Legal Cannabis and Class Warfare

Image from the Pew Research Center publication,

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

About ten years ago, while drinking with fellow graduate students at Flowers on the Ave, I encountered a perspective on drug policy that threw a wrench on my critique of the US war on coca in Bolivia. My friend Wendy, who I think was writing (yet another, I thought) a philosophy dissertation on Nietzche, suggested that perhaps ending the global drug war in Bolivia was a terrible idea. It would collapse the price of coca and ruin an agricultural livelihood that kept thousands of mostly indigenous Bolivians from extreme poverty. We were drunk-ish, and I remember feeling a slight panic as I searched for a response to this challenge to a fundamental paradigm I was carrying, that the drug war was simply BAD. I found a response that worked for me, which was that however true that may be, the social movement I was studying seemed to think ending the US drug war in Bolivia was a good idea. And they did, pretty much: Evo Morales was elected to the presidency, and then again, and then again … it didn’t end practices of coca eradication but it did pretty much end the US direction of that agenda.

Thus goes the postcolonial world.

But the ambivalence towards plant policing lodged in my brain and I’ve carried it ever since, albeit with considerably more nuance. When it came to cannabis agriculture in the US, I immediately understood how the liberalization of law, policy, and policing practices in Northern California posed a problem — multiple ones — relating to the extreme wholesale price drop that occurred between 2009 and 2011, which was at least 50% for outdoor cannabis. The watersheds of Humboldt county began to echo with an existential anxiety: how low would prices go, and how long would it be worth it to grow cannabis? Even small farmers began growing more and more to maintain the same income level, and until last year the price drop was thought to be permanent.

The price drop was partly the result of the fact that the virtual end of policing cannabis in Humboldt, in California, and in much of the rest of the US due to the State budget crises and reorganized priorities in the face of the financial crisis signaled a green light for citizens to grow more and more with less fear of getting caught. The small farmers in the watersheds saw mega grows proliferate all around them. The general race to the bottom helped produce disastrous environmental results, especially pertaining to the North Coast water ecology.

So we have two socially disastrous outcomes that were produced in no small part by “controlled substance” law and policy liberalization: livelihoods were threatened and the environment was trashed. These are ongoing phenomena, of course. But they are generalizable in that they give us social questions to ask of particularist policy changes. One of them is, how does legalization eliminate livelihood options and what should be done about that?

This question is especially salient as out national economic “recovery” renders livelihood security a national problem to a degree that was previously associated with the “Third World.” Global financialization as the dominant class project of Modernity means that we are increasingly subject to the whims of financial speculation aimed at capitalizing on bubbles and shifting the costs of modernization to those least able to afford it. This is no longer a Third World problem, and the “Green Rush” in its current iteration is directly connected to that pattern.

Cannabis legalization doesn’t just mean that cannabis markets get regulated and taxed: it means that those with access to capital are positioned to centralize the benefits of market participation, in no small part by displacing and replacing entrepreneurial livelihoods from one segment of the population to another. The way legal systems are designed and implemented can either concentrate this dispossession, or mitigate it.

In Washington State, the decision to replace our Medical Cannabis system entirely rather than build bridges from it to the Legal system has amplified this social problem considerably. Thousands of Washington State citizens are out of work already, and the July 1 takeover date will finish the job. How will those people survive? What jobs will they get? How will they pay their rent, raise their families, or in some cases escape abject poverty at the end of their lives?

This is a major social problem. The economic “recovery” has institutionalized austerity conditions, shrunk the “middle class,” and rendered a significant chunk of our population literally disposable and facing rising costs of living. Washington’s hunger for revenue from regulated cannabis markets has led to unconscionable tax levels that make undercapitalized small businesses almost impossible to sustain. The high cost of entry into legal markets and constantly shifting rules have discouraged most medical cannabis actors from even trying to enter. And many who have tried have failed already or on their way to failure.

In future posts, I will consider the social impact of legalization as class warfare, especially as it applies in Washington State. If any readers want to share their stories, please feel free to send them to for consideration.