their sources, including the City of Seattle, were found to be fairly credible. This number is probably below peak, given that access points began to close starting in July 2015, when SB 5052 went into effect. As of last week’s WSLCB numbers, 179 I 502 retailers accounted for 98% of the previous three month’s statewide revenue. A large percentage of these applied for “medical endorsements,” but let’s just conclude that the state went from 404 access points to less than 179 on the day that the latter was supposed to provide uninterrupted access to the State’s medical patients.
  2. There is a geographic dimension to this access reduction, which we are working on by mapping those 179 stores relative to those 404 stores. Those maps will be in the forthcoming book, but are not made yet.
  3. Of those “less than 179” I 502 retail stores that are open and doing substantive business, a very small percentage were actually transitioned from medical cannabis. In Seattle, a recent study found that 3 of the 21 “second wave” retail stores went to existing access points at the locations they used to operate. We found that about 6 more were existing access points that relocated. 9 out of 21 is still an “F” for “Failure to meet the intention of SB 5052 to create a second window for existing medical access points to transition into I 502.” Lawsuits are ongoing. But if the WSLCB Failed in Seattle, where access points had perhaps the most favorable circumstances, we can hypothesize with some confidence that they Failed in the rest of the State. We are adapting the methodology of the CBE report to test that hypothesis, and those results will be published in our forthcoming book.
  4. If there were at least 400 storefronts a year ago, there are thousands of individual patient grows that are affected. The State may not have liked medical storefronts, but it has never understood the decentralized market that supplied and supplemented it. Home grow access with an affirmative defense has changed dramatically. The upper limit of patient or collective garden home grows was 15 per patient, up 60 plants with 4 or more medical authorizations. Maximum allowable plants (this includes seedlings and clones!) is now 4 or 6 if one registers with the WSLCB. A registered “cooperative garden” can have up to 24 plants, but not only do they have to register they have to master Biotrack, a feat that’s barely been accomplished by I 502 businesses. I have been asking, but to this date I am not aware of a single cooperative garden that has registered with the WSLCB. If you know of one, please let us know.
  5. Access to authorizations became much more difficult once SB 5052 passed, which intimidated existing doctors who had the expertise and willingness to authorize cannabis for patients. Now, “primary care physicians” have to be involved — and there’s no State requirement that primary care physicians be trained in basic cannabinoid science nor that they be willing to authorize either way. It’s also a class thing: who has primary care physicians in a country when so many have no health care at all, and usually use the health care system only in an emergency?

One could argue that these access concerns are significant only for a small minority of former access point patrons. That’s like arguing that since only a few people have physical disabilities, we don’t need handicap parking or ramps or any of the other ways our infrastructure for the many accommodates the needs of a few. Whether you believe, as our policymakers do, that 90% of medical cannabis patients are “fakers,” or that all cannabis use is medical, the wholesale destruction of access for even that 10% is unconscionable.

It’s unconscionable because it wasn’t necessary, on the one hand, and even if one believes it was necessary, the I 502 system is still too immature and underdeveloped to do it now. The WSLCB proclaims that over 300 retail stores have been approved and we are on our way to 550, but the numbers on the ground say that only 179 retail stores were actually doing business at the beginning of Phase II of Washington State legalization. The State managed to open less than half of its original 335 store allotment over three years, and that includes quite a few “Second wave” retail stores that have been opened in the last 6 months.

Today is a tragedy for common sense and evidence-based policy. You don’t have to like medical cannabis to understand that this is at the very least an extremely premature step, at the very least. SB 5052, the “Patient Protection Act,” has dismantled patient protections without guaranteeing continued patient access, which was just as much a mandate in the law as shutting down storefronts. It’s a bit of a catch-22 for the WSLCB, which was charged with this impossible task (and yes, let’s say the Board and those it answers to supported the general thrust of SB 5052).

What’s going to happen next? A hard legal line has been drawn down the middle of a 20-year social and political phenomenon. In some places, like Seattle, that hard line will be enforced only upon complaint, and it’s likely that civil charges will be preferred to criminal ones. But in many other jurisdictions, those complaints will be aggressive and it will look like prohibition did 20 years ago. It’s also likely, according to former legislator Chris Hurst’s presentation to the Alliance a couple of weeks ago, that complaints will mostly be coming from I 502 retail shops looking to eliminate competition.

There’s no going back, absent some unexpected lawsuit outcomes whose day in court may eventually come. I 502 will grow to maturity over the next few years — I’d say at least 4 before they begin to allocate retail right.

The challenge for those who wield the politics of access is simple. You have to convince the legislature to pass a “home grow” provision, and it doesn’t want to do that for at least 2 years. If patients and patient advocates can unite around this single issue and push the legislature to do something that legislators have clearly stated they don’t want to do, yet, many of the basic issues related to medical cannabis access can be resolved almost entirely. Washington State will eventually have a home grow provision, as all the other legal states do and as California will under AUMA (or legislative action if AUMA doesn’t pass). In the meantime, thousands of previously protected people will in all likelihood live their lives in fear and stress because the law has changed, even if few will get arrested and prosecuted.

It’s that simple. What’s done is done: access for patients has been disrupted against the letter of SB 5052. The politics of access must consolidate around a sane homegrow provision in 2017. There are six months to organize. Go.

 

Imagining Cannabis Communities

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by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Today’s post examines the meaning of “community” as it intersects with both “culture” and “cannabis.” Let’s start with anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” (the title of his 1983 publication). Anderson’s big contribution to social theory reconstructs the meaning of community as a signifier of common identity, especially as it applies to the emergence of national identities. Really he was taking part in a social theory turn that was about how social identities are constructed and performed, rather than biological or natural. A good example of this is the concept of “race,” which before the 20th century was a term applied to ethnic and national identities rather than common skin tones: the Irish race this, the Italian race that, and so forth. It was all about the process of defining Selves and Others, and usually had a territorial as well as biological connotation. A community is a group of people who are imagined to be like each other, and nations are “imagined communities” in the sense that all their differences get subsumed under a few common identity markers, one of which is having a place of origin or belonging in common.

But having a place of origin or belonging in common, and having that marker of identity mobilized, can often mean that a great deal of internal difference is being erased, often violently. Okies from Muskogee can only be Okies from Muskogee if they don’t smoke marijuana or take LSD, according to Merle Haggard, but Dr. Sunil Aggarwal has often contested that assertion. If it’s true, then he doesn’t get to belong to the place he grew up. Hence nationalism — and all other imagined community identities — are political: who gets the final word depends on power in social relations, not who’s technically right. The power to define community is the power to include or exclude.

So what’s the cannabis community, exactly. I experience a lot of positive and a lot of negative meanings associated with that post-ethnic identity marker, which can be and sometimes is framed in terms of nationalism. Some mourn the loss of community as cannabis becomes commercialized and inserted into the formal capitalist economy. Some celebrate the opening of cannabis community membership into the ecology of legally sanctioned communities subsumed under national, State, and local identities. What’s the Washington cannabis community like, and so forth.

The challenge for this post isn’t to define what “the cannabis community” is or might be, though I have a few strong feelings about it. The challenge for this post is to identify community formation as an ongoing and vital part of social survival. Communities are always being lost, broken, made, healed: they are created by performing common ground, and they have to be constantly re-created and renewed to gain political and economic purchase on the ecology of community formations in society that aren’t punished for existing.

I must admit I’m pretty ambivalent about “cannabis community” as a singular concept, sweeping up difference under the rug of community. I find that when it’s singularly deployed it tends to be either deployed as a brand, on the one hand, for getting people to buy things; and as a stigmatized group that isn’t allowed to participate in “modern” legal cannabis markets, events, or even spaces outside one’s own home on another end. I find it more useful as a term of aspiration or auto-critique, usually associated with efforts to be together on something or an acknowledgement that the failure to renew community and mobilize it in a productive fashion has created missed opportunities for the cannabis peace movement from which we should learn.

That’s not terribly specific, I know, but this is not a space for dictating how folks who’ve found cannabis therapeutic in their lives should shape their identities. I’m specifically anti-identity in many ways: I’m less interested in what we have in common than how we can peacefully coexist despite our differences, because we are interdependent at the very least in the spaces we share.  But the practice of calling a community together can help considerably in the search for peaceful coexistence.

The way we are organizing for peaceful coexistence involves the production of popular education events. Our Terpestival is a whole plant conference: the focus on Terpenes helps decenter approaches to centralize the meaning of cannabis, and therefore what cannabis communities can be. That problem of centralized meaning is not just a negative power function — “dangerous drug”, signifier of “Bad Actor,” and so forth — but a positive power function with negative effects. The focus on low cost THC production for prohibition markets has dramatically limited non-cannabis communities’ willingness to step away from stigma and let the plant be a plant.

That model, interestingly, is now being perpetuated in Washington’s legal system for public and private reasons. The State wants revenue, and it gets the most revenue when retailers copy the prohibition market’s tendencies toward highest THC and lowest prices. At the same time its onerous regulations make THC information on the label the most reliable information available to consumers (and budtenders) who aren’t allowed to smell the flowers or sample the product. Combine that with the McDonald’s fast-food high volume business model and it’s no wonder cannabis is becoming just another commodity here. And communities based on commodities have a name: industry. Not much room for cultural difference and community formation there, except as ways to brand, market and sell things.

Which is, I suppose, the proverbial American way. It’s the familiar same-old centralized national identity subsuming all of the differences that constitute our social ecologies under the generic flag of consumer identity. It works, for a lot of people in the cannabis industry — especially the new ones, intent on producing a tornado of creative destruction out of which they build their empires of exclusive wealth and individual glory. I’m just not into it.

But it’s not enough to be “just not into it.” If I want cannabis community — and I desire a cannabis community of decentralized differences that peacefully coexist — I have to create spaces where other people can understand what I desire and desire it with me. Also at the same time I have to navigate the social ecology of acceptable and tolerated communities who feel threatened by my cannabis-positive values. I have to understand what they are afraid of, and not get frustrated that their fears are irrelevant even if they aren’t based on evidence. And I have to find and work strategically with people who share my values and are able to act on them.

This last point is crucial. The re-criminalization of medical cannabis in Washington State has meant that for the last year at least, people who share my values — chiefly, that cannabis is a plant with many, many beneficial uses and the problems attributed to it are caused mostly by its prohibition and stigmatization — have been losing their jobs, losing their margins, and transitioning to a new system in which margins are vanishingly small and controlled by people who put profits over social peace. Washington’s model of legalization has certainly made cannabis communities everywhere more afraid of legalization, and that can’t be a good thing.

It’s not a good thing for a lot of reasons, but I’ll point out an especially Big One. Cannabis legalization is first and foremost about getting people out of jail and ending the drug war — both of which affect communities of color disproportionately. It’s not really about cannabis, it’s about the practice of prohibition — which was never about cannabis, but about social control. We need legalization to happen to end the drug war. It’s that simple. But we need models of legalization that care for the hundreds of thousands of people that see themselves part of a community that is under attack. There’s no reason why ending the drug war can’t also promote livelihood continuities and broader spaces of social peace. No reason at all.

But there are no cannabis peace stakeholders at the table, because cannabis communities have always been marginal to society. They aren’t at the table even to write initiatives anymore — that process is clearly being privatized. That marginality is cultural, not just “forced” upon cannabists: cannabis consumption, production and distribution under conditions of prohibition have been carried out largely by people who are culturally disobedient — the counterculture.

This is a fundamental tension that prevents cannabis communities from having a voice in how things are changing. What’s to come is going to depend on how people imagine their communities, and whether those people find a way to act together and actually perform those communities.

 

Cannabis, Capitalism, Creative Destruction

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Economic Historian Karl Polanyi

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

In “The Great Transformation” (1944) economic historian Karl Polanyi considered the rise of the international capitalist order out of the historical conditions set in motion by the collapse of the West’s fuedal-theocratic order. Polanyi’s story elaborated a key analytical concept for our times: “creative destruction,” the process whereby growth and global “order” were created by destroying the lives and livelihoods that depended on that order — that political and economic liberalism did not come from nowhere, but built with and upon the remains of social orders everywhere. This was not strictly a moral critique, but an analytical one: that it happened matters far more than what one thinks of the result. It can however guide us in our search for peaceful cannabis policy.

Without getting too “ivory tower,” I want to use this post to consider the concept of creative destruction as it applies to current cannabis markets and social orders. The movement to end prohibition has little to do with the movement of previously informal markets, people, and knowledge into the “normal” routines and practices of capitalism, but it is clear that cannabis market legalization (different from cannabis legalization) involves a radical restructuring of human lives and livelihoods. For every job created in legal cannabis, an “informal sector” livelihood has been destroyed, even if that job is occupied by someone previously operating in the informal market. For every giant, investor-owned warehouse that becomes regulated (in theory, anyway) and taxed, dozens of small producers have been put out of business. This is certainly the case in Washington, but does not have to be the case elsewhere.

The closer a State gets towards bringing informal markets into the system, the less social impact this destruction has on the existing order. As we put thousands of independent owner-operators out of business, it’s important to remember that these folks were previously able to pay their rent, bills, and groceries, and now they can’t. This creates a social problem that the State of Washington is clearly nowhere near being concerned about, but affects our neighborhoods, our churches, our schools, and our stability.

This isn’t just the case for home growers. It’s especially the case for minority-dominant neighborhoods, where white-owned and operated businesses are putting people of color out of work — people who never had a chance, at all, to be part of the new legal markets given the incredibly high barriers to entry and short, closed windows to even apply.

One thing about medical cannabis markets — as ubiquitous and apparently offensive to policymakers as they were — is that even the “bad actor” access points that barely catered at all to patients did everyone a major social service. They got a lot of cannabis off the streets and into an orderly space. The lack of formal regulation made barriers to entry extremely low, and plenty of folks who can barely function in the normal social order were able to get and keep jobs that made them happy. Some of that was the ability to consume cannabis while they worked! That’s also been destroyed by I 502 and its legislative changes, so much so that I 502 businesses have trouble educating their employees and providing samples.

But the destruction of medical cannabis businesses is most certainly creating non-I 502 jobs, too. Black market job creation is happening, possibly as fast as I 502 job creation, and those aren’t the jobs anyone wanted to create, on the one hand, or go back to, on the other. Given the State’s interest in destroying the black market, I’m pretty sure this isn’t an outcome that the State wants either. At the same time, white-owned retailers who are tone-deaf to the experience of gentrification are stoking the fires of neighborhood resentment.

Let’s consider those I 502 jobs as a mixed bag, though, not just the colonial expropriation of skills, time, investment, and lives by Big Money investors and real estate sharks. Informal markets are notoriously volatile, and being an entrepreneur reliant upon handshakes instead of contracts can be incredibly risky and stressful. Those handshakes, when they do work out, are incredible: they replace credit and threats of lawsuits with trust and human, face-to-face, construction of interdependence. And let’s be clear, there would be no informal cannabis markets now — no formal ones either — if those networks of trust and outlaw community didn’t pay off more often than not.

One more extremely socially optimal outcome is associated with I 502’s “creative destruction” should be highlighted, and it’s a doozy as far as I’m concerned. In Washington, we are replacing a mostly indoor, import cannabis market with what will eventually be a mostly outdoor, environmentally friendly and local one. Eastern Washington is experiencing the beginnings of a sustainable agricultural industry that fits very well into its agriculture-dependent social orders. Virtual ghost towns are being revived: the city of North Bonneville has pioneered a public-private cannabis partnership that means a future instead of extinction. The latest numbers I’ve received from trusted sources indicate that we have a ways to go, but considering that Washington State had so little sun-grown, ecologically sustainable cannabis before I 502 was passed, we’ve come a long way.

The broader implication of these kinds of creative destruction is clear. If States simply make bridges for the previous order to come in and own their own experience, skills, and livelihoods –rather than crush them through unnecessary legislative fiat — the social peace can be optimized. We live in an incredibly and increasingly unequal society, and prohibition was a tool for making that happen. Post-prohibition markets must not reinforce that process. It’s not good for anyone. Let the livelihoods transform themselves, instead of being thrown away like the disposable citizens they seem to be.

 

Legality, Medicality, and Good/Bad Actors

CASP T Shirt

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

The previous conceptual post really helped me find a way to engage with complex intersections without flying too far off the ground. Today’s post is an effort to deal with the “moral panic” phenomenon around medical cannabis in Washington, and elsewhere. I start with the assumption that policy that is created in response to moral panic is not good social policy, because (a) prohibition morality stems from fear not science and (b) in order to leave prohibition behind — the urge to punish our way to public health — we have to leave prohibition culture behind. And prohibition morality is perhaps the foundation of prohibition culture. It’s the equation of law with justice absent any critical reflection or nuance. If one is doing something legal, then one is doing something good. That attitude got us to mass incarceration and the politics of fear. Here’s a series of connected engagements with intersection of legality, medicality, and the moral distinction between Good and Bad Actors.

  1. Legality is a technical term, not a moral or ethical one. This is helpful to keep in mind as the State of Washington continues to deploy it as a moral or ethical one — State-legal cannabis is constructed as “good” versus “bad” medical and black cannabis. The logical problem: State-legal cannabis is Federally prohibited but tolerated under interpretations of the Cole Memo. Even those who argue that legality connotes moral superiority — those that disagree with the first sentence — have to face a simple logical argument: any moral or ethical quality associated with State legality is cancelled out by its simultaneous association with Federal illegality.
  2. The basic premise of ending the war on drugs rests on the assumption that laws can be unjust, and therefore morally wrong. The argument about whether legalization can be unjust (not that it is, or is not) is therefore supportable. The argument that legalization can also, at the same time, be just is also supportable. Efforts to critique legalization are not necessarily against legalization.
  3. So, technically: regulation and tax collection are the two main State practices of legalization. The active participation of the State in these two ways constitute what we mean by legalization. There are many dimensions to this participation: altering the legal code is both an end to the first step and the beginning of a network of practices associated with implementing legalization. The implementation of legalization — system creation, output and maintenance — is and always will be an ongoing process.
  4. Technically, this time with respect to medical cannabis: since “medicine” is not a state monopoly, medical cannabis means many, many things. For our purposes here let’s distinguish between medical state laws and “legal medical” state laws, since the former came first. Medical state laws are “decriminalization” laws for which the state plays no active implementation part. “Legal medical” laws require the active participation of the state via regulation and/or special taxation (independent of sales taxes, for example). The core of Washington’s current medical cannabis controversies stems from the State’s unwillingness to transition from medical to legal medical in 2011.
  5. Technically, this can be avoided in every state that adopts “legal medical” either as its first step or as a reform (see California); and then using the existing medical legality to develop (not replace wholesale immediately) the pre-existing legal system. Oregon’s decision to allow and tax over-21 nonmedical purchases at its medical retail points is one example of this. Technically, if the starting conditions for legal medical were unjust, this transition will not necessarily be a socially optimal one.
  6. Oregon is complying with the same Cole memo as Washington, so model variation can’t be explained by that. There was no technical reason why Washington’s medical cannabis system couldn’t have been more slowly transitioned, as the I 502 system continues to come on line. This is not the same as an argument that medical should have remained unregulated. “Regulation” as a practice as opposed to a concept deserves far more critical attention than I can give here.
  7. The illegality of medical cannabis under (some) State laws is now being used to stigmatize and exclude cannabis people by implementing high barriers to entry, while attempting to bring the plant as a commodity into a regulatory framework. That stigma is not necessarily new, and not confined solely to medical cannabis. In fact, the stigmatization of medical cannabis seems to be the re-enclosure of black market cannabis stigma to include informal medical cannabis markets. Prohibition culture never stopped fearing a stoned planet, and that fear is now being encouraged and amplified by legal cannabis militants. Pointing this out does not mean I conclude that “all cannabis markets are good.”
  8. I will say that the closer the consumer is to the grower, in any cannabis market, the easier it is to sort the good from the bad. The distance between consumer and farmer is a function of two things: prohibition, and the fact that most of the rest of the formal economy has been increasing that distance since the Industrial Revolution.
  9. Legal cannabis markets and actors are not inherently “good actors,” nor are they inherently “bad actors.” The legal economy is filled with bad and good actors — many of them both at the same time. The Gilded Age philanthropists whose names are plastered all over our urban landscapes were a symptom of massive inequality, against which the Labor Movement formed. Our second Gilded Age is no different.
  10. Medical cannabis markets and actors are not inherently “good actors,” nor are they inherently “bad actors.” Our medical system in the U.S. is totally commercial, a far cry from the single payer systems of most of our peers. Our herbal product markets are virtually unregulated. Our televisions give us medical advice. Our diet fads rage from year to year. And we are on more pharmaceutical drugs per capita than any other society on Earth. If there is anything nonprofit or community-oriented in a medical marijuana system, then our medical marijuana systems are far more socially conscious than virtually every sector of the formal economy that might be related.

There’s a lot of conditionality and open-ended starting points for engaging with prohibition culture, which is coming now not just from prohibitionists but legalization stakeholders. It should be clear that this critique does not apply to legalization stakeholders en masse. I have no idea how prevalent prohibition culture is amongst legalization stakeholders, but enough of them so that we are getting a socially violent transition via policy. It also should be clear that medical cannabis markets and actors are not necessarily less greedy than the level accepted for non-cannabis markets and actors. Neither of those facts should get in the way of basing policy on facts instead of fear in Washington State.

In a different voice, on the pending closure of Medical Cannabis in Washington

Dr. Corva at Seattle Hempfest 2014.
Dr. Corva at Seattle Hempfest 2014.

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

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The opinions expressed in this editorial analysis belong to Dr. Corva, and do not necessarily reflect organizational consensus.

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As the July 1, 2016 deadline for Medical Cannabis markets in Washington State draws near, I would like to offer a few observations about how and why this phenomenon is nearly impossible to address, politically. There can be no focused essay, as a result, so I’ll offer a few openings on the closure of an 18 year trajectory in which patients in Washington State gained more access, until now.

First, a disclaimer. Our organization’s mission is to facilitate a peaceful human-cannabis relationship, which we cannot do by denigrating, stigmatizing, or dismissing any individual that grows, distributes, consumes, authorizes, tests, legislates, or regulates the plant. Nonetheless we have to deal with the fact that many if not most of the above people do this, to others, and that the coming re-creation of the Recreational Cannabis system into Boss of Medical Cannabis Access is the direct result of this happening. It was not necessary, but it’s what happened. My position is that this is the opposite of peaceful policy, and congruent with the extension of Prohibition culture into Regulation policy. And that we need to continue to work peacefully to get those “two steps back.” It all starts with accurate, reliable, and unpoliticized information.

  1. The WSLCB cannot fulfill their obligation under 5052 to ensure that patient access in Washington state is not disrupted on July 1. It has already been disrupted. I have personally had to scramble to make sure an older friend could replace the product she could no longer get, and have directed many, many inquiries towards the few Access Points that remain open.
  2. There is also the matter of physical geography, product diversity, product availability, and affordability. The I 502 system won’t even get close to the kind of geographic access, access to diverse and specialized products, access to the amount and diversity of CBD rich products available in the access point system, and of course nowhere near the amount of access points previously available including delivery. And while cheap flower prices have arrived in much of the I 502 system, concentrate and edible prices remain far above those of their flower counterparts — and these are often widely preferred ways to consume for patients, for many reasons.
  3. Responsibility for reduced patient access in Washington State should be apportioned widely — the legislature, the LCB, the big money lobbyist, the monopoly-hungry trade association, the previous governor, the Majority Whip, the I 502 architect, the death-threatening activists, the patient advocates, the disorganized and fractured industry groups, the prohibition culture addicted to punishment, the law enforcement lobby, the UFCW, and more. We do not call for punishment, but responsible assessment of reality and its alignment with policy. And nothing responsible can be done unless people take responsibility for what has been done.
  4. Responsibility is something to which every one of these stakeholders seems to be allergic. Nothing that ever goes wrong is their fault, and everything that goes right has a raft of people ready to take credit. “Legalization” is an inflection point, historically and geographically; which means it’s both a continuation of what came before and the beginning of a new process that remains connected to all of the other processes that made it possible. No single organization or individual should be proclaiming victory, and there is way too much more work to be done. Legalization is not an endpoint.
  5. People often ask me about the black market. Even Clark County called me to ask about the black market. I told Clark County that their black market was now called “Oregon.”
  6. “Cartels” haven’t had much of a market share in the Pacific Northwest, maybe ever. This State is the birthplace of indoor cannabis. The original owner of Fremont’s Indoor Sun Shoppe wrote the first indoor grow guide ever published. It was 1972, and his shop was located on University Avenue across from the campus. Also I don’t think we call Southeast Asian-Canadian organized crime from BC “cartels,” but their dominance went into terminal decline at the turn of the century.
  7. The Washington black market, “domestically,” can be found on every college campus in the state and all of its music festivals. Access points hit lots of “middlemen” hard, but perhaps the dorm room dealer most of all. Things are looking up for dorm room dealers, street dealers, and small personal network dealers. That might be a good thing, since it’s a windfall for economically marginalized populations.
  8. NSDUH statistics show that people under 21 (read: college students especially) constitute the biggest cannabis-consuming demographic there is. As long as cannabis is legal only for “over 21” adults — as opposed to people who can vote, get a credit card, and join the army as “over 18” adults — the State will hit a wall in its efforts to eliminate the black market, no matter how low prices go. The U.S.-American higher education system will welcome cannabis culture and markets until the last dorm room gets turned into a prison cell.
  9. The black market that the State doesn’t address by shutting down “gray market” access points is called the export market. It’s been going on for decades, and closing medical does nothing at all to those exports.
  10. There’s a new black market, and it’s called diversion from the I 502 market. No one wants to talk about it, but somehow I still can’t avoid running into it. An interesting irony: I can hear folks talk all day long about state, interstate, and global black market developments but the minute anyone accidentally or on purpose mentions seeing I 502 diversion they shut up completely. It’s more dangerous to talk about than normal felonious activity. Disclaimer: the previous sentences in “point number 10” are hypothetical, I’ve never heard of nor seen diversion from the I 502 market. I don’t know what I was talking about.
  11. SB 5052’s new “four person cooperative garden” provision is a mystery. It has to be located in people’s domiciles, which would indicate that whatever happens there is protected by privacy laws, so … are there supposed to be cameras? where are registered patients supposed to get their plants? Is it a 15 day window 365 days a year? Has anyone signed up for this, a little over a month before “collective gardens” become illegal? In fact, how many patients have signed up for the registry so they can save 10% sales tax on their “medically endorsed” purchases? I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back from my public information request.
  12. Will there be a Kleiman-recommended huge crackdown, by Federal and/or other law enforcement agencies, immediately after July 1? Mark Kleiman has in many places recommended a big crackdown to “break the back” of the black market as soon as a regulated system is in place.
  13. I suspect there won’t be the budget nor the political will to make examples of home growers, but I do expect unregulated warehouse grows to be targeted and Federal investigations that have been pending for a few years to conclude.
  14. A legislative home grow option, especially if pitched as a “home brew” provision, would deal with many of not most of the problems caused by the hostile takeover of medical cannabis markets by the State. It will happen eventually — every other state has one, and California’s direction will steer the national policy ship once either AUMA passes or, if it doesn’t, once its legislature takes on the task of legalizing and regulating. But here in Washington, I keep hearing “some time in the next couple of years” from lobbyists and legislators.
  15. The I 502 system is never going to be a failure — it’s a conspiracy to sell weed without fear of enforcement, how could it be, but it is going to be full of individual failures, especially from small businesses. I’m aggressively uninterested in “$X billion sold” headlines and extremely concerned that X out of that X billion will go to a very few people rather than support small farmers, who will cash out and sell to investment groups as the rules and rule implementations evolve away from what used to be an advertised State concern — the protection and promotion of small businesses.

Thanks for reading! Again, the opinions expressed in this editorial analysis belong to Dr. Corva, and do not necessarily reflect organizational consensus.