Three Questions for the Reform Conference

by Dominic Corva, Executive Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barriers to Understanding, Barriers to Change (Spanish translation)

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

Translated by Ramiro E. Borja / Colectivo Nueva de Abril

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barriers to Understanding, Barriers to Change

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Field Guide to Cannabis Markets and Policy: A Starting Point

by Dr. Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chemovar and the Cultivar

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director and Terpestival Producer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Introducing the Terpestival Popular Education Panels

by Dominic Corva,  Event Producer and Social Science Research Director

This year’s posts about The Original Terpestival (TM) follow the rhythm of the event’s production. First, we told you about the event. Second, we made our call for entries, explaining the political economy of the entry process — how the entry economy has a politics to it, specifically a politics of wellness. Along the way we described the value we are creating for entrants, who are provided with a vehicle for branding and marketing I 502 cannabis beyond THC and low price. We have also referred to the value created by our keynote and popular education panels, which serve to educate budtenders, consumers, retailers, policymakers and the public (in roughly that order of priority) on the science and economy of the whole plant. We also target producers and processors of course, but that demographic is significantly already educated and acting on whole plant knowledge.

Today begins a short series on the theory and practice of our keynote and education panels. I thought to write just one, but really there’s quite a bit to talk about and I want to keep these missives digestible.

I first wrote about the education work that can be done in cannabis events in August, 2014, for The Ganjier. This was barely a year after founding CASP, and inspired by the network of highly conscious cannabis events I had been pulled into over the previous few years doing research on policing and cannabis agriculture. I had been speaking at Seattle Hempfest since teaching a course on Cannabis and Society for the University of Washington’s Law, Societies and Justice Center in 2009, but once my cannabis research began in earnest I found myself participating in some key Southern Humboldt/Emerald Triangle events that combined popular education with industry evolution. These included the the last Emerald Cup before it moved to Santa Rosa and got huge, produced by Tim Blake; The Golden Tarp Awards produced by Kevin Jodrey; and also Kevin’s Spring Planting event.

What struck me was how these events successfully created spaces of intense interest from industry, to listen and learn, even with all the fun and games going on. The intent of the producers to create knowledge that was Useful coincided with the industry’s organic compulsion to seek out Necessary Knowledge, because things were changing fast. Humboldt’s watersheds were drying up, prices were crashing, and new industry players were colonizing a real estate landscape that was developed earlier by much more ecologically conscious “back to the land” and eco-anarchist groups. The Redwood Curtain was being ripped away in a process of creative destruction that could not be ignored. And it was all being catalyzed by a tectonic shift in public policy, away from punishment and eradication and towards especially environmental regulation and later, tax revenue collection.

What I learned from my journey was that if cannabis culture was to survive the policy shift to “tax and regulate,” it would require a lot of work by cannabis culture to make itself Useful and Necessary for the legal industry future. It had to create ways for new players, market participants, and consumers to do cannabis capitalism differently than commodity capitalism, which would otherwise simply destroy and replace the anti-authoritarian, ecologically conscious social movement that made it possible.

But the Washington context was, and remains, quite different from the California context, which focused on best growing and extraction processes, environmental issues, and regulatory genesis. Before I 502, our sun grown cannabis agriculture was dwarfed by its urban counterpart along the I 5 corridor. Our regulatory genesis was driven first by the politics of rights, and then later by the alcohol regulators tasked with literally replacing our decentralized, largely indoor economy, on the one hand; and imports from British Colombia (which largely ended in 2006), Oregon, and California on the other. Most significantly, our state made the choice to regulate cannabis like alcohol, rather than like cannabis.

The “like alcohol” crowd created new barriers to entry and participation that meant the new industry couldn’t take up the Whole Plant and conscious consumer politics associated with traditional cannabis culture in Washington. They took the cannabis out of the jars and sealed them into little packages with THC content on the labels, the only information besides how pretty the package was for consumers to go on; and disenfranchised medical products by alienating medical consumers through a mandatory registry and by closing down the broadly accessible system that had developed under medical cannabis. I don’t mean to reproduce moral outrage for something that has happened and isn’t going to be restored. The facts presented here explain how our industry got evolutionarily “stuck” and how our keynote and popular education efforts create Useful and Necessary Knowledge for stymied industry growth through evolution.

This meant that producers and processors didn’t have much to differentiate their product on the marketplace, on the one hand, especially through smells, samples, and sharing; and that efforts to produce medical products, including but not limited to CBD-rich products, could not be profitable enough to pursue. The game was THC monoculture, low prices, pretty packaging, and high volume.

The problem with THC monoculture isn’t simply a moral one. It severely limits the ability of producers and processors to compete in the marketplace, since they are all chasing the same market variables. And it severely limits the ability of retailers to reach a significant existing market, medical consumers; as well as to create a strong new consumer base more interested in the “wellness” aspects of cannabis consumption than how high they can get (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that). These include but are not limited to: retirees, veterans, athletes, children with epilepsy, and people who want to explore ways of dealing with pain beyond pharmaceutical medicine with often horrific side effects including addiction. The future of the legal cannabis market is much broader and highly differentiated than the I 502 present.

But it won’t be if our most knowledgable and innovative producers and processors go out of business because they can’t win the race to the bottom. Thanks in large part to the pioneering lifework our keynote speaker, Dr. Ethan Russo, they don’t have to. Producers and processors can compete in a diverse marketplace especially by highlighting the incredibly diverse ways that terpenes and terpene profiles deliver cannabinoids to many, many different endocannabinoid systems — many of which are not made well by THC. While the Terpene Tournament (TM) showcases industry evolution, our keynote and panel speakers provide the scientific, technical, and expert information necessary to stimulate market growth and consumer preference for diversity.

There are three panels, two of which are annual in the sense that they address ongoing topics associated with a popular education focus: branding cannabis with the politics of wellness, by populating and popularizing the value of terpenes in the production of the “entourage effect” coined by our keynote speaker, Dr. Ethan Russo. This stands in contrast to a monocultural focus on the cash value of lab-reported THC, which we see as the cultural foundation of the current regulated market.

Let’s take a look at the panels and then follow up in the coming days with a post that more thoroughly introduces our speakers and their specific topics.

Our Industry Evolution panel addresses constituent parts of industry so that they may prosper by valuing wellness. The purpose of this panel is to catalyze the evolution of Washington’s legal cannabis industry by featuring the Subject Matter Experts with deep historical and ongoing perspectives not readily available in Washington State. Our speakers are Kevin Jodrey of Wonderland Nursery and the Ganjier; Rick Pfrommer of Pfrommer Consulting, former lead buyer for Harborside Health Center; Aaron Stancyk of our lab sponsor Medicine Creek Analytics; and our Terpene Tournament (TM) Judges’ Coordinator, Alison Draisin of Ettalew’s Medibles.

Our Current Topics” panel will change each year. This year’s addresses an emergent industry phenomenon, the market for Cannabis-derived and other TerpenesThe purpose of this panel is to educate industry and the public on different perspectives and techniques emerging as industry “takes on” terpenes to create and market products. Our speakers are Ben Cassiday of True Terpenes, Kate Quackenbush of I 502 processor Fractal, , Pam Haley of Aromatherapy Consulting and I 502 producer/processor Pam’s Plants; and Jeremy Plumb of Farma, The Cultivation Classic, and the Open Cannabis Project.

And of course, our Terpenes and Wellness panel addresses the science and practice of cannabis-facilitated wellness. The purpose of this panel is to hear from medical experts how terpenes are used in the clinical setting.  Retention of the terpene fraction may influence the overall effect of the product used. Examples from patient will be presented. The speakers on this panel are: Dr. Michelle Sexton, co-founder and Medical Science Research Director for the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy; Seattle pediatric physician Dr. Hatha Gbedawo, and keynote speaker Dr. Ethan Russo.

The information provided by our subject matter experts create strong roots for another foundation to be possible: wellness. We understand wellness in terms of an ecology in balance, a condition of physical well-being that is reproduced by the health of the social system in which our bodies are embedded. Stay tuned for a more in-depth introduction to our speakers in the coming days!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spicer’s Press Statements on Legal Cannabis: Don’t Panic

 

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Yesterday’s White House press conference comments about the Trump Administration’s approach to legal cannabis sent the cannabis press into a frenzy of fear, anger, and a little hysteria. A superficial reading of Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s comments signaled the first clearly negative tone about Department of Justice (DOJ) enforcement against State-legal cannabis/marijuana experiments, but let’s take a closer look at what he actually said and add some context to defuse some of the hysteria about a “crackdown” while pointing towards what it actually might mean.

The first thing to notice is that Spicer said nothing about enforcement against State legal cannabis based on Federal conflict. Rather, Spicer echoed Jeff Sessions’ earlier comments about whether the 2014 Cole memo itself was being enforced, and consistently referenced existing policy structures at the federal level. Further, the question he was responding to was from an Arkansas reporter concerned about Arkansas’ recent medical cannabis legislation. It’s clear this response was meant to reassure Arkansas, which is why Spicer really didn’t say much new about recreational cannabis.

He begins by making a distinction between medical and recreational cannabis, highlighting a general Administrative perspective that not only favors medical cannabis in principle, but respects the existing Congressional appropriations rider that forbids DOJ enforcement against medical cannabis businesses that are compliant with State law. The link I provide here not only describes the legislative directive, but reports on the Court victory that gives it more legs than just a directive. This means the DOJ has already lost an effort in the judicial branch to overturn it. The DOJ doesn’t like losing money and court battles, so we can read this as doubly-armored protection for existing Federal medical cannabis policy.

Arkansas, Spicer is saying, is safe to proceed with constructing a medical cannabis regime. A second reporter jumps on the distinction he made, which was meant to highlight how Arkansas medical cannabis isn’t in danger, between recreational and medical cannabis. And he punts it to the DOJ.

At 2:35: “that’s a question for the Department of Justice, I do believe that you’ll see greater enforcement of it.”

The question is, what does he mean by “it”? In all likelihood, he means what Jeff Sessions clearly meant in his confirmation hearings when he discussed the Cole memo.

This is what he said: “”I think some of them are truly valuable in evaluating cases,” Sessions said Tuesday about the [Cole] guidelines. ‘But fundamentally, the criticism I think that was legitimate is that they may not have been followed. And using good judgment about how to handle these cases will be a responsibility of mine.””

The Cole memo guides DOJ enforcement policy, not against legal cannabis, but against legal cannabis diversion to other states, to minors, to double-dipping (using legal cannabis businesses as a cover for State-illegal market operations), drugged driving, and so forth. This means that the Feds reserve the right to enforce against legal cannabis businesses where State enforcement is deemed insufficient.

This is extremely different from “cracking down on legal cannabis.” My reading concludes that the Feds reserve the right here to supplement State enforcement of their own legal cannabis businesses that are not in fact compliant with State law.

The caveat here is that this is probably a much, much larger portion of the legal cannabis market than States would admit. Oregon cannabis organizer John Sajo has distinguished between “tightly regulated” and “tightly controlled” cannabis markets. The former is basically political theater, in which seed-to-sale tracking systems are effective because they exist, rather than because they work very well. Why they wouldn’t work very well isn’t hard to see from inside a legal cannabis business, but no one — especially not State regulatory agencies — has any stake in advertising the fact that there are simply not enough human resources to comb through thousands of hours of surveillance data before they can be destroyed in a 30-day window, for example.

“Tightly regulated” should be seen for the political theater that it is, reassuring key worriers (the Feds, State governors, legislators, the anti-cannabis culture that remains dominant even in legal cannabis states) that there’s nothing to see here because we are compliant with the Cole Memo. “Tightly controlled” is a prohibition fantasy, as it always has been especially with respect to a plant.

The take here is that Spicer, via Sessions, has indicated that the DOJ will do some enforcement of the Cole memo, against market participants not State systems, not that the DOJ will “crack down on” legal cannabis regimes wherever they might be. I would hazard to guess that Cole memo enforcement is probably more likely in Colorado, rather than Washington and certainly nowhere there isn’t even a legal system in place yet. It takes at least 2 years from initiative passage to market and oversight functionality, so Oregon is kind of the next closest in terms of viable enforcement logic, and they have recently passed the stage where Spicer’s comments would be particularly relevant (ie, when unregulated adult purchases were permitted at licensed medical stores).

Nothing in the press conference indicated that the Feds were coming after public officials or attempting to stop legal cannabis implementation in say California. This didn’t stop California and Washington from “signaling” right back, just in case. It should be noted that both of these States have been making political hay out of refusing to cooperate with Federal immigration enforcement under the Trump administration, too.

The Trump administration, if it is consistent with anything, is consistently nationalist. Which means most of its political enforcement theater will be directed at issues that can be attributed to things that come from somewhere else, such as the greatly exaggerated supply of cannabis from transnational criminal organizations aka “Mexican cartels.”

Then there’s the matter of resources for a “crackdown,” which would be politically difficult. Trump’s DOJ is extremely busy doing other things that will undoubtedly take a toll on their prosecution budget as well as test the limits of the public’s tolerance of Executive freestyling. It’s an open question whether his base would support much DOJ activity that would run counter to state’s rights issues that don’t directly implicate cross-border trade and migration.

Cannabis politics are pretty diverse and often right-wing — there’s nothing inherently progressive about schemes to tax and regulate something that is consumed like a commodity by so many. After four years of ethnographic immersion, it seems to me that Whole Plant, Whole Society politics remain limited to legacy farmers, cannabis culturalists, and medical patients — none of whom are served very well by cannabis legalization.

From this perspective, the hysteria over Spicer’s comments yesterday is particularly flavored by commodity cannabis interests, on the one hand, and anti-Trump State politics on the other. Those who’ve been involved with cannabis policy longer than say two years aren’t particularly fazed by what the Feds do or what the States say, primarily because we recognize how this is not so much something new as an organic evolution of Prohibition culture and democratic authoritarianism at large.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oregon’s Cannabis Regulatory Landscape

 

by John Sajo, Oregon cannabis agriculturalist and decades-long organizer

I hope the democratic leaders of the Oregon Joint Committee on Marijuana Regulation wake up and take a new approach. They have been thinking that merging medical and recreational marijuana will create a “simpler” system because we won’t have two state agencies doing the same thing. The problem with that is federal marijuana prohibition, which distinguishes medical marijuana from recreational marijuana.

Having the OLCC take over medical marijuana is a terrible idea. Frankly the whole idea of seed to sale tracking and regulating marijuana like plutonium is suspect. It is based on the very questionable idea that the way avoid a federal crackdown on Oregon’s legal marijuana system is to comply with the Cole memo – the Obama administration document that outlines federal tolerance. First, who really thinks the Trump administration wants to follow Obama administration guidance? Second, the entire seed to sale tracking is a fraud as far as preventing diversion to the black market.

We still don’t really know what the feds will do about states with legal marijuana but the centralized over regulated system Oregon has created is extremely fragile when it comes to resisting the feds. Here are some suggestions for how to defend the will of Oregon voters to legalize against possible federal action:

1) Keep medical separate. This makes sense regardless because patients’ needs are getting lost in the rush for profits and taxes in the rec market. Medical marijuana is legal federally. Congress continues to pass bills that forbid the Justice Department from spending any money going after state legal medical marijuana.

2) Don’t create a centralized system. It is much easier to crack down on. Having the marijuana supply come from a few hundred OLCC farms instead of tens of thousands of medical marijuana gardens is much more vulnerable to fed raids. There is no reason for Oregon to provide a list of all marijuana producers to the feds.

3) Base our system of taxing and regulating marijuana on allowing the free citizens of Oregon to do what they want with marijuana. Stop regulating where no problems exist! Allow any Oregonian to sell marijuana either to stores or to other citizens however they choose. Adults growing four plants will often have excess over their needs and if we don’t allow it to be sold legally, it will by definition be sold illegally. Marijuana sold in stores can still be tested but tracking individual marijuana plants by law is a boondoggle that only makes farmers more vulnerable to feds.

4) Require any individual selling marijuana to report the total sales to the Oregon Department of Revenue and pay the 17% tax.

5) Allow adults to use marijuana socially in public places where everyone voluntarily chooses to be in the presence of marijuana smoke or other usage. Taxing this lightly will dramatically increase the amount of revenue the state collects.

These suggestions will create a multifaceted system. OLCC stores will do fine, as long as feds leave them alone. Medical dispensaries will be more protected because of the Congressional sidebars on federal medical marijuana enforcement. Individuals selling marijuana outside of regulated stores are the most immune from federal action. The feds will never have the resources to stop this activity which will occur regardless and has been unstoppable by prohibition for a century.

A system of marijuana regulation based on personal freedom will be the most successful. Entrepreneurs can focus on their dreams, not on ever changing regulations. Much more revenue will be generated. People will be willing to pay more tax if they are not oppressed by mind numbing regulations. And the whole system will be more protected against anything the feds can do.

Freedom still can work!

Whole Plant Politics 2017 and Beyond

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

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What and whither post-prohibition cannabis politics after 2016?

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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.