Money and morality have butted heads for centuries, rarely making very compatible bed-fellows. The most memorable, perhaps, are the ill-conceived years of Prohibition in the 1920’s, a curtailment that ended when calmer and more reasonable heads prevailed, but not until a great deal of money was wasted on enforcement—and not until two Amendments to the Constitution entered the annals of history.
The long-standing Drug War of the modern era is equally rooted in the miasma of corruption, racism, and the almighty dollar. At the epicenter of the decades-old drug policy is that controversial and ancient plant, marijuana, or as author, Doug Fine insists on calling it in his recent book, “Too High To Fail” —cannabis. Cannabis, pot, marijuana, hemp, or whatever moniker it is given, the controversial herb has a legacy of well over five thousand years of human usage. The book uses the example of cannabis growers in Mendocino County, California to represent the larger picture of what is at the center of the contentious and shifting debate on marijuana’s status—both medical and recreational—in America.
Fine points out early that, though there are numerous and varied uses for cannabis, federally, at least, the plant is still marked as a Schedule 1 narcotic, and that classification imposes strict limits on even the benign version of the crop, which is hemp. Hemp, in particular, he states, could have a huge positive impact on the U.S. economy, as it is an ancient plant with many well-documented and broad uses. Even discussing the virtues of hemp has been confined, in spite of its clear potential as a sustainable crop. This, he implies, is just the tip of the iceberg with regards to the economic boon that could come from removing cannabis from the list of prohibited substances, and regulating it in a similar fashion as alcohol and tobacco.
For much of his book, Fine looks at the cannabis plant from the perspective of the farmer, who in most cases, is merely a businessperson eager to function in the daylight, away from the toxic and costly underworld of the black market. He introduces the concept of the “Ganjapreneur,” the savvy farmer who wants to bring to Northern California’s cannabis industry the same reputation—and comparable economic impact—as the famous wines of Napa and Sonoma valleys. To research from the inside, Fine relocates his family to the heart of Mendocino for a year and sets out to follow the birth and life of one plant—one he dubs “Lucille”—to truly understand the challenges and the controversies that arise along the way.
Many surprises greet him and he is forced to reconsider stereotypes he has long held. For instance, the farmer who agrees to give him access to the process is a serious young man who is committed to the idea of bringing valuable medicine to patients in need. The concept of being able to produce an organic, sustainable, and affordable pain-relief substance to those suffering from a myriad of debilitating illnesses is a powerful motivating force when one is facing the ever-present threat of a Federal raid or an arrest.
Fine is shocked to discover that local police officers are allies of the farmers and unexpected advocates of the shifting status of marijuana. The author cannot shake the disbelief he feels when he sees a roomful of cannabis farmers singing “Happy Birthday” to the police sergeant. Law enforcement in Mendocino County has shifted from punishing the growers to protecting them. With the costly legal burden lifted off jurisdictions regarding marijuana, the police department can focus on those truly detrimental substances that fracture and hinder society.
Few can argue that it is hard to justify the illegality of cannabis against the backdrops of the high rates of addiction to prescription painkillers, alcohol, and tobacco, all more prevalent killers. For Fine, this meant following the money, which led him to the cynical conclusion that current cannabis policy continues to come out of a desire to keep the lucrative status quo, which benefits “Big Pharma,” law enforcement agencies who rely on the funding, private prisons who get the revolving door of offenders into perpetuity, and legislators who want to keep those entities happy, voting, and donating.
In spite of Fine’s obvious cynicism and distrust of the “system,” he concludes his book with a sense of hope, as he watches, along with the rest of the nation, as the unthinkable happens. With Colorado and Washington clearing the way for what he sees as the inevitable end to the drug policies that have led to the overcrowding of prisons, the propping up of drug cartels, and the suffering of patients simply looking for some relief, he is awed and overjoyed, stating that “it is no stretch to say that the Berlin Wall of the Drug War fell.”