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Watching Grass Grow

During a year in Mendocino County, Doug Fine glimpsed how marijuana prohibition might unroll.

Courtesy Doug Fine

CROPPED: Fine at home in New Mexico.

By Brian Eule

On a road in Sonoma County, authorities pulled over Doug Fine and his vegetable-oil-fueled truck, saying it "smelled like marijuana." Fine, '92, recently had relocated his family from their off-the-grid goat ranch in New Mexico so he could research a book in Mendocino County. And as surely as he knew the police search would turn up his sons' river shoes but no contraband, he knew the moment would resonate in his book: a look at the contradictions of marijuana prohibition in America and the possibilities of a world where cannabis is legal. As if to underscore the moment, there was the billboard near where his truck rolled to its stop—the beer-and-baseball one exhorting, "Grab Some Buds."

For research that resulted in Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution (Gotham Books), Fine picked a location where it appeared America's 40-year war on drugs might be ending. He writes that the cannabis grown in Mendocino County is estimated to be worth $8.1 billion annually—in contrast to the "most lucrative federally-kosher crop in the county, wine" which was valued in 2010 at $74.9 million. In recent years, the county has moved to stake a claim at the "front edge of the cannabis Green Rush."

In 2008, Mendocino County enacted a land-use ordinance known as 9.31, becoming one of the first counties in the United States to move toward legal cultivation. Under 9.31, the sheriff could issue, for a hefty permit fee, zip ties for growers to affix to up to 99 plants each that could then be harvested for medical purposes. In 2011, the zip-tie framework generated $602,000 for Mendocino County coffers, and those funds were credited with saving seven deputy jobs. Fine estimates that if most Mendocino cannabis farmers (say, 5,000 of them) registered for permits, fees would generate "in the neighborhood of twenty million dollars for the county."

Following a single plant (nicknamed Lucille) from cutting to cancer patient's joint, Fine set out to observe what a "decriminalized, regulated" cannabis industry might mean. The impacts he envisions include decreased crime, useful biofuel production, heartland farm revitalization and alleviations of medical conditions. Cannabis, he states, could be a top cash crop (one estimate is $35.8 billion) for this country and a soil-enriching one for the developing world. But Fine is no unbiased observer. His advocacy for the economic potential of cannabis is rooted in daily habits: He wears a cannabis sun hat, diapered his children in hemp cloths, adds Omega-3-rich cannabis-seed-oil to shakes.

As television host Bill Maher noted in his New York Times review, Fine employs the "clever tactic of making the moral case for ending marijuana prohibition by burying it inside the economic case." The figures Fine marshals include a total of $1 trillion spent fighting the war on drugs since Richard Nixon declared it in 1971, and combined government spending at $60 billion annually in recent years. Fine says a quarter of the 2.3 million Americans in prison are there for drug offenses, making "our nation the most highly incarcerated society in history." And he says this is "all in exchange for seizure of 1 percent of contraband."

Lucille the cannabis plant
Tomas Balogh
CROPPED: Fine, with Lucille the cannabis plant in Northern California, researched ‘decriminalized, regulated’ pot industry.

Fine's year of observation offers plenty of cognitive dissonance—and attempts at humor. He's there the day 70 cannabis farmers sing happy birthday to their county sergeant. He watches would-be harvesters pour into the county in autumn, noting that the savviest ones line up along Highway 101 with signs that read "Have Fiskars."

Entertaining as the book tries to be, readers may not be persuaded—particularly in reference to medical matters, where he seems to be cherry-picking his data to support his beliefs, and relatively silent on the subject of abuse. (He is quick to echo sheriff Tom Allman's belief that that Mendocino's drug curse is methamphetamine.)

And it turns out that Fine's road to legalization is as twisty as any leading to a grower's secret patch. In the course of the book, a "ganjapreneur" Fine follows—a grower and dispensary operator who's considered Boy Scout-proper in his adherence to rules—is raided and shut down by federal officials. In February, the County Board of Supervisors eliminated the 9.31 permit part of the program after threats from the U.S. Attorney's office.

Fine, wrapping up the book, characterizes the unhurried mindset of marijuana's supporters. "An appellate case here or an unfortunate raid there will one day be seen as barely more than speed bumps on the freeway to cannabis legalization."

Brian Eule, '01, is a regular contributor to Stanford.

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