The Cannabis Frontier

A dried bud of cannabis. Image from Creative Commons.

7 Responses

  1. Justin says:

    Fantastic piece and writing, Tim.

    You move between a livelihoods perspective that critiques legalization with an ecological one that challenges the impacts of unregulated production. This mixed interpretation is a good representation of the different opinions and challenges that abound on this issue. Also, your ecology-to-economy metaphors are lovely.

    However, you weave a “sad loss of a wild frontier to government subjugation” narrative throughout the piece (beautifully, and effectively, I’ll add), starting and ending with this thread, but I don’t see anything in your piece that validates such a position besides the need to give place names that allow registration. Is that really too high a cost, and too much a loss of wilderness, for the removal of cartels, unregulated poisons/pesticides/fertilizers/water diversion, feral dogs, and the widespread fear of hikers to leave a trail in state and national parks in NorCal?

  2. Tim Bean says:

    Thanks, Justin. I guess I don’t totally think that a loss of “wilderness” is necessarily a sad thing (or, of course, a dichotomy that’s always realistic). I do want to think about the ways that violence, disorder, and just plain old wackiness are often tied to a lack of government oversight – and, conversely, the fact that government regulation often reduces many of the negative things you bring up. In an earlier, longer, draft of this piece, I discussed the fact that this region has been marred by violence for a long time, well before cannabis made its way to the region. I think that violence is tied into the way we think about frontiers in America, regardless of how accurate that narrative is.

    I’m also interested in how we conceive of wilderness here. The hills are much more densely settled than the state thinks they are. There are more roads than the TIGER lines database thinks there are. There’s more electricity (mostly generators) and water storage than we think there are. Is it still a wilderness just because we haven’t mapped it? What kind of wilderness experience does a hiker get if they’re afraid to leave the trail? The recent papers mapping pot farms are eye opening for exactly that reason: the places in the state that we thought had been set aside thanks to a century of environmental action turn out to have been converted to highly productive farmland. The rate at which we map things is often tied into our economic interest in doing so.

    I see two futures. There’s one in which the cannabis economy continues to be the economic engine for the region, but now the government participates with the money it takes in from taxation. That money would contribute in a more traditional way to building a modern supply chain – not just naming roads but paving them, increasing the electrical, water and information infrastructure, improving airport access for tourists, etc.. Without all of the things that create an efficient delivery system, I don’t see how this area could compete with better connected agricultural areas in the state. Phillip Morris is not delivering cartons of cigarettes by U-Haul. You see that in the current debate up here over whether to vote for Prop 64, where opponents are arguing that growers need even more economic protectionism to keep the industry viable (ignoring the decades of tax-free profits they’ve already received). The other future, then, is one in which cannabis leaves the area. In that case, the infrastructure that has been built will, eventually, be consumed back into the earth. And, in a pretty classic American tale, what was once “wilderness” becomes so again.

    My shorter answer is that I think isolation is a critical ingredient in this illicit markets but poisonous for a vibrant, state-sanctioned one. I don’t think the Emerald Triangle can remain both isolated and competitive.

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