Too High to Fail covers everything from a brief history of hemp to an insider’s perspective on a growing season in Mendocino County, where cannabis drives 80 percent of the economy (to the tune of $6 billion annually). Investigative journalist Doug Fine follows one plant from seed to patient in the first American county to fully legalize and regulate cannabis farming. He profiles an issue of critical importance to lawmakers, media pundits, and ordinary Americans -- whether or not they inhale. It’s a wild ride that includes swooping helicopters, college tuitions paid with cash, cannabis-friendly sheriffs, and never-before-gained access to the world of the emerging legitimate, taxpaying “ganjaprenneur.”
While researching the book, what did you learn about cannabis and the use of it that surprised you?
Probably the most surprising revelation to me after a year spent on the front lines of the Drug War is how ready Middle America is for the coming Drug Peace -- especially with regard to legalizing cannabis. One collective I researched, in Orange County, CA (yep, Nixon's stomping grounds) had seniors as the majority of membership. These were people for whom cannabis was not political. It was medicine that worked: for arthritis, glaucoma, appetite stimulation. Americans recently polled at 56% in favor of regulating cannabis like alcohol, up from 49% a year ago. So we could be close to the kind of mainstream tipping point that ended alcohol Prohibition. And that surprised me. The "Brains on Drugs" stigma is disappearing, even in the heartland.
Who stands to profit from keeping cannabis illegal, and who will profit if it is regulated like alcohol?
Well, I first off like to always impart a sort of Humility Preface before prognostication. We don't know exactly what the future may bring, but we do have a lot of history as an example. Prohibition breeds organized crime. That's who profits from the status quo, on the business side. With the regulation of cannabis like alcohol, I heard some of today's farmers worry that we'll get a few Coors type overlords. That may be, but when Jimmy Carter changed the brewing rules, the microbrewery age exploded, and the farmers I cover in Too High to Fail are confident that there will likewise always be room for the top shelf craft farmer, the way that there's always room for Sierra Nevada or New Belgium today. I agree with them: we're talking about a multibillion dollar industry that's already bigger than corn and wheat combined. Imagine the tax revenue! Another beneficiary of the coming Drug Peace era is the American people, in the form of energy independence: a USDA biologist told me that when it comes to cannabis as a biofuel source, “It’s magnitudes more productive than corn- or soy-based ethanol. But it’s not even on our blackboard because it’s a federal crime.” Thus were the farmers I followed practicing a kind of patriotic civil disobedience. One day they'll be teaching university courses to students dubious that their crop was ever really illegal.
You spent a year in Mendocino County, and you hung out with farmers, and law enforcement. What did you do to gain their trust?
One of the most astonishing parts of researching this book for me was how open everyone was, especially in Mendocino County. Generally speaking, second or third generation farmees are sick of being considered criminals, and are ready to be recognized as sustainably farmer's of Americas #1 cash crop (and one of humanity's longest used). Specifically, in the "Zip-tie Program" I was following in Mendocino County (whereby farmers paid permitting fees which bestowed a yellow bracelet -- a Zip-tie -- on every one of their plants), farmers are courageous activists, defying federal law to come aboveboard and support their community. The Zip-tie program, in 2011, raised $600,000 and saved seven deputy jobs. So gaining trust wasn't very difficult, especially once I had the trust of several prominent farmers. In truth, though, everyone was happy to talk to me, including the back barn geneticist who developed the strain that I followed from farm to patient. The farmer and I called the individual plant "Lucille," for reasons that become humorously clear in Too High to Fail. I will say that because of this openness it's been a huge sigh of relief to have the farmers I covered in the book one by one tell me they like it. The Drug War is a war like any other, and it's these brave front line soldiers, putting themselves at risk for what they know is right, for the good of patients and of the country, who are playing one of the most dangerous and prominent roles. One of the farmers I covered, Matt Cohen, was raided near the end of the book. The other, Tomas Balogh, was able to get Lucille to patients, including to a liver cancer patient I visited. Will these farmers benefit financially when cannabis prohibition ends? Sure, why shouldn't they?
What was the specific incident that made you want to write this book?
There were two. One was a massive multiagency raid of a neighbor of mine that netted all of 13 plants and zero jail time (not that it should have netted jail time). I was particularly irked by this as my normal alarm clock in my remote valley near the Mexican border is hummingbirds at the feeder, and this particular Thursday I'm in a scene out of Goodfellas. Literally millions of taxpayer dollars were spent NOT to go after the Cartels that day. The second, related incident, was that the mayor of one of the nearest towns to my ranch, a border village called Columbus, was arrested as a Cartel member. The Drug War isn't working, and anyone can complain about bad policy, but I wanted to research an alternative. A solution. And I found a pretty easy one: tax cannabis like alcohol and you cut out 70% of the Cartel's profits. There are other benefits, too, to the American tax base, to public safety, to public health, and even to creativity: as the Digerati know, this is the idea era, and a U.S. which is friendly to cannabis, I argue in Too High to Fail, is a country more cerebral than one on alcohol or our nation's real epidemic: pills. Even with all of this, though, I needed to feel like the topic was important enough to spend a year of my working life researching. What I found out about cannabis' soil restoration uses and potential role in America's energy independence sealed the deal: it's a plant that should and I hope soon will be a valuable part of our economy and society.
For the 150 million plus people who think America should legalize cannabis, what should be done to make it happen?
From a political perspective, I would say call your congressperson and senators and tell them you are voting based on their support for getting cannabis out of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and letting states regulate the plant like alcohol (and also that you won't tolerate sneaky permitting of pharmaceutical derivatives, only the whole plant). How is it that 56% of American support regulating cannabis like alcohol (and 80% support medicinal cannabis) and yet virtually no U.S. Senators support it? They aren't hearing from Americans demanding that this trillion dollar, 40-year boondoggle end. In your personal life, speak openly about how serious and important an issue ending the Drug War is -- it's not some college stoner issue. It's crucial for America. And that will help finally dissipate the stigma that's still attached to cannabis after decades of misinformation until it's considered not just as safe as alcohol, but safer. Which is not to say one must absolutely advocate its use in all circumstances. Rather it's to say that responsible adult Americans who choose to use cannabis should have the same rights as those who choose to drink a glass of wine. Furthermore, that sigma erasing will help inject billions of tax dollars into the economy and return small American farmers to the land. It might even help us become energy independent.
Doug adds: The Too High to Fail pre-order is on now everywhere for hardcover and e-book: Amazon, iTunes, your local bookstore, Barnes and Noble, etc. And if we sell 100,000 first run hardcovers I'll request my publisher come out with a hemp edition -- saving several hundred thousand trees. Too bad it can't be American grown...yet. Continuous dispatches on sustainability and the coming Drug Peace Era, plus nationwide live event The Too High to Fail Pax Cannabis Tour dates for August and September and a short film about the book are at www.dougfine.com.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.