Arriving at author Jonah Raskin’s home on a dusty summer afternoon in Sonoma County, California I was ready more for a type of Federico Fellini meets Hunter S. Thompson vibe than what I found; the peaceful author at home having just fixed himself a prosciutto sandwich. The rustic setting brought me back to Raskin’s latest offering Marijuanaland: Dispatches From an American War (High Times, $12.99) which details his journey into and through California’s Emerald Triangle—one of the main fronts of the global drug war.
Raskin’s credentials come complete with having been a ‘70s radical, Vietnam war protester, a courier for the Weather Underground, to chronicling the life of his friend Abbie Hoffman, detailing his own underground experience in the veil of fiction, following in the footsteps of B. Traven (the enigmatic author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and exploring Howl the foundational poem of the Beat Generation and more. All these decades of journalistic experience he combines with being a professor of Communication Studies at Sonoma State University lends him the gravitas he needs to get access to sources for a book like Marijuanaland, in which it says, “the names have been changed to protect the guilty.”
Raskin not only describes himself as a chronicler of marijuana, but also a smoker who has a medical marijuana card. “The main reason I smoke a joint is that it has the effect of an upper,” said Raskin. “I don’t smoke the kind of marijuana where people say ‘oh, I feel like there’s an 800 pound gorilla on my chest.’ Who would want an 800 pound gorilla on their chest? No one, I suspect, unless you’re a 2,000 pound gorilla.”
Raskin began chronicling the world of marijuana from the ‘70s to the mid-‘80s and it’s central to the film Homegrown for which Raskin wrote the story. “Today there’s unlimited use for marijuana and it can help in the treatment of dozens of conditions,” he said. “The marijuana business is bigger than it ever has been before.”
In Sonoma County, which borders on Mendocino County (a vital part of the Emerald Triangle), the thriving marijuana culture bubbles at the surface of the world above; professors smoke it, students trim it and authors write about it. First made illegal in 1937, the California public lit up to Prop. 215: The Compassionate Use Act which in 1996 decriminalized marijuana for medicinal use. Since then dispensaries have grown in number, along with dealers in hydroponics, head shops, smokers and a cultural acceptance of Pot Culture stemming from Northern California’s hippie past.
But at the federal level marijuana is still a schedule one controlled substance; meaning the Feds do not believe it to have any medical benefits and that it’s more dangerous than morphine or cocaine, according to Raskin—a policy that continues, he says, because of the “stupidity and ignorance of the federal government.” This puts growers and users in a precarious position.
“The culture of marijuana is throughout Northern California and beyond,” he said. “There are 58 counties in California – it’s part of the economy. Some people think it’s a holy herb and a sacrament.”
It’s also part of the broader Drug Wars focused in Afghanistan, Mexico, the Emerald Triangle of Northern California and elsewhere. And what you find in Northern California ranges from mom and pop growers to Cartel-funded agri-business where, according to Raskin workers are air dropped into the woods of Mendocino County and Mexican Drug Lords grow weed on Federal Land at a cheaper rate than shipping it up from Mexico to feed the monkey on America’s back. Or was that a gorilla?
In his book, Raskin enters head-on into one front of the drug wars and what he finds as he straddles the fence of the legal and illegal worlds with which marijuana cohabitates is profound. Speaking to everyone from law enforcement to growers, Raskin enters this strange world of the shire as he chronicles the vibrant life of the people who grow, who know and those who turn a blind eye to the reality before them. Marijuana, Raskin says, is here to stay and eventually on the road to being legal.
“This is a global concern and just like cocaine from Columbia and heroin in Afghanistan, marijuana from California is a piece of the puzzle,” he said. According to Raskin there are cartels in Marijuanaland, but most growers are not involved with cartels. It was the very war on drugs by Nixon and Reagan, Raskin asserts, that helped function as a “catalyst to domestic marijuana growing.”
Raskin says that despite the fact that people from all walks of life smoke marijuana medicinally or for pleasure, the prohibition on marijuana has lasted far longer than the prohibition against alcohol and, with that prohibition comes greater impacts a la the current global drug war. “There was a great deal of misinformation and disinformation that led to the prohibition of Marijuana,” says Raskin. “Now no one at the federal level is brave enough to say ‘Let’s get out of this.’ It’s a tradition of ignorance.”
Marijuana, he said, is associated with the counter-culture and keeping it illegal functions as a form of racism as he cites the disproportionate amount of low-income Blacks and Latinos that are jailed as opposed to middle to upper-income Whites. Some, he added, say that marijuana is subversive to the social order in society and to religion. The bottom line? “Marijuana and capitalism are intimately connected,” says Raskin.
And once marijuana is legalized, Raskin sees a future where money from the drug war will be put to more positive purposes, where tax revenue may be generated from marijuana sales, where people buy pot at convenience stores and super-markets and where, even, labor laws protect workers in what would be a legitimate corporate agribusiness. It’s a future, he says, for which people are already preparing with plans for marijuana tasting rooms and other innovative delivery methods.
“There’s evidence that there are beneficial effects in smoking marijuana for people with a range of illnesses from cancer to HIV/AIDS,” he said. “People in life or death situations are helped by smoking it.” While not the Pied-Piper of Pot, Raskin’s bias is certainly in favor of legalization and the benefits of marijuana use. His latest book is less about advocacy, however, and chronicles instead life inside the triangle with a journalist’s taut eye. It is a glimpse that takes the reader on a unique trip inside a war that, for the time being at least, shows no evidence of ending.
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For more information on Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War, visit the publisher High Times’ online bookshop.