High (and Dry) Times: 'Pot, Inc.'

Greg Campbell's book -- dealing with the medical marijuana craze that took over Colorado in 2009-10 -- is fascinating, conversational, and well-researched. If only he'd resist climbing the soap box.

Pot, Inc.: Inside Medical Marijuana, America's Most Outlaw Industry

Publisher: Sterling
Length: 288 pages
Author: Greg Campbell
Price: $22.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-04

In 1936, the film Reefer Madness was made, a piece of anti-pot propaganda which is now considered to be one of the most over-the-top depictions of marijuana use, ever (and a bonafide cult classic). Young idealistic high school student Bill Harper (Kenneth Craig) gets caught up in the world of ganja, and instead of leading the bright future he was intended to have, he instead begins having hallucinations, accidentally kills pedestrians and then actually begins to kill his criminal colleagues before being thrown in jail for insanity. Parents were advised to tell their children about the danger of this demon drug, as it could ruin lives,

Oh, how times have changed. In his book Pot, Inc., author Greg Campbell (Blood Diamonds) gets a first-hand view of history in the making: a series of events in 2009 that lead to the "medical marijuana" craze in Colorado, leading to numerous weed dispensaries popping up like cannibas blossoms everywhere, and the law having a hard time figuring out how to properly enforce people both selling and growing weed in their very own home. It's a fascinating issue that has multiple angles, and for the most part, Campbell's book succeeds in depicting not only the culture that emerged during this fertile time, but also his own curious attempts to try growing some plants of his own just for the experience. Unfortunately, despite his attempts to be even-handed, the book still has an obvious slant that comes off as painfully obvious, almost to the point of being off-putting.

It all starts in 2009 with "the Obama memo", the heralded document from the Obama White House which advised that medical marijuana busts should be a "low-priority", which caused anyone even remotely associated with cannabis in a monetary way to call an out-and-out victory. However, as Campbell points out, the memo was only advisory -- the full law is still intact, and marijuana is still considered illegal. Before long, Campbell dives into the history of the US government's relationships to marijuana, from president's ignoring reports that it's not the homicide-inducing drug that Reefer Madness would lead you to believe, to the constant struggle with the substance being still considered a "Schedule I" drug (meaning that, on record, it has no medical benefit), despite numerous reports otherwise, particularly in regards to easing pain and nausea in extreme medical situations.

Campbell's writing style is straightforward with very little flash, which serves as a great way for him to use his own personal narrative as a jumping off point for numerous sub-topic deviations, even if it feels a little bit too dry at times. Some of his most excitable writing comes from describing his own encounters with weed, including his near-traumatic first time shortly after college, when no one told him what it would be like (he thought it would be the equivalent of multiple drinks all at once), so when his senses went into overdrive, he felt dry mouth, suffered paranoia that some authority figure was going to walk in on him at any moment, and got a bad case of "couch weld", he came out of the experience with a pretty bad feeling about the drug, as well.

He tried it only occasionally from then on (including one particularly dangerous driving experience which he describes with great amusement), but realized it wasn't right for him. When he broke some bones in a bad biking accident however, his roommate came to pick him to take him to the hospital but also brought his bong with him, encouraging Campbell to take a hit. Although offended at first, Campbell, in pain, relented, and arrived at the hospital feeling much more relaxed and with a surprisingly small amount of pain to report.

This kind of story is not unique to Campbell's experience: as the story goes on, he trots out one heartening story after another, with people suffering from critical if not terminal illnesses turning to marijuana when no other pain killer seemed to work, only to be busted in a drug raid and having to go through much government hardship after the fact. Although there's nothing inherently wrong with these stories, the fact that they keep popping up through the book at an alarming rate makes one feel that Campbell is skewing the reader's opinion toward a pro-pot stance.

Not that Campbell is explicitly pro-pot, mind you. He details the circumstances which ultimately lead him to decide to grow marijuana in his own home. He didn't want to smoke it for himself, but thought that while Colorado was in the midst of its quasi-legal pot-palooza, why not go ahead and try it if not just for the experience (heck, it might even make the good basis for a book!). His wife signs on rather indifferently, but also charges Campbell for having to explain it to his young son, which Campbell admits is something he hadn't thought of in the midst of this grand scheme of his (which leads to a lot of the book's warmer, more effective moments).

During his growing adventure, he meets doctors, marijuana specialists, and would-be buyers who only like to discuss things via text message, as well as ganja gurus and strict law enforcement officials who are actively trying to take down this temporary legal farce. There's a lot at stake, for sure ("After decades of eradication efforts, marijuana is by far the biggest cash crop in the United States, estimated in a 2006 study to be worth $35.8 billion per year. That's more than the two largest legal crops -- corn and wheat -- combined." [p. 144]), and some good points made by both sides. Campbell owns up to the fact that some of the people he encounters are a bit on the outsider side for sure, but he also doesn't always manage to keep the crazy in check, as evidenced by the poor word choice in this quote he includes from Laura Kriho of the pro-pot foundation called The Cannabis Theory Institute:

"Instead of there being a dozen of us cannabis activists around the state, all of a sudden we have five thousand activists. But the people didn't know the history of the whole thing. They didn't realize that they were part of a political movement, that they were part of a civil rights struggle. So all of these dispensary owners are scratching their heads and going 'How did I get reamed so badly?' But you have to realize that you are part of a political struggle part of a civil rights movement. You come into it for a very brief period of time, but it's stretched way back behind you." [p. 212]

Thus, we get to Pot, Inc.'s largest failing: those moments when Campbell lets his guard down and lets a little bit of soap box proselytizing sneak its way into his fact-driven narrative. The first time we really see this occur is when he describes that a lot of what is wrong with the current system as being an effort in educating people about the truth in marijuana, which is a fine stance in principal that would be more effective if it didn't come off as so preachy:

"I believe what DEA chief Jeff Sweetin said when he predicted that there will always be a black market for pot; it's too prevalent and too easy to grow to regulate entirely. But the current system puts every cent of the money it generates into the hands of criminals, some of whom are waging an actual drug war on the U.S. Border with Mexico. It seems far saner to take the money currently being spent busting adult pot smokers and domestic growers -- including those who do so only for medical reasons -- and put it into an honest education campaign targeted squarely at adolescents in order to discourage their temptation to toke up. We currently take our kids to Miller Park to watch the Milwaukee Brewers while enjoying an MGD Light, and where does the responsibility fall to teach kids right from wrong when it comes to alcohol consumption? On parents. How can parents be expected to properly educate their children about the real facts about marijuana when the government won't acknowledge them itself? Parents who blindly parrot the government line -- "We've always been at war with Eastasia" -- are doomed to raise children who will eventually hear otherwise and seek out the information for themselves." [p. 187]

This was shortly preceded by a section in which Campbell rails against the many supposed negative effects of the drug which have been misconstrued by the public over the years, ending with the following question: "What's left for those still grasping at the vapor of reefer madness? Only the illogical concept that admitting that marijuana prohibition has been a terrible, foolish mistake, which should be reversed so that it can help ease the suffering of the critically ill, is somehow sending the wrong message to our children." [p. 185] No, this isn't a quote from another person -- it's direct from the author.

Thus, despite his interviews with various law enforcement officials and those that are in favor of shutting the whole medical marijuana practice down, there exists a certain purposeful forgetfulness that tends to not look at the other side of the issue: people who have wound up in the hospital not because of extremely stupid weed-induced decisions, not to mention the number of vehicular accidents when weed was found to be a key contributing factor. Marijuana-caused vehicular accidents are nowhere near the rates in which alcohol is the leading cause, but no mention of these factors at all is what makes one realize the bit of bias that the author has imbued his text with. Perhaps there's no example more blatant than this quote near the book's conclusion:

"Until [the White House and Congress get on the right side of the law], no one will be able to 'live the dream' like Bartkowicz prematurely envisioned. For far too many people around the country, the dream is still fleeting. The Best reassurance for those living in fear and discomfort comes in knowing they're on the right side of history, no matter how long that history takes to play out." [p.241]

There's much to enjoy about Pot Inc., ranging from it's numerous characters, it's well-researched nature, it's easy, relatable style. This is not the end-all-and-be-all of tokey tomes by any means, but it is a well-considered and well-reasoned book describing a very unique time in history when marijuana actually came close to being legalized in the United States.


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