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Reefer Madness: The Thin Green Line

Author Jonah Raskin recounts the contradictions of life in 'Marijuanaland'

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Oct. 7, 2011

Reefer Madness: The Thin Green Line
Illustration by Jason Stout

Jonah Raskin smokes pot.

The longtime countercultural icon – an early member of the Students for a Democratic Society, one of the rebellious Weathermen, and even briefly a Yippie – is now a writer (for High Times magazine, among other publications) and a professor at Sonoma State University in Northern California (chair of the Communications Studies Department). Raskin uses marijuana, and he wants you to know it. He believes it's an important coming-out-of-the-closet revelation that he thinks is key to shifting the national dialogue about marijuana use. If more people were honest about their pot use, Raskin argues, it would be much harder to continue to demonize the weed and to outlaw its users. Indeed, conservative estimates suggest that 17.3 million Americans use marijuana each month. So why is it still illegal, and what would it take to overcome prohibition?

Those are among the questions raised by Raskin's new book, Marijuanaland: Dispatches From an American War, published by High Times Books. Raskin journeyed through the heart of America's pot economy, Northern California's famed Emerald Triangle – a swath of land encompassing more than 10,000 square miles – where marijuana, while still illegal under federal law, continues to thrive in a gray legal and cultural space, formally illegal but not quite forbidden. "Marijuanaland" has long existed in this largely wild California region, but has become more bold and aboveground since 1996 and the state's passage of the nation's first law to legalize the cultivation and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

In his book, Raskin travels attentively through the Triangle, as plotted deftly on a map for him by a local sheriff trying to protect his hometown growers while discouraging aggressive outsiders drawn to the region by the promise of a quick buck. He meets with law enforcement officers, growers, tokers, journalists, doctors, and others living in this part of the country, which Raskin comes to call "Marijuanaland." What he finds is a place defined by contradictions: generations of growers who, despite their industry's official illegality, have defined and sustained the regional economy; the emergence of a marijuana culture and de facto mainstream alliances within pot's shadow economy and culture; and whole communities otherwise unremarkable but living under the cloud of official denial and seemingly relentless federal determination to keep the plant illegal.

Raskin will be in Austin this weekend to discuss his book – appearing on Saturday, Oct. 8, at Oat Willie's (617 W. 29th) from 2 to 4pm and then at Brave New Books (1904 Guadalupe) from 5 to 7pm. In anticipation of his visit, Reefer Madness spoke with Raskin about his trip to Marijuanaland and what it might tell us about the future of marijuana prohibition.

Reefer Madness: You have quite a countercultural pedigree – running with the SDS and the Weathermen and the Yippies, and so on. How does this time and this topic – marijuana, in Northern California in particular – compare with the countercultural history as you've experienced it?

Jonah Raskin: That's a big topic. I would say that of all the countercultures that I've been a part of and that I've written about, marijuana is certainly a thread that's run through all of them. I was too young to be a "beat," but I would say that I was a teenage beatnik, and when I was in high school, it was the days of Kerouac and Ginsberg and On the Road and Howl. And the beats certainly smoked a lot of marijuana – they called it "tea" in their code. And then, ultimately in the Sixties, yeah, marijuana was part of the hippie lifestyle.

Of course nobody in the Sixties was growing marijuana the way they are today. There is way more of it; it is more potent. There are huge indoor and outdoor grow operations that would have – if somebody had fallen asleep in 1967 and woken up now, I think they'd be astounded. I have this image of a Hip Van Winkle falling asleep and waking up more than 20 years later – to use the slang of that day, they'd have their minds blown.

RM: They might have their minds blown in a way that's positive, and there are some real negatives that lurk here, too.

JR: Yes.

RM: It's like the [Mendocino County, Calif.] Sheriff Tom Allman [whom you interview and write about in the book]. He was a real strange character because there's this line he has to walk [between enforcing drug laws and policing a large marijuana-growing community], ... where dogs can't be on the grass in the square but marijuana is everywhere. There is this real dichotomous place.

JR: When I was first gathering material for the book, it was real hard for me to make up my mind about whether it really was different, or was it just the same old story? Because there were raids on marijuana gardens and people going to jail, and that was the same. And then on the other hand, there were people who had permits from sheriffs [to grow marijuana in accordance with California's medi-pot law] and people who have medical marijuana cards, and there were dispensaries everyplace, and people could, basically, grow it and distribute it and smoke it legally, at least by California law.

And then there is the whole bugaboo with the feds, who haven't budged at all, who fail to see that marijuana has any medical benefit whatsoever, and it's still a Schedule I [controlled] drug. I think that the feds have just dug themselves into a hole, and they've been saying the same thing for decades, and they just refuse to change their tune at all.

RM: The feds may be stuck in a hole and repeating the same old lines for God knows how many years, and then you've got this guy Allman here who is trying to set up this "compliance" program. Is Allman typical of law enforcement in California?

JR: Well, I would say that local law enforcement feels protective in a lot of ways – or definitely an attachment – to people who live in the community. I mean, Tom Allman, the Mendocino County sheriff, says: "If you're from here – I love you if you're from here; if you're coming from the Ukraine or some other far part of the world just to get rich quick, I'm going to make trouble for you. If you're an environmentalist, I'm going to leave you alone; if you're stealing water and electricity and polluting the environment, you're going to get in trouble."

So, I see him as a transitional figure. He's not a Reefer Madness old-style sheriff, and he's willing to take risks, and he knows that marijuana has medical benefits because his – if you'll excuse the expression – redneck friends smoke, and say that if they didn't smoke marijuana in the morning, they wouldn't be able to get up and work because they have all sorts of back pain and injuries, work-related injuries. So, you know, he grew up really being an old-style sheriff, and he evolved as his part of the world evolved. So ... yes, he's still the sheriff ....

RM: But he's kind of got a new playbook.

JR: Yes. And there are others who are like him, or similar to him. He would like all of the sheriffs in all of the 58 counties in California to use his playbook, and that's what he says. There are some other less-known counties, like Butte, where they have programs very similar to his program. So I do think that it's moving; marijuana [law] is moving very slowly. It's just the changes are so slow – underground black market to legalized and recognized as having great medical benefit.

Jonah Raskin
Jonah Raskin

And there are doctors – Jeff Hergenrather, he's a doctor in the book, and he's in a town of like 7,000 people, and he's got like 2,000 patients who he's recommending marijuana to, and he's been monitoring them for years and for dozens of ailments, and they're all responding and they're doing well. So there is also the medical profession that is ... in the process of transformation from opposition to acceptance. And I've been at some meetings – the doctors are learning. These are people who never got the chance to study anything about marijuana in medical school, and they're largely learning from their own patients who report, "Yes, I couldn't sleep, and I smoked," or "I was getting anxiety attacks, and I smoked, and they went away." So he, Dr. Hergenrather, and doctors like him have learned from their patients the benefits of marijuana.

RM: Is there this difference between this sort of romanticizing of a back-to-nature movement and then ... this way more industrial thing – and you can just read in the news about these large marijuana-growing operations in the Northern California forests that are just devastating to the environment and some of the violence that accompanies some of that. Can you explain what's going on in that regard?

JR: I suppose the dark side is the people who don't care about Mother Nature – they're really unlike the original hippies; they want to get in and get out and make a lot of money and do it very quickly and take a lot of shortcuts. So that is the mad, bad, sad part of the story. That's the greed, people getting greedy, and if people were less greedy, they'd probably care more about the forests and the wilderness areas where they are growing.

This year there was somebody up in the woods, not growing marijuana, but who shot and killed two people – there has been a recent killing in Mendocino County, [by a person] who I would say is sort of a fringe fellow in the counterculture up there. And the fact that he shot and killed two people – the two people were not in any way part of the drug industry – has brought down law enforcement because the guy is a fugitive, and he's hiding out in the woods. So the helicopters are overhead, and the sniffing dogs and deputies are along the roads.

RM: I spent a lot of time up in Arcata, Calif., in the early Nineties, and I sort of idealize the beauty of that area, and to hear the idea of some sort of manhunt of a man in Mendocino, with this backdrop of all that is going on, I guess it just seems so different to me than just 15 or 16 years ago. It's scary a little bit.

JR: Well, it is scary. I would say, though, that there have been people getting murdered in Mendocino and in the marijuana trade since the 1970s, so it's not just like it was always just peace and love and then turned violent. I had a friend who went to UC Berkeley and who moved to Mendocino, and I asked him if I could come up when I first got interested in the subject [of marijuana] in the Seventies, and he said, "Well, it wouldn't be a good time now because somebody just got shot and killed." And I do know a lot of lawyers up here who do cases, and murder cases, and all through the years they've had murder cases – you know, somebody comes onto a grower's property and gets shot.

RM: You were telling a story about your friend who was driving up in that very, very remote place, didn't he say he'd driven right through [a group of marijuana pirates]? It seemed like you experienced some trepidation as well, being alone in this place where everybody is very aware of who is around, and what they are doing, and of what it means to have outsiders around.

JR: Right, yes, yes. There are thieves; there are pot thieves – and there have been pot thieves around for 40 years. Marijuana is money; it is very valuable. There are people who think it's an easy way to get lots of money. There is also an increase in poaching in this whole area – people going in and shooting deer out of deer season. There is, in general, I would say a rise in outlawry and theft, and I think some of that is because of the economy, because people are out of work and having a hard time making their mortgage payments and putting food on the table.

RM: Some of the growers there, and the proliferation of growing there, have benefited from the legalization of medical marijuana. But in this greater scope now, some of the people who benefited from the legalization of medi-pot are against legalization in general, because it would impact their bottom line if it were legal?

JR: Well, last year, in 2010, there was Prop 19 on the [statewide] ballot to legalize [personal possession of] recreational amounts [of marijuana]. So that woke up the whole state – the whole state of California really woke up, and for the first time in my life, people really talked sense about marijuana. And there was a really fast learning curve; people who didn't know anything about it were quickly learning. And people who were living with aliases, like "Lone Wolf" – who never had a Social Security card and were growing in the woods – came out and went to meetings and said, "I'm a marijuana grower, and I'm sick of being afraid and paranoid." So that was a really important step of people looking around ... coming out of the closet. That's another thing that happened, and that's one of the things that I do in the book: coming out of the closet and saying, "Yes, I smoke marijuana."

So, yes, people were afraid. The growers were afraid last year, especially in the Emerald Triangle, that if it were legalized, the price per pound would drop and they wouldn't be able to make as much money. But they've been making huge amounts of money for decades. They've been getting anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000 per pound. And if they drove it to Georgia or places in the country where there is very little marijuana [growing], they were getting a huge amount of money. So, you know, yeah, there are growers around who ... downplay their own monetary financial reasons for growing and see themselves as great protectors of the community. And some of the [marijuana] money does go back into the community – into money for schools and hospice and domestic violence programs and into the newspapers and stuff like that. But, yeah, all of the communities are benefiting – all the peripherals in the community are benefiting, like the fencing and the pipe and the trimming devices, sealing, things to seal and ship [pot]. I mean, that's huge.

Going to Arcata and seeing there was a big towering Ford sign still there, but the Ford dealership wasn't there – there was this grow store there, with everything that you need to give your plants in the first three weeks, and then in the middle of the season, and then in the end of season for blooming. You know, they want to sell you the whole line of products.

RM: Doing this book, is there anything you learned about that underground marijuana economy that you didn't already know?

JR: I was surprised by how increasingly willing some people, the people in the post office – you know, all the post offices in these places, you have people going in and getting money orders. And people going into banks and bank tellers and people in the banks saying, "Well, if you [deposit], I believe it is less than $10,000, you don't have to report it." You know, helping people to launder money. So people in the aboveground operations helping and playing a part in getting the marijuana dollars into the banking system. So that, I would say, [was new to me], and people being more willing to admit that marijuana is part of the economy than they would [have] even 10 years ago.

I mean, there is still hypocrisy. People [in Northern California will] say, "Oh, well, if you want to see marijuana, you have to go up to Oregon or you have to go to Vancouver; it's not around here." That used to be the prevalent story. Now there are people who are willing to say, "Yes, we have marijuana here." There are websites for towns and regions [that boast about their operations]. They very often don't use the word marijuana – "We've got high quality smoke," the website will say.

RM: Where did this book come from? What was its genesis?

JR: Well, I heard that Proposition 19, the legalize recreational [marijuana question], would be on the ballot. And it hadn't been for a while that I'd seen any marijuana stories, and my ears perked up, and I thought, "There's something brewing here; this is something worth looking into." So I went down to "Oaksterdam University" [the Oakland, Calif. school for training folks in pot cultivation, marketing, and sales] – and [the founder], he's an old Texas boy from Houston, if I remember correctly, who had become a millionaire and had put up money, over $1 million, to get this on the ballot, to canvass and get signatures. So I would say Oaksterdam University was also a sign of these newer times. And I went and took their classes [with] people from all over the country – some people were from just across the bay in San Francisco, but there were also people from Florida, housewives from Florida; there were guys from Puerto Rico who came to California to learn how to grow marijuana and to get up to speed on the law and the history and everything. And you know, one Saturday morning, there are 100 people, all kinds of people – Asians and African-Americans and white housewives from Florida – and they're all taking notes, writing things down.

RM: It sounds a little surreal.

JR: Yes! And Oakland just had a street fair (like 10 days ago), where people are out in the streets smoking marijuana openly. So you've got these places where this is like Oakland, where the city officials are gung-ho marijuana, and then a short distance away you've got these counties where it is illegal, so you've got people from like the Central Valley, where there are no [medi-pot] dispensaries or very few, who are driving up to Oakland and buying their marijuana and driving back home.

Reefer Madness: The Thin Green Line

You've got to have a sense of humor about this. It helps to have a sense of humor about this subject because otherwise it's, well, it is bizarre.

RM: Knowing people who live in Oakland, and having spent a lot of time there, and then I live in Texas, it's just really surreal. And I keep coming back to this dichotomy thing, where there is just this alternate reality going on there. Are there any sorts of lessons or takeaways for those of us who don't live there in Marijuanaland, who live in Texas, or in Austin, which is a fabulous place, but it's still very different?

JR: Well, some obvious things: Marijuana is not going away. I mean, it's been here for thousands of years – people and marijuana have been connected. It's been a symbiotic relationship for thousands of years, and it's going to continue. It came through the Nixon and Reagan years, where there was intensive war [on marijuana].

Every single thing the federal government has done – you know, stopping [marijuana coming] from Mexico, stopping it at the borders – everything the federal government has done has backfired. And more and more doctors, Western-trained doctors, are appreciating the benefits of marijuana and recommending it to patients.

RM: The story that you have here, it's so opposite of what we experience on a daily basis in Texas, even though in Austin the attitude and enforcement of minor marijuana offenses is not stringent. We have a law that says, if you can prove you live in the county you're stopped in and have been caught with less than an ounce, it's a fineable offense. So, you know, we've got a big university – let's just say there's a lot of pot smoking that goes on in Austin, and there always has been. And so we find also, like what you're saying, about now having three generations of pot smokers around. Do you think that we'll see a faster shift in marijuana laws and policy as that becomes more of the reality?

JR: It does move slowly. And the battles are continuing. I believe recently in Michigan the feds have been closing down [medi-pot] dispensaries. And there have been battles in Montana [to repeal the state's medi-pot law], right? I mean ... you follow what's going on around the country, don't you?

RM: Absolutely. I guess I just don't know what it would take to get the feds to rewrite their script. It does seem that they're stuck saying the same things they have for 40 or 50 years, if not more.

JR: Yes. Well, I think some of it is going to come from people increasingly coming out of the closet. So, I mean, social change does happen because of movement in organizations, but I think it is also an individual thing, by the choice that individuals make. So, you know, when people find out that the person they've been going to church with smokes marijuana or uses it medically, or the person who is the mechanic on their car. I don't pressure anybody to come out of the closet. And my students at the college where I teach ask me, and I say, "Yes, I smoke marijuana." I mean, I tell them, yes, but I'm not just staying home all day and smoking marijuana. I'm teaching, I'm writing, I'm swimming and exercising, and having a glass of red wine and a hamburger.

They're very curious, they say – and this was just last week – and these are 17- and 18-year-olds, freshmen, their first time in college, and they say, "Well, when did you first smoke marijuana?" I say, "When I was 25 years old, in 1967." So they say, "Have you noticed any harmful effects?" I say, "No, I really can't; I just came from my doctor, and he says [my] lungs are great and my heart rate is terrific and my blood pressure." I say there is more damage from eating too much cheese and dairy products. I think they have more to worry about from fast food and all that grease than from moderate use of marijuana.

I am troubled by, and I think there is some frustration – I was in a bookstore close to home here, and a bunch of people showed up. Some of them were in the industry. There was a woman who said she wanted the book because she was just heading up to the Emerald Triangle to manicure [plants to prepare them for sale] and she'd been doing this for 20 years. And there was also a woman who I've know for a long time who is 83 years old and has a friend who has two boys in high school, and they were caught with marijuana at the high school, and they're being threatened with being expelled.

I don't like to see kids getting expelled from high school or getting in trouble with school authorities. So I think that education is really important. I mean, the kids are not getting expelled for smoking marijuana, because if that was the case, half the high school would be expelled – you know, hundreds and hundreds of kids. They're getting expelled because they got caught.

So it is very important not to get caught. My father was a lawyer, and he taught me a number of things – he would say, "The worst crime in America is to be poor." And, you know, the crucial factor about the law is whether you get caught or not. So definitely, you know, prohibitions don't work. They didn't work with alcohol; they don't work with marijuana. That may be obvious, but I think there are some things that are obvious that are worth repeating, saying over and over.

RM: I would agree with you there.

JR: And you know, there is this older generation that is moving on and won't be around much longer who have never smoked, and they've heard that it's around and they say, "Is it like a martini or like heroin?" And these students, who are 17 and 18 years old, have more information than that older generation – because they've actually tried it. They have not been terrified. In terms of the big picture of history, it is not all that long ago that people really did believe that reefer would make you mad and make you jump out windows and lead to mayhem and murder. And I think it would be hard to find people who would believe that smoking would lead to, one-two-three: suicide, rape, and murder. I don't think there's anyone around anymore – maybe there are some people – but Michelle Obama is not going around saying, "Just say no!" And we have a president who did smoke marijuana and admitted it in one of his books.

RM: I guess it's these baby steps that we see – and maybe we'll eventually turn the corner.

JR: I think that change is happening. In the Sixties and Seventies, a lot of time it seemed like change was overnight. Now it doesn't feel to me like it is happening overnight anymore. It's the baby steps, the step at a time that you're talking about, and sometimes there is a reversal – one step forward, two steps back. And then forward again.

RM: Anything else that you feel is important to mention?

JR: I'll just say that I'm looking forward to being in Austin; Austin is a great town. I've been around other parts of Texas and ....

RM: Austin's the best, right?

JR: Absolutely.

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