Ihave a soft spot for books with glossaries. New words infuse new worlds, after all, which can mean a richly anthropological read. And so it goes with “Humboldt: Life on America’s Marijuana Frontier” (Grand Central, 2013). This wonderful book opens, in fact, with “A Little Humboldt Glossary” for this remote, cannabis-growing county in Northern California. Take the verb “depping.” It’s short for light deprivation, whereby you cover pot plants with a black tarp to mimic nightfall and force flowering. Or “bank of the woods.” In a cash business, you hide your money in the ground. And “215,” as in Proposition 215, California’s 1996 medical marijuana law, decidedly changed the game.
Insider slang like this must be culled from serious, immersive reporting. And indeed author Emily Brady spent a year in this fecund, secretive place, now on the cusp of full legalization for social use too, as California will no doubt follow Colorado and Washington. It’s a big story. But Brady makes it sing by her prose (clean, literary nonfiction) and structure (it hangs on four characters). There’s a hippie part-time grower glad to cast off the shadows of illegality; a business-minded grower, not so glad; Emma Worldpeace, the daughter of growers, ambivalent about her off-the-grid youth; and a cop sick of ancillary violence. As Brady writes, “When you worked outside the law, it seemed the disputes were settled there too.”
Given that marijuana prohibition has lasted 77 years, nearly six times longer than Prohibition’s ban on alcohol, its underworld has a long history. As of now, 23 states, plus Washington D.C., have legalized some form of marijuana. The times are changing so fast that “Humboldt” will soon be a remembrance of things past. But it still had some surprises for me. Hardcore growers, for instance, are against full legalization, because going mainstream will thin their profits: A RAND Corp. study predicted prices would tumble up to 80 percent after legalization. But others embrace the new. They want Humboldt to do for grass what Napa did for wine: Open “marijuanaries” instead of wineries, have tourists stay at “bud and breakfasts.”
The California story gets a more newspaperish treatment from Peter Hecht of the Sacramento Bee in “Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit” (University of California, 2014). Some great fact and fancy here. Fact: marijuana, not grapes or oranges, is California’s biggest cash crop now. Fancy: There are players with names like Dave Wedding Dress (he always wears one to peace rallies and helps run a top marijuana dispensary too), and Dragonfly de la Luz (who calls herself a “ganja stylist”). And let’s not forget Oakland’s Oaksterdam University, whose mission is “Quality Training for the Cannabis Industry” and whose motto is designed to echo Harvard’s. Instead of “veritas’’ against a field of crimson, however, Oaksterdam’s reads “cannabis” on one of green.
“Weed Land” also examines the surprising allies of legalization. For San Francisco’s United Food and Commercial Workers local, the appeal is potential jobs from the new industry. For the NAACP, it’s not so much drug rights as civil rights. The role of race, and more, is fascinatingly explored in “A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition” (New Press, 2014). Nationwide, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, report authors Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian. They add that early on, drugs were associated with blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese, and the first drug laws “were framed as saving whites from minorities and righteously saving minorities from their own supposed lack of self-control.”
These books show that our Prohibition-almost-over era is quite a mess, actually. Half the states say some plant use is lawful — medical, social, growing it, buying it, each a patchwork of yes and no — but the feds still classify the whole shebang unlawful. We’re talking 50 shades of gray area: as the Seattle Police Department blogged, after Washington voted yes, “Marijwhatnow?” And it just gets quirkier from there. In marijuana-illegal, recession–era Nevada — where the desert climate is unkind to pot — growers scooped up lots of cheap foreclosures. In 2012, the Las Vegas police raided 142 grow houses.
Meanwhile, we’re all trying to decide whether the drug will “exist as both a medicine and a nightcap.” Reach back further in time, and you realize it’s always been both. “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana — Medical, Recreational, and Scientific” (Scribner, 2012) takes us from Herodotus, writing in 440 BC about the Scythians in their hemp vapor baths “howling with pleasure,” up to Spokane’s 2010 Hempfest, with actor Woody Harrelson denouncing America’s war on “all natural, noncorporate drugs.”
Actually, corporations used to be in on it — and likely will be again. I don’t know if, some day, we’ll be able to find Martian Mean Green at Walgreen’s, but around the Civil War, you could get a cannabis extract from Smith Brothers to soothe gout, rheumatism, and more. You could buy hashish candy from Sears-Roebuck. In the 19th century, cannabis carried no stigma, writes author Martin A. Lee. The trouble started in the wake of the Mexican Revolution when William Randolph Hearst’s papers blared that “the murder weed” nudged crazed Mexican immigrants toward crime. “Reefer Madness,” the movie, came out in 1936. And in 1941, cannabis was removed from the list of the government’s allowable pharmaceuticals. Before that, Indian hemp had been listed as a remedy for more than a hundred ailments.
Hemp, the highly resilient material not the psychoactive drug, is also central to our story. The Declaration of Independence was written on it. Betsy Ross wove her first American flag from it. But when cannabis was banned in the 1930s, federal hemp crop permits fell to zero. So I learned in Doug Fine’s “Hemp Bound: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Next Agricultural Revolution” (Chelsea Green, 2014). Now that psychoactive and medical marijuana have come back, so has hemp; 10 states are now growing it, using the highly strong fibers in everything from concrete, to car door panels, to soundproofing. The Denver Post reports that industrial cannabis (that is, hemp) could be 10 times more profitable than the psychoactive stuff.
Speaking of profit, I’ll move to Tony Dokoupil’s wild memoir of his dealer dad, called “The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son, and the Golden Age of Marijuana” (Doubleday, 2014). Like in Humboldt, Little Tony and his mom have their own “cash in the woods” (hidden by Big Tony, near Albuquerque). If you smoked Columbian in the ’70s or ’80s, “I owe you a thank-you card,” writes Dokoupil, for it likely came from his dad’s mammoth operation and paid for his upbringing. Grandiosity, flavor, irony, and sadness abound here (by the end, Big Tony is homeless). It’s an unflinching look at what it’s like to be a descendant of “the Great Stoned Age.”
In 1981, on a college semester abroad, I did the obligatory visit to the famous Amsterdam club known as the Melkweg (the Milky Way). I suppose it was a glimpse of what might unfold here: Marijuana samples were labeled and on display (in the open! shocking!). Ambient music chimed; light shows dappled the walls; and the mostly prone crowd was a parody of mellow. “Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup” (Broadway, 2012) brought it all back — in the last few years, the ceremony’s been at the Melkweg. Leading up to the contest for top pot (nice palindrome!), author Mark Haskell Smith tries varieties like Super Silver Haze, and heartily meets elite growers from the Sierra Nevada to Saskatchewan. He also explains that the weed that makes you dopey is cannabis indica, the one that makes you elated, but lucid, is cannabis sativa. And the quality known as “dankness” is a kind of phantom awesomeness. I’ll add it to my glossary.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine. firstname.lastname@example.org.