Popular historical geographies of the present: Dr. Corva meets authors at Town Hall

Video by Steve Hyde

by Dr. Dominic Corva, Executive Director

It was my pleasure last week to host a conversation with Christian Hageseth, Colorado “Green Man” entrepreneur, and Bruce Barcott, Guggenheim-awardee nonfiction author out of Whidbey Island, Washington State, at Seattle Town Hall. CASP videographer Steve Hyde filmed the event and we are happy to host the footage of the event on our web site.

I chose to conduct the event as a meta-conversation with the authors, occasioned by key similarities and differences in what they each chose to write about. They are two very different books united by a common effort to demystify what we talk about when we talk about cannabis legalization. I have no interest in passing judgement on either book on how they fail or succeed as books. Both books grapple with broad historical context, both are inaccurate in different degrees from my perspective as a specialist, but in general neither are seriously wrong. Hageseth’s account is strongest when it represents what happened in Colorado, whereas Barcott’s narrative — as one might expect from a professional nonfiction writer — is strong everywhere, so when he gets it wrong occasionally it stands out a bit more.

That said, I want to focus on how they constitute “popular historical geographies” of the cannabis present from standpoints unique to each author. Both are mass-market media events for which each author is doing a book tour, and both seek — sometimes more implicitly than explicitly — to nuance the national popular discussion about cannabis legalization. This is clearly not the case, for example, in the process of choosing book titles. It’s all about keywords, Barcott told me, and so unfortunately both of these book feature “Weed” as the preferred nomenclature for cannabis.

That’s how I want to define “popular” here, but those of you who understand the concept and practice of “popular education” should also think about it that way — each book struggles in the face of a public that can’t handle the truth about cannabis or its criminalization. What both authors have to say about how we got here and what the consequences have been for our society is absolutely true, but if accepted as such by the public would require a totally different justice system to address the crimes against humanity committed by most of our elected officials for the last 40 years. Barcott for example highlights the closure of the Federal Cannabis Investigative New Drug Program to all new applicants in the early 1990s as it became swamped with HIV/AIDS applicants into the program. Robert Randle’s glaucoma was acceptable as a condition requiring exceptional legal space, but HIV/AIDS bore so much stigma that the entire program had to be closed to new applicants rather than allow access to life-saving cannabis for HIV/AIDS patients.

That was a genocidal policy decision. To understand how that happened as a society, we would have to accept that our government is capable of genocidal social policy, with impunity. We might have to re-think our faith in democracy, the presumed wisdom of our leaders, and the nature of our health care system. In this way, these two books offer degrees of radical popular education.

Both books are very attentive to what we called in graduate school “positionality” (or “standpoint”). The author’s autobiographies are a constant presence in the books, establishing a mode of relative objectivity with the subject of their inquiries. The authors are embedded in the historical geographies that they map out, and the evolution of their own consciousness with respect to their own self-consciousness at large is an important part of the story. In this way, both books move us way out of the binary discursive rut common in media accounts: pro-cannabis legalization or anti-cannabis legalization. This is absolutely vital. That said, both deal seriously with cannabis which, like everything else but statistically less so than say peanuts, is not always good for everybody. This was especially clear in Hageseth’s discussion of edibles and Barcott’s discussion of cannabis use in populations with predisposition towards mental health issues.

Hageseth seems to have always had a positive relationship with cannabis and cannabis consumption, and is clearly much more of an “insider” to cannabis culture even as he discovers (and participates in) the reconstruction of cannabis as part of the formal economy. The initiation of the latter is occasioned by a Social Event in this country: the financial crisis ruined Hageseth’s financial situation, as it did so many other Americans. Like so many other Americans, however, his positive prior relationship with cannabis allowed him to consider and evaluate potential social harm and social risk in a forward-thinking manner. This is how he found himself able to participate in and profit from Colorado’s experiment with medical cannabis regulation. It’s helpful to remember, of course, that Colorado’s medical cannabis regulations — however loosey-goosey they are in practice — meant that their experiment in legalization was allowed to move forward while Washington’s stagnated and fell into dysfunction.

Barcott’s journey involves much more conscious self-evolution as he struggles with accepting the legitimacy of cannabis first as a medical cannabis consumer, then as an I 502 voter, and then as an observer of some of the early growing pains. That evolution is worked out especially through how he communicates with his children about the subject of his book project. One of the most successful drug war-positive discourses in this country is the one that asks, What about the children? Barcott addresses this personal struggle throughout the book, and offers nuanced ways not only to discuss cannabis issues with children but plenty of evidence that the drug war has been waged relentlessly against children and other vulnerable populations — that legalization makes our children safer.

That message, of course, returns us to our organizational philosophy at CASP. If cannabis policy is only thought about as cannabis, the public has been raised to understand and participate in a very limited conversation, in which cannabis is a threat to society because it is a threat to children. If cannabis policy is instead thought about in terms of social policy, we have to come to terms with the social construction of that threat, and how (some people’s) children are mobilized as human shields against a healthy social policy in which everyone’s children –everyone’s lives, everyone’s health, everyone’s dignity — matter.

It is simply not in the best interest of society to remain addicted to the drug war.  These two books are profoundly successful at making this point. I thank the authors for the conversation and Seattle Town Hall for putting on the event.