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Dawn or Dusk for Marijuana in the Emerald Triangle?


New book chronicles Mendocino’s “ganjapreneurs”

Every morning in California, thousands of marijuana growers wake up believing they are one day closer to becoming legitimate operators, like the state’s wine makers. Three generations ago, Northern California’s dope farmers dreamed the same dream—but it had nothing to do with “medical” marijuana. It had to do with a hilly, forested, secluded terrain with enough rain and sunshine to make it perfect for marijuana growing and utterly inhospitable to law enforcement without 4WD vehicles.

There are presently only a few disorders for which marijuana is clinically indicated (although that number is bound to go up.) These include glaucoma, HIV/AIDS-related nausea, certain forms of neuropathic pain, lack of appetite associated with chemotherapy, and some promising research having to do with the spasticity associated with Parkinson’s Disease and MS. But Doug Fine’s book, Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution, isn’t really about the medical specifics. It’s a paean by a true believer. “One tries not to sound like one of those ‘cannabis can do anything including bring about world peace and an end to Ring Around the Collar people,” he writes. But he does. Oh, how he does.  If you believe in cannabis legalization as the Higher Calling, this is the book for you.

Fine moves to Mendocino County to dwell among the ganjapreneurs and tell the tale of “horticultural civil disobedience” that is the hallmark of the Emerald Triangle of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties in Northern California—a mythical adult Disneyland where juries tend to believe the assertion that “all 169 pounds of the marijuana on his property was medicinal in nature.” It is a land where the local sheriff acknowledges that “maybe five per cent” of medical cannabis claims are legit, but goes on to declare that “I’ve never seen a stoned man beat his wife.”

As a supporter of limited decriminalization, I tried hard to like Fine’s book. He has a breezy, colloquial style that makes for easy reading. And after all, the latest public opinion polls show American citizens poised 50-50 on the subject of cannabis legalization. The book has no source list, no back-of-the-book notes, and only the occasional footnote, but Fine does his journalistic part, following Lucille, his designated medical marijuana plant, from birth as a clone to death in the dope pipe of a cancer patient. But as his growing source, Fine picks a greenhorn grower whose poor planning and general lack of local knowledge give a Keystone Kops feel to the growing season. “Murphy’s Law rope-a-dope” is Fine’s description of his grower’s business strategy.  Fine’s Mendocino sometimes takes on aspects of a hip Lake Wobegon, where everybody is late for everything, and everybody thinks that’s fine.

In “Mendo,” organic cannabis growers envision a future in which arthritis-wracked senior citizens will go to their local pharmacy for insulin and amoxicillin, and to their local dispensary for an oh zee of Matanuska Valley Thunderfuck. Of course, Fine is correct to note that the vast majority of marijuana users do so without damage to their health and well-being. “What is the glass of red wine enjoyed by the fellow on his deck after a hard day of investment banking? I think that’s documented to be health maintenance. A long-term cost saver. An evening cannabis pipe… is the same thing for some people.”

If billions of dollars are poised to fall on our heads with the flick of a presidential pen, who would want to oppose legalization? The author has plenty of answers: Big Pharma, the private prison industry, law enforcement lobbies, and the banking industry (just too much profit laundering all that money from all those cartels).

Fine isn’t bothered by the menacing “Turn Around Now” signs, or the occasional shotgun volley over the tops of cars with an out-of-county look to them.  He doesn’t have much to say about booby-trapped fences, the county snitch line, the rampant foreclosures, or the stolen power from Pacific Gas & Electric. We don’t get many accounts of subpoenas for cannabis patient medical records, or opposition from the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. To be fair, he does make note of all the young punks and career criminals drawn to tax-free grey markets like this one—“Real providers next to total thugs,” as one activist put it. There is no substantive discussion of other approaches, like Michigan’s medical cannabis model where there are no dispensaries, and cannabis patients either grow their own, or get it from a licensed grower. The in-your-face activism of growers and dispensary owners in California has led to a complete dispensary closure in Los Angeles (see below).

And there is the continuing “wet” and “dry” aspect to the California trade, reminiscent of the bootlegger era in the hills of Appalachia. To get their medicine to market, growers in the Emerald Triangle must run “The Gauntlet” south to San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the first hurdle—Sonoma County—has been the end of many “compassionate cannabis” deliveries. The situation is clearly untenable. Mendocino should have been a safe bet—all the arguments are settled, all the sheriffs are friendly, and the fix is generally in.

Except when it isn’t. Local constabulary may be green, and Fine delights in describing instances where growers called deputies to their aid when “rippers” show up at harvest time—but try going all green on the California Highway Patrol when they stop you on your merry way across Mendocino County with 50 pounds of pot in the trunk. Or even a pair of terpene-laced bud trimmer gloves in the back seat. Two words describe Fine’s book: bad timing. The “eye of Sauron,” as one grower described the federal presence in the Emerald Triangle, means that there are times when the habit of ignoring that pesky little federal cannabis scheduling problem can still land you in jail, official Mendocino yellow zip-tie program or not.

 On July 22, 2011, President Obama brought the Mendocino bubble in for a wobbly landing: “Am I willing to pursue a decriminalization strategy as an approach? No.” Federal authorities in the county seized a total of 725,000 plants in 2011. The Feds swooped down with “Operation Full Court Press” to clear growers out of Mendocino National Forest. Even the perennially optimistic Ethan Nadelman of the Drug Policy Alliance told Fine that “there’s only so much even a second-term Obama can do if the Republicans still control Congress.” This game, despite how it may look on the ground in Mendo, is still very much in the hands of the Feds. As an official for NORML admits, there could be “twenty years of this” yet to go.

To the DEA, local ordinances mean nothing. Shortly after Fine’s book ends, in early 2012, the cannabis market in the Emerald Triangle crashed after a series of raids and dispensary closures drastically limited medical outlets for their product.  By the end of the book, several of the growers have spent time in handcuffs—including the author himself, who didn’t care for the experience at all. It remains unclear whether he has written a celebratory book about the cannabis tipping point, or a eulogy for the death of the medical marijuana movement.

At this writing, cannabis activists appear to be genuinely baffled that Obama has not willingly adopted the mantle of “herb candidate” they wish to thrust upon him. But I do think Fine has at least a betting chance of being correct when he writes: “Like alcohol prohibition before it, commons sense, human desire, and economic inevitability will eventually prevail and the Drug War will end.”

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