A Century of Cannabis: A Conversation with Nick Johnson

A hand in silhouette holds up a cannabis leaf up against a bright, overcast sky.

Cannabis is a plant that straddles many edges: ubiquitous but poorly understood; hippie cultural cornerstone but ecological danger; medicine, drug, and crop. In his new book, Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (Oregon State University Press, 2017), Nick Johnson explores the history of cannabis cultivation in the American West.

The cover of "Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West" by Nick Johnson, which features a green blossoming cannabis plant against an off-white background.

He finds cannabis popping up everywhere, from the beet farms supported by federal irrigation products, to the unsuspecting bird lover’s backyard in suburban L.A., to the green technocrat’s warehouse in Denver. In doing so, he exposes a century of contradictions in federal policy and the limits of state power in the face of social and economic change.

From my home in the cannabis hotbed of Humboldt County, California, I reached Nick Johnson in Colorado on January 22 to discuss the many ways that cannabis has changed and continues to change the political and vernacular landscape in the West. 

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Tim Bean: Early in the book you say that “the history of marijuana in the United Sates should be seen as nothing if not the history of a crop.” What do you mean?

Nick Johnson: [Marijuana’s] been treated as a crop before. The 1915 edition of the Farmers’ Bulletin—a pamphlet that the U. S. Department of Agriculture disseminated to farmers introducing them to the newest scientific developments—was titled “Drug Plants Under Cultivation.” It featured dozens of plants—ginseng, lavender, even dandelions—and this was where the government first circulated official instructions on how to grow drug cannabis. It was later updated to recommend the removal of all the male plants from the crop, otherwise they’d pollinate and the drug product wouldn’t be as potent. That’s called sensemilla—the Spanish name meaning “without seeds”—and it is commonly attributed to counterculture experiments in breeding in northern California. But the U.S. government figured it out in 1920. It smashes the notion that the federal government has always been against marijuana.

TB: You discovered a striking spatial overlap between beet farming in the early 20th century and cannabis busts.

A man in an open-collar shirt smiles at the camera in front of tree trunks.

Author Nick Johnson. Photo by Nancy Gonzalez.

NJ: I stumbled upon that completely by accident. I just wanted to find out where people were growing cannabis. The more newspaper reports I found, the more a trend emerged: it was sugar beet workers in sugar beet fields. And then when I started plotting them on Google Maps, I pulled up the Census map of sugar beet farms and there ended up being this beautiful overlay.

TB: What does that tell us about who was growing and using cannabis at that time?

NJ: It’s another chapter in the global history of cannabis traveling the world by attaching itself to laboring underclasses, as Chris Duvall put it in his wonderful book Cannabis (Reaktion Books, 2014). Mexicans had fled the Mexican Revolution and the dictatorship that preceded it. At the same time, there was a massive expansion of irrigation infrastructure in the American West, so a huge agricultural industry was just getting going and needed a huge labor force. The Spanish-American War had cut off the supply of foreign sugar and American farmers started to figure out how to grow and process the sugar beet. It became the number-one cash crop in West. The Mexican-American population had experience with it, so they took over the stoop labor of farming beets.

Cultivating sugar beets is very, very hard on the body. A small segment of these workers had knowledge of cannabis from their homeland as a remedial or recreational substance. So they just planted it and sold it to each other. Some of them used it to ease the pain from a day’s worth of labor. Some of them used it to take their minds off of the work. Others used it recreationally.

The money was a big part of it; selling to your fellow beet workers could supplement some of the meager wages you got out on the fields. Starting in the 1920s, selling it to the broader American pubic became a lucrative market. By the 1940s, some of these workers are raking in tens of thousands of dollars. It’s an opportunity they would not have had anywhere else in American society.

Six people lie on and sit in and on a blue sedan smiling at the camera, two raising their hands in the air, against a background of flat, green fields.

Migrants workers in Fort Collins, Colorado, return home at dusk from a day in the sugar beet fields. Photo by Bill Gillette, June 1972.

TB: Cannabis comes from Mexico with migrant laborers but then transitions into a drug of choice for white, upper-middle-class Americans. How does American culture describe these two populations’ drug use differently?

NJ: When the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, the herb was mostly consumed by lower-class Latinos and black jazz musicians—groups of people that most white Americans had no problem throwing into jail for drug use or for drug-related crimes. That persisted for a couple decades. Then the beatnik generation popularized marijuana among the bohemian middle-class population, and the 1960s Hippie movement really took that to the next level. And when young, middle-class white people started getting arrested and thrown in jail, their parents were not too pleased and there was a movement to decriminalize that culminated in the 1970s.

A dark green circular button with yellow capital leaders reads "Let's Legalize Pot"

A button from the early 1970s effort to end the prohibition on cannabis. Photo from Washington Area Spark.

White Americans had no problems locking blacks and Latinos up for using marijuana, but when white, middle-class youngsters started getting hold of it, they were portrayed as innocent kids who didn’t know what they were doing. Should they be punished for the rest of their life for just one mistake? But by all means lock away the black dealers who sold it to the kid.

This mentality is documented in a wonderful article, “Impossible Criminals” by Matthew Lassiter. Today whites, blacks, Latinos all use marijuana at similar rates, yet if you’re a black person you’re four times more likely to be arrested for a cannabis crime. If you’re Latino you’re twice as likely.

TB: You mention in the book that this is still a problem even in states that have legalized cannabis.

NJ: Yes. In Colorado there was a report that found, in terms of underaged arrests for cannabis, black, white, and Latino teenagers use cannabis at the same rates but there’s the same racial disparities in arrests of those under 21. That’s a product of the American policing system. It’s not just about drugs.

TB: What are the environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation?

NJ: We see the most tragic effects in California, where medical marijuana has been legal since 1996 but the state hasn’t really regulated the supply side. People from all over the world have come to remote sections of the northern part of the state, where enforcement is impossible, to grow illegal marijuana. They clear-cut the forest. They drive heavy machinery up old dirt logging roads, sluffing off a lot of sediment into the rivers and clogging up habitat for salmon. They use rodenticide pellets around their crop, which are consumed by other small mammals and eventually go up the food chain and kill larger animals, like the California fisher. There are also immense heaps of trash left behind at these outdoor growing sites, everything from fertilizer bags to plastic bottles filled with noxious chemicals. All of this cumulatively degrades an ecosystem.

A propane tank, cookware, and lots of bags and bottles litter a small clearing in a pine grove.

Waste left behind at an illicit cannabis growing site in California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Photo by the U.S. Forest Service, August 2002.

Indoor cultivation uses a ton of energy to power all of these grow lights, air-conditioners, and fans. A 2011 study from California estimated that the indoor cannabis crop used about 3% of the whole state’s electricity. In Denver, you have growers moving into giant warehouses, hanging lights, paying $30,000/month in electricity bills, while also increasing the carbon footprint of the cannabis crops.

The fate of the coho salmon depends on the federal government’s ability to smash the black market in cannabis.

TB: As much as the state can try to regulate up here in northern California, if cannabis is selling above a certain price, people are going to grow it however they want to grow it. How does the economics of weed affect the ability to regulate it effectively?

NJ: Right now there is zero chance that California will regulate marijuana effectively as long as the price is above $500 per pound. If you can drive the price below that it won’t be worth it to grow it illegally. There’s still a huge black market in marijuana, and states like California and Colorado that have legalized are supplying it. The only way to smash it, to drive the price down, is to have federal legislation. People smoke weed everywhere. They’re not going to stop. So growers aren’t going to stop growing it. You have to disincentivize it somehow. The main way is to attack it at the price level. And we can connect that price to the environment, where literally the fate of the coho salmon depends on the federal government’s ability to smash the black market in cannabis.

TB: Do you think there are benefits of having a few states go first before the feds figure out their approach to legalization?

NJ: I think so. The people who are involved in the industry now are still mostly those who have been doing this for decades underground and are just now getting legitimate. They’re really interested in things like water recycling and more efficient lighting technology and moving into greenhouses and making their industry sustainable. Only legalization has the ability to do that. These people are pioneering the model of the cannabis industry that hopefully will translate to federal legislation.

If you buy weed in New York, you’re buying California water, too.

I am an advocate for breaking up the national footprint of cannabis cultivation, getting it away from arid places like California and Oregon. If you go the grocery store in New York and buy California almonds, you’re also buying California water. And if you buy weed in New York, you’re buying California water, too. It doesn’t make any sense, because Hudson Valley growers could easily produce lots of marijuana. Just let them and save the water resources in the West.

TB: What about consolidation?

NJ: There’s this whole fear of “Big Marijuana” among both cannabis advocates and opponents. Advocates fear the industry will be taken over by giant factory farms that will price out the mom-and-pop operations. Opponents say these giant farms will ply your children with drugs.

But there are hundred of varieties of cannabis—an artifact of prohibition, when growers developed their own kinds through clandestined experiments. All the wacky-named strains found at dispensaries, like “Trainwreck” and “OG Kush” and “Skywalker,” cannot be patented by Big Marijuana because they are already in public circulation.

A row of jam jars stacked two high are filled with cannabis and have colorful labels with the names of the varieties: Sour Diesel, Dutchberry, Star Dawg, Grape Ale, Fire OG, and Orange Kush

Niche varieties of cannabis line the shelves at a dispensary at the Rocky Mountain High dispensary in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Beverly Yuen Thompson, August 2017.

Concordia University Law Professor Ryan Stoa suggests following the model of the wine industry by using an appellation system to assign a point of geographic origin and associated standards so you can’t grow in your basement in Arkansas and say it’s as good as Humboldt County weed. Under an appellation system, Humboldt County weed would be protected and that would be one way of ensuring small-scale farmers and producers could remain viable in a market with large producers. There’s always going to be demand for bulk cannabis to make extracts or cookies. But there’s also going to be that craft niche.

TB: You set out to write the history of cannabis as a crop. What makes cannabis similar to other crops in the West? What makes it different?

NJ: In terms of physical requirements, it’s very similar to corn. It’ll just take as much water and nutrients as you want to throw at it. But if we’re going to look at the water requirements of a pot plant—which is a hot topic now—we have to compare it to other crops. It ranks somewhere between lettuce and peaches. You have all of these articles saying oh my gosh, cannabis plants are using all of this water! Six gallons a day! Did anybody writing these stories think about how other crops are using water? I wanted to write this book to put cannabis back in this agricultural context, which should be the starting point for all regulations.

But it really is a singular crop. The versatility of the plant is what has ensured its millennia-old relationship with humans. It has the widest geographic range of any crop. It really has conquered the world, all owing to its versatility and its cryptic nature, which allows us to keep peeling back the layers to discover new uses for it over time. Cannabis fits the human niche.

Featured image: A cannabis leaf. Photo by Satish Krishnamurthy, July 2015.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Nick Johnson is the author of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (Oregon State University Press, 2017) and is the associate editor of the Colorado Encyclopedia. He holds an M.A. in American History from Colorado State University and lives in Longmont, Colorado. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Tim Bean is an assistant professor in the Department of Wildlife at Humboldt State University. He combines time-honored natural history approaches with novel spatial methods to understand the past, present, and future of where species occur and why. His most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “The Cannabis Frontier” (October 2016). WebsiteTwitterContact.

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