Forget stimulus packages, millionaire tax breaks or any of the other standard attempts to conquer our financial troubles. The path to solvency lies in a pungent herbaceous plant, says Doug Fine, author of Too High To Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Revolution, published on August 2nd. The 42-year-old sustainability journalist says legalizing medical marijuana will not only pump billions into the public coffers but also open up a whole new business sector through the myriad uses of industrial hemp. Fine spoke to us from his Funky Butte Ranch in southern New Mexico about "Redneck Hippie Capitalism," the increasing potency of pot, and why we need to end the Drug War now.
Co.Exist: You spent a year researching Cannabis growers in Mendocino. What can we learn from these ganjapreneurs?
Doug Fine: I chose Mendocino County as the jumping off point to examine what the "Drug Peace" era would look like because cannabis is 80% of the economy up there. It brings in billions of as yet untaxed, unregulated dollars, while the number one legal plant, grapes, only accounts for $74 million. Horticulturally speaking, Michael Pollan calls these growers the best farmers of his generation. So these people had to innovate, which is often the case when you’re facing a prohibition economy. There’s much to learn in terms of efficiency and distribution, but what most impressed me was that these people are patriotic activists. They want to be above-ground taxpayers.
You title one of your chapters "Redneck Hippie Capitalism."
In Northern California, a culture developed that basically froze at the back to the land movement. This includes former loggers, very cannabis-friendly Vietnam vets, and individuals that moved there post-Woodstock. The blending also applies to business ethics thanks to a generation who grew up watching their parents barter at places like the Wavy Gravy Farm. These folks are saying: "We want to be sustainable, fairly traded, and healthy and organic in our lives and businesses, but capitalism is better than most, if not all other systems ever devised, so we should just do it right." And the model for this is the "constructive capitalism" advocated by Dr. Bronner’s Soaps, whose executives share profits, emphasize sustainability, and only make five times more than their lowest paid worker.
You say that decriminalization of cannabis would be a major player in the economic recovery.
There’s actually a precedent for it. Before alcohol prohibition there were times in the 19th and early 20th century when alcohol provided as much as 70% of federal revenues (this of course, was before the income tax). But cannabis was America’s number one cash crop, valued at more than the value of today’s corn and wheat combined. If it suddenly enters the tax base, not only will you be crippling the illicit economy, you’ll be putting billions back into the legitimate economy. And so far we’ve only been talking about the top-shelf farmers of what you might call the psychoactive realm, but if hemp’s biofuel potential were exploited, it could play a significant role in weaning America from fossil fuels. The economic benefits of hemp might even prove to be way bigger than what we think of today as the cannabis industry.
We know that pot is far less dangerous than alcohol. Why in your view does it carry such a taboo that it’s difficult to even study?
I think in many ways Americans are ahead of their policy makers on this. The "Just say no; your head will explode" thing goes back to 1937 when cannabis was originally demonized in movies like Reefer Madness. It was a crusade and a way to spend massive tax dollars; plus it was lumped together with substances that really were dangerous. What about tackling the real dangers, namely alcoholism and pharmaceutical abuse. The fact is that cannabis is relatively benign and should have no more social stigma than a glass of wine. Americans understand that and are very ready to end the Drug War, which is confirmed by polls. Unfortunately, bureaucratic inertia—especially the $8 billion in domestic enforcement alone spent of our tax dollars every year—is not so easy to eliminate. But I truly believe we’re approaching what the activist community calls the tipping point.
But there are downsides. Marijuana’s potency has increased exponentially and there’s evidence that it can induce depression and psychosis.
Firstly, I do think one should get high on love and be a generally responsible and sober person. As with any other medical product, are there side effects? I don’t think there’s a single element in the world, from bananas to carrots that couldn’t potentially have some downsides if abused, or could be problematic for certain people’s biochemistry. But cannabis happens to be one of humankind’s oldest used plants. It’s listed prominently in the oldest surviving medical textbook, a 3,000-year-old Chinese document. It’s one of the safest plants around. Could it induce anxiety in people prone to it? Yes, but the side effects we see in approved pharmaceuticals are so much more significant that it’s almost silly to discuss.
So what about the potency issue?
It’s interesting because it brings up the whole topic of cannabinoids. The famous cannabinoid is of course, THC, which was isolated in 1964 by an Israeli scientist. It’s one of more than 90 such substances in cannabis. So we’re just beginning our knowledge base of this plant, which as Michael Pollan says, we co-evolved with. Thanks to prohibition, people wanted the most bang for their buck, so the plant was bred for THC potency and went from the 1% to 3% THC at the time of the hippies—plenty to get them dancing naked in the mud at Woodstock—to upwards of 20% today. However, we’re already seeing strains bred not just for more moderate THC levels, but also for the presence of other cannabinoids like CBD, known for its tumor reducing properties. So in the future, we’re going to see more balanced cannabinoid profiles, another reason it’s vital that the entire plant becomes legal, and not selectively isolated derivatives. We’re just beginning to understand the interplay of a complex plant with which we’ve been evolving for 10,000 years.
You say we could save $80 billion annually by ending the drug war, but what about serious drugs like cocaine and heroin?
I was surprised to learn while researching this book that 70% of cartel profits come from cannabis. Imagine transferring those billions to the American economy, not to mention saving billions a year on completely ineffective and failed enforcement policies. You’d have more than enough, in my view, to focus on true education about really dangerous substances like alcohol and methamphetamine.
You obviously had many opportunities to sample this stuff in Mendocino but you didn’t discuss it in the book.
Here’s my answer to that. I’m a spiritual person and that side of my life is very important to me and I’m a follower of the bible. And the bible isn’t joking around on this. It’s in Genesis, not hiding way back in Leviticus, Deuteronomy or Numbers. Chapter 1, Verse 29 says: "You shall have all the plants and seed-bearing herbs to use." Not "unless one day Richard Nixon decides he doesn’t like it."
Doug Fine’s Too High To Fail is available everywhere. A short film about the book and Fine’s recent appearance on Conan can be seen at www.dougfine.com.