Alfred Ryan Nerz is a journalist and public broadcasting producer. He smokes weed, sometimes several times a day, for weeks at a stretch. He praises it for allowing him to unwind and feel good, but he also wonders if his dependence on cannabis is bad for him, both mentally and physically. Nerz knows he isn't the only person asking the same questions (according to NORML, 14 million Americans smoke pot regularly) so he embarked on a trip around the country to find out as much as he could about the current state of cannabis culture.

The result of his explorations is Marijuanamerica: One Man’s Quest to Understand America’s Dysfunctional Love Affair with Weed, a fascinating and entertaining snapshot that looks at how weed has infiltrated every corner of society (despite the fact that it's prohibited by the federal government). It reads like something Hunter S. Thompson might have written in his Hell's Angels days, had he laid off the hard stuff and graduated from Yale.

Nerz started his trip in Florida to visit Irvin Rosenfeld, one of the few people in the United States that the federal government allows to smoke weed (in fact the government sends him a pack of 300 pre-rolled joints every month, gratis). Rosenfeld smokes the low-quality government pot to treat his symptoms from pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism, a disorder that causes skeletal abnormalities. Next, Nerz went to Los Angeles and paid a "Medical Kush Doctor" $(removed) to give him a letter that stated, "This is to verify that Alfred Nerz would probably benefit from compassionate medical cannabis use, is recommended by me as satisfying the requirements of H & S Code 11362.5 and SB 420." With that letter, Nerz was able to score cannabis products from any of the thousands of medical marijuana dispensaries in California. (Unlike Rosenfeld, however, Nerz and every other Californian who smokes medical weed is still breaking one of more federal laws.)

Working his way up California, Nerz stops in the Bay Area to meet Steve DeAngelo, founder of Harborside Health Clinic, the superstore of weed dispensaries with 100,000 customers (or "patients" as Harborside likes to call them in order to remain legal in the eyes of the state government). He also enrolls in Oaksterdam University, a school that has been teaching cannabis entrepreneurship since 2007.

While these experiences are interesting and provide illuminating examples of the mainstreaming of weed, the book kicks into high gear when Nerz goes further up the coast to Humboldt County, where he embeds himself with a group of marijuana farmers. Led by a hyperactive hustler nicknamed Buddha Cheese, the team operates several indoor growing operations. They sell their mind-blistering buds to medical cannabis dispensaries, but also pack suitcases of dope into car trunks and deliver them to dealers who sell the weed for recreational purposes. Surrounded by pitbulls, hard drugs, and colorful characters, Nerz notices the many fat bales of cash lying around the place. There's so much money stacked up that Nerz decides he wants a piece of the action (to pay down his credit card debt) and offers to drive a carload of weed from California to New Jersey. If he gets caught by the law, he could serve 10 years or more in prison (I won't spoil it for you by telling you what happened on his cross-coyntry trip).

Unlike many recently-published books about cannabis, Marijuanamerica doesn't try to whitewash the facts. Cannabis, like other drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine, is not harmless. Nerz cites several studies that indicate long term use, especially by young people, can have long term negative consequences. Even so, Nerz argues that the current legal status of marijuana causes more harm than the drug does, a sentiment I agree with. The laws are changing though, as is public opinion. Recent polls have shown, that for the first time, a majority of Americans favor legalization. Last November Washington and Colorado voted to legalize cannabis. The federal government, along with the prison-industrial complex and law enforcement agencies that depend on marijuana's illegality in order to thrive are pushing back. The next few years are going to be interesting.

Marijuanamerica: One Man’s Quest to Understand America’s Dysfunctional Love Affair with Weed