[2 December 2008]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“This is not your father’s marijuana,” cautions Lisa Ling as she jumps into the subject of this most lucrative and controversial of cash crops. And, at the start of this episode of National Geographic’s Explorer, Ling is literally jumping in, riding along with the U.S. Forest Service (and, she adds, “several other law enforcement agencies”) in a chopper over the green forests of California mountains. “We’re in crisis mode,” asserts the team leader, his jaw set and his jumpsuit camo. “Every time we go out and look, we find more than we found the time before.”
The “more” here consists of actual plants, organized into increasing numbers of gardens on private and public properties. Growers protect their livelihood with guns: as the team leader tells Ling, marijuana is now “the most dangerous thing that we in the Forest Service investigate.” This situation is different from two decades ago, Ling explains, when most pot was smuggled into the States. This shift in industry dynamics expands—or at least reconfigures—the borders of the “marijuana nation” of the program’s title. Ling talks with former smuggler Todd Steele, who was running 20-ton loads from Colombia when he was just 17, back in the 1980s. Photos show a tanned, sweet-faced younger Steele, posing on his boat. Looking back, he says, “We were just down there to do business with a product we thought was a wholesome way to make a living.”
Indeed, this is the most frequent argument made by growers in Marijuana Nation, that American regulations are hypocritical. Pot, argues Steele (who quit smuggling when he was 26, “with no regrets”) is not so different from other intoxicants. “As an outlaw,” he says, “I saw the laws that I was breaking as unfair because drugs are sold legally in the U.S. every day, with alcohol: with every bottle of beer that’s sold, with every bottle of vodka that’s sold, with every fancy bottle of wine that’s sold, Americans are dealing drugs.” Ling notes that though he was, in fact, arrested and sentenced to 12 months, there was a time when marijuana was legal to grow and sell in the U.S. She points to colonial Williamsburg, where many households grew marijuana for industrial purposes,” including cloth and paper.
Today, laws are changing in and outside the United States. Ling visits a grower in Canada, whose greenhouse is technically legal (he’s allowed to grow medical marijuana for himself and two other patients), but plainly tremendous. Ling’s Explorer team is the first television crew allowed to glimpse the operation, and her “whoas” and “wows” indicate that our close-framed view of towering, verdant plants is probably limited. The major point here, Ling says, is that the indoor growing allows the grower to “bypass Mother Nature,” and so produce more potent, “perfect plants,” with very high percentages of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the primary psychoactive substance in the plant. She inspects a bag of the product and comments, “This could get you very high.” The Canadian grower and cannabis-butter-maker nods (“If you smoked it, yes”), then reframes the conversation with a more philosophical question: “But what’s high?”
Marijuana Nation doesn’t exactly take up this broader issue, and also barely notes the environmental effects of illegal outdoor gardens (the damage discovered during that raid of the mountainside crops in California, she narrates, includes “a cleared forest, irrigation tubing, terraced land, and toxic illegal fertilizer,” which “add up to an environmental tragedy”). Instead, it focuses on what’s happening “on the ground,” the continuing mutations in medical marijuana laws and their interpretations. In Oakland, where U.S. laws may be the most tolerant, medical marijuana is dispensed by storefront vendors (following brief consultations and perusals of doctor’s recommendations). As advocate Richard Lee tells it, the area of the city now known as “Oaksterdam” was revitalized economically by the cannabis industry. He runs a “cannabis university” that features classes in likely legal problems as well as cooking and packaging. And, Ling adds, if the Oakland medical marijuana business had been included in a federal taxation plan, some $3 million in taxes might have been reaped in 2003.
The economic effects of pot are considerable: some analysts see the expanding agribusiness as “displacing corn as the leading cash crop in America.” In California alone, Ling says, the production of some 26 million plants in 2006 marked a tenfold increase from 15 years earlier and now outpaces revenues for winemakers. Marijuana’s social and political effects are equally compelling. According to the “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery, a leading marijuana activist, he’s made millions of dollars by selling seeds over the internet since 1995, through “Marc Emery Direct Marijuana Seeds.” Emery says he’s “paid taxes on every penny,” and moreover, he’s put most of the profits back into the pro-cannabis movement, organizing demonstrations, supporting publications and local organizations, agitating for legislation. Currently, Ling says, the Canadian he’s facing extradition to the U.S., and she asks him why he’s chosen “this kind of life,” that has him evading American officers. “I’m flattered to be thought of so highly by the U.S. Justice Department,” he smiles, but rejects the idea that his criminal behavior is at all harmful to the general population.
Ling notes the drug’s potential deleterious effects: “anxiousness, paranoia, abnormal heart rhythm, and a general sense of uneasiness,” and, for especially potent versions, can include “schizophrenia-like symptoms in the user.” But Marijuana Nation is more interested in what makes pot so “desired by so many.” Noting that its use can be charted back 5,000 years in China, the program briefly observes the chemical effects (THC binding with receptors in the brain), and spends time with users like Emery. “How do you get any work done?” Ling asks, noting his very relaxed demeanor. He has a schedule, he assures her, and does most of his work late at night. “The cool thing about pot,” he says, “Is how you’re perceiving it in your head is changing.”