“I bring you good news, all of you who are on the frontlines. America is ready for Drug Peace, and you are the heroes who have put your freedom on the line to make it happen.”
So began Doug Fine, author of “Too High To Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution.” Fine paid a return visit to Mendonesia last weekend promoting his latest book and lending support to some of the individuals and organizations he chronicled while living in Mendocino County, as he followed the cannabis industry from seed to patient.
Fine spoke to a packed house at the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino and then lectured at the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse, a benefit for the newly-formed Emerald Growers Association- the convergence of the Humboldt Growers Association and MendoGrown, an organization spearheaded by Matt Cohen, cannabis farmer and former CEO of Northstone Organics Cooperative. Cohen, a vocal proponent for and contributor to the county’s 9.31 cannabis cultivation ordinance was not only ordinance-compliant. His operation was considered by many to be the model for the county’s zip-tie program when the DEA raided his home in October of 2011.
Too High to Fail is generating national attention. The book received a glowing New York Times review penned by Bill Maher. Fine is making appearances on Conan O’Brian and CNBC, and doing radio interviews for the likes of NPR.
For those here in the weeds, perhaps more significant than the book’s media buzz was the mutually respectful dialogue which took place between Fine and Mendo’s most stalwart cannabis activist Pebbles Trippet, who made no secret of her staunch opposition to the county’s now-defunct 9.31 ordinance.
“Pebbles and I agreed to disagree on the zip tie program. At the end of our conversation, she said, ‘Bless you.’ I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, coming from someone who has been fighting this battle on the front lines for so many years. I really take that to be an honor. She knows we’re fighting the same war and she is a take-no-prisoners kind of person,” Fine told the AVA. “It’s vital that this not be a time of division. One thing we need to remember is that when the Drug Peace comes, we cannot turn on each other,” Fine told his Ukiah audience.
Doug Fine spent 2011 living in Willits, following the trail of a single cannabis plant named “Lucille,” documenting her evolution from tender seedling to robust plant and completing her life cycle as potent medicine given to grateful patients. Along the way, the journalist and rural New Mexico goat farmer experienced firsthand the science, confusion, paranoia, hard work and rewards of cannabis farming, interviewing everyone from trimmers to elected officials, while Lucille grew, flowered and eventually provided relief to the frail body of Bill Harney. Harney, who has pancreatic cancer, was one of Matt Cohen’s 1,700 patients deprived of cannabis following the Northstone raid.
Though the book is chock-full of meticulously checked facts and the narrative is humorous and entertaining (and will be particularly so for Mendonesians who know or recognize many of the individuals Fine interviewed), Fine’s real story is about dollars and sense: the astronomical amount of money generated by the cannabis industry and the need, for once and for all, to recognize the ultimate failure of the War on Drugs and embrace what Fine calls the Drug Peace.
“In every interview I do, the first thing that comes up is that cannabis needs to come out of the Controlled Substances Act, and the second thing is that it’s time to regulate it. It’s my mantra,” said Fine.
Fine picked a helluva year to do his research. Last year, Mendocino County was in the midst of the Great Experiment. Could a county lure rightfully paranoid, underground cannabis farmers away from the Dark Side with assurances of protection from arrest and prosecution, if they agreed to the provisions outlined in the zip-tie ordinance? The program started off tentatively in 2010, but by the following year, about 100 farmers signed on, allowing law enforcement to conduct garden site inspections, using individually-coded orange zip-ties to identify their plants and agreeing to abide by a laundry list of safety and environmental guidelines.
For about one minute, it felt as if Mendo may have hit on something: a scheme to regulate the cannabis industry, bring in much-needed county revenue, separate the good growers from bad and provide a model for the future. Supervisor John McCowen told the AVA that it was exactly that which prompted US Attorney Melinda Haag to send a “cease and desist” type of letter to the Supes in 2012, demanding that the 9.31 program be suspended immediately, upon pain of scary Fed-type threats, which prompted a 4-1 vote by the supervisors to call it quits. “I believe the Feds reacted because other counties started calling them up and asking, ‘Hey, how do we do this in our county,” McCowen told the AVA.
“I think that if the Feds hadn’t raided Matt, ordinance would have expanded to Humboldt and Lake Counties with several thousand people in the program. Congratulations. Another victory for the cartels,” Fine sighs. “When I tell the story of Northstone, people are so unbelievably outraged and shocked that in the time of cartels, this is what our government is doing to legal farmers.”
But Fine was here to deliver another message. In his travels across the country he is hearing overwhelming support for Mendocino County cannabis farmers. “Fifty-six percent of Americans are saying they’re ready to end the Drug War. Maybe in this case, if people really speak, the policies around Prohibition will end. People are pissed that tax dollars are being used to bust a farmer who was cooperating with law enforcement and was well within the statutes of the local ordinance,” says Fine. He recently spent two hours on two separate NPR call-in shows in America’s heartland. “It is hard to find an American who doesn’t want to end the war on cannabis. I was on the radio for one hour. They couldn’t get a caller to support the Drug War. The hosts were literally asking supporters of the Drug War to call in, and no one did,” Fine notes.
In 1988, DEA judge Francis Young recommended that cannabis be removed from its current status as a Schedule I substance, where it currently sits, classified as a more dangerous substance than morphine, cocaine, Zanax and methamphetamine. That request was denied. “What we’ve gotten in 20 years are 10 times more people in prison in the US than in China. The Drug War is one of the United State’s most terrible mistakes. When people tell you to stop it, you need to stop,” says Fine.
“It seemed like Mendo got their ass kicked last year. How dare the DEA threaten elected officials. But what seems like bad times are really the last leg of a flailing battle,” says Fine. Why? Because it just doesn’t make economic sense anymore. “The Drug War runs on inertia. When you have $30 billion spent, it is an industry. The DEA and the raiders keep each other employed and keep the Prohibition prices high.”
Just how high? Fine did a little math based upon the 2010 plant seizures as reported by the Mendocino County Sheriffs Department. Six hundred thousand plants were seized- a record number. Whether you agree with the Sheriff, who feels the seized plants represent ten percent of the county crop, or with farmers, who estimate that number at about one percent, the economic implications are staggering.
Because of the market glut, Fine conservatively estimated the value of the 2010 cannabis crop at $1,000 per pound, and averaged plant yields at 1.5 pounds per plant- also a conservative number. The prize behind the Green Door? A staggering $8.1 billion annually, “which represents a value of $258.04 per county resident, per day,” says Fine.
“I wasn’t surprised about much in this story except the numbers and what that could mean nationwide. If this is just one county generating billions, think what that could mean. What congressman wouldn’t want to say that they helped their community build an industry that saved public service jobs, increased public safety and revived their economy?” he continues.
And though Fine’s accolades are not shared by all in the audience, he makes a point of crediting John McCowen and Sheriff Tom Allman for having the moxie to try something new and embrace, or at least shake hands with the Green Revolution.
“A significant argument that I heard is that it’s not for law enforcement or local officials to determine how many plants people can grow or how medicine gets to patients. I would have voted for Prop 19. I respect these nuance arguments but I supported the zip-tie program, and at the same time I appreciate and honor those who don’t agree with the permitting process. These are people who have justified fear of law enforcement. There are some in this room who have been raided by the authorities- families with medical grows. I understand your suspicion,” said Fine.
“I know to some farmers John McCowen is Mendo’s version of Ronald Reagan. His constituents told him that indoor cannabis was a safety problem. Let’s admit the guy is not a hypocrite. When Matt’s couriers were in court in Sonoma County, John testified that the defendants were innocent because they were following state and county law.”
“I think most people in law enforcement are just doing their job, and doing it well,” said Fine, likening many deputies to a haggard corporal in Vietnam slogging through the last 73 days until his tour of duty ends. “When I was covering Full Court Press, my GPS coordinates failed and I got lost. Suddenly, this big guy in fatigues with automatic weapons charged at me, looking like he’d just finished his tour in Afghanistan- and he probably had. I start yelling, ‘Hey, I’m with the media, I’m supposed to meet someone.’ In an instant his whole demeanor changed. It was like he deflated. He was just a worn out guy collecting a drug paycheck.”
Fine flicks his PowerPoint switch and two slides fill the screen- the first showing the media event which was the culmination of Full Court Press. Melinda Haag, Sheriff Allman and a phalanx of officials were lined up on a small stage at the Ukiah Fairgrounds, reporting on the plant seizures and environmental cleanup coordinated by an alphabet soup of local, state and federal personnel during their multi-county sweep. The second photo shows Sheriff Allman, Matt Cohen and DA David Eyster under a brightly colored tent at the Gaia Festival in Laytonville- just days later. “The schizophrenia of the Drug War is obvious in those photos. In the first photo, possessing one leaf is illegal. In the other, everyone’s discussing how to grow cannabis legally,” said Fine.
“Sheriff Tom was very forthcoming for the book. It’s not ok to get your dog shot and your children taken away. I get that. But it’s pretty interesting when you’re interviewing the Mendocino County Sheriff and he says, ‘Let me make sure you understand my view. If someone came by my office carrying a pound, I would not get off my ass to arrest him.’”
The strangeness of “cannaphrenia” is never lost on Tom Allman. “Tom was talking with me about a garden he’d observed during an over-flight. He said, ‘So that’s how that conservative Republican pays for two concurrent Stanford tuitions,’” Fine recounts, to chuckles from the audience.
And the zip ties? “I get them in Jersey for eight cents each and sell them for 50 bucks. I’m marking this up more than street dealers do,” Allman laughed during an interview with Fine.
“Allman allowed this to happen. You might hate the zip tie program, but when I can tell Arkansas grannies that the Sheriff says it’s ok, that makes a difference. Six hundred thousand dollars in the county coffers and seven saved deputy positions are irrefutable facts.”
Fine puts another photo on the screen- Tomas Balogh, grower of “Lucille,” shaking hands with Sgt. Randy Johnson, who oversaw the 9.31 program and was conducting an inspection of Balogh’s permitted garden. “Do you grasp this?” Fine asked the audience. “If Mendo was any more progressive you’d be clothing-optional in supermarkets. This is the powerful image. We’re in a different reality here.”
“Good thing Tomas was able to call the Sheriffs when the two attempted rippings of his crop happened. Once he heard Tomas was in the program, the deputy made a point of saying it wouldn’t be necessary to see Tomas’s permit. They chased off the bad guy. Sgt. Randy said the real importance of the program was not the money. After 26 years on force, he was now were getting calls about domestic violence, robbery and other crimes that they wouldn’t have been called out on,” Fine notes.
Contrast this to the trial of Matt Cohen’s delivery drivers, arrested not once but twice just over the Mendo-Sonoma County line attempting to bring Mendo-sanctioned cannabis to registered Northstone patients. In the trial, Fine observed what he characterized as “a bumbling DA” questioning one of the arresting officers.
“You have the patient receipts that they put on credit cards, don’t you?” the DA asks.
“Yes,” responds the officer.
“Wouldn’t you say that this non-profit corporation is charging a high retail price for their Super Silver Haze?” the DA continues.
“If its really Super Silver Haze, that price is kind of low,” the officer responded. Guffaws from the audience ensued.
“Do you think you’re not impacting Middle America? Arkansas just put a medical cannabis initiative on the ballot four days ago,” says Fine.
“One of most valuable lessons I had was Jim Hill’s openness to me, allowing me to visit his collective in Orange County.” Many of Hill’s patients were seniors. “Richard Nixon retired in Orange County. Jim’s patients tried cannabis in college and knew it wasn’t going to hurt them. They got their lives back. These seniors in Orange County are one of the reasons I’m such an optimist.”
Jim Hill told Fine why they chose to locate their dispensary in such a seemingly cannabis-unfriendly location “I asked the Hills, why Orange County? They said their mottos is, ‘Orange County needs its medicine too.’”
How did a flower become a felony? “Back in the 30x, Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics made statements about cannabis users which would make Newt seem positively liberal. Anslinger said, ‘Most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana usage.’ That was the beginning of Federal Prohibition, a $30 billion dollar industry with almost no effect on supply and demand.”
“My neighbor wears a cowboy hat and thinks Barak was born in Libya. She says to me, ‘When are they gonna stop this war? It’s a waste of money, innocent kids are in prison. It’s terrible,’” she tells me. “Legalization of medical cannabis is polling nationally at 80 percent. It seems like we are at a tipping point,” he continues.
Fine sees Mendocino cannabis farmers poised to set the standard for the rest of the country, and even the world. “It was the GMO vote that was the final factor,” says Fine. “With regard to the parasitic use of the land- thank God for organizations like the Emerald Growers Association, who are demonstrating that that’s not what outdoor cultivation is about.”
Kristen Nevedal, chair and co-founder of the EGA has been working to raise the level of discourse regarding all things cannabis, looking at the issues from a larger framework. “Our mission is to support effective medical cannabis policy locally and nationwide, especially for outdoor, sun-growing farmers,” she tells the audience. EGA jumped into the political fray and along with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Americans for Safe Access supported Tom Ammiano’s AB 2312. “The initiative fell apart and a sunset report is currently being written. “It’s a hard process when you get into legislation,” Nevedal explained.
More exciting to Nevedal is the interest that the American Herbal Products Association has shown in cannabis. “The AHPA regulates vitamins and nutrients and is currently looking at regulating the cannabis industry. Cultivation, dispensary, lab and manufacturing subcommittees have been formed to make recommendations to regulators and create best practices. We’re really excited to be able to show legislators we can be a clean, regulated industry and clean up some of the things that people point out as opposition. The AHPA have been leaders in keeping the vitamin market out of the FDA’s hands. The EGA is helping to lay out parameters so that as communities and states have the opportunity to regulate, they’ll have a framework to work with,” Nevedal continues. The parameters include safety issues, how to protect producers and regulations that allow for cannabis to be considered an agricultural product, utilizing existing best practices from the herbal industry. “They are very excited to be working with cannabis industry,” she notes.
“Regulation is coming down the pipe, whether you like it or not,” Nevedal cautions. She stated that the Regional Water Quality Board has created an agricultural advisory committee that is working to create ag standards for cannabis farmers. “They are looking at thresholds, considering what size of cultivation or production would require farmers to apply for a water permit,” Nevedal notes. Supervisor McCowen has postulated that once Prohibition is lifted, indoor growing will be doomed because indoor pesticide issues will be viewed as a violation of the Clean Water Act.
An environmental coalition in Humboldt County has formed consisting of many local groups including EPIC, Friends of the Eel River, the Mattole Watershed Council, Fish and Game and other organizations. The group is focusing on education and is creating a Green Growers Guide. “It’s aimed at the cannabis community but never references cannabis. We’d like it to be placed at every nursery or business where farmers would shop.” The guide will discuss tips and recommendations on soil, water storage, fuel containment, water pumping and diversion, reducing fertilizer use, controlling powdery mildew and more, and will provide contacts and web links. “Hopefully we can bring this to Mendo,” says Nevedal.
“I see a healthy, bright future for medical cannabis growers in Humboldt and Mendocino Counties. There will be exciting things happening in the next couple of years. I don’t want my kids to deal with Prohibition in the future,” she concludes.
Fine bristles at the fiscal inequality suffered by outdoor cannabis farmers. “Forget the constant soundtrack of helicopters. The real insult is when you go into a dispensary and see $1,000 for outdoor versus $2,500 for indoor. For sub-par medicine grown under lights and covered in mildew? Are you kidding me?”
Yet there are still many farmers who are skeptical of regulation. “Here is my main message for long-time black market farmers who are part of the underground economy and fear the Coors/Phillip Morris takeover: There are no bootleggers anymore. They became Nascar. There’s no question that that could happen to average growers. But take a look at the Napa Valley. They represent the culmination of one of most famous and successful marketing campaigns in history. The same thing can happen here if you grow sustainable, sun-grown, cannabis. You’re the best cannabis farmers in the frickin’ world. Be the best. Don’t worry about the newcomers.”
And if it isn’t enough that cannabis can bolster foundering economies or cure cancer, Fine, who has written extensively on sustainability, takes it up another notch. “Cannabis can solve our nation’s energy problems. I spoke with a USDA biologist whose specialty is biofuels. She told me cannabis is the best there is. You get ten times the per-acre yield compared to corn or soy. Then she told me they were not even allowed to talk about it because it’s a Schedule I substance.”
Fine envisions large-scale trimming operations located in a centralized facility which would handle everything from security to payroll. “Then, when you finish trimming the flowers, ferment the stalks and be your own community fuel source.” Think Fine’s been smoking too much of the Super Silver Haze? Apparently the residents of Feldheim, Germany must be doing the same thing. “The entire town of Feldheim runs on fuel from its biomass facility. The town has 0 unemployment. I just can’t wait to pull up to a gas station and say, ‘fill’er up with cannabis, please.’ Let’s keep the energy side in mind.”
And Fine can’t pass up weighing in on Campaign Season. “Turn on CNN and you hear the commentators saying, ‘Can Obama rally the youth vote in battleground states?’ I’m just curious if anyone here has an idea of an issue that would motivate youth. Do you think youth might be motivated if Obama had a press conference tomorrow and said, ‘During my career, I’ve always opposed the Drug War. In my first term I didn’t take much action on it. Next term, things will change.’”
But what about the children? Locally, fears for Anderson Valley children’s safety certainly caused a kerfuffle when Laura Hamburg proposed opening a dispensary in downtown Boonville. “There’s a group called the Anderson Valley Action Coalition, for example, whose members from the Boonville area put forth the view that wine tasting rooms are preferable to putative cannabis tasting rooms in their community, the same community that produced three Emerald Cup cannabis competition winners in 2010.”
Fine goes on in his book to cite a 2011 Toronto Hospital for Sick Children study, which concludes that children of cannabis growers have no more health risks than any other children of any other parent. “Presumably including those who sell America’s deadliest drug- alcohol, or those who market off-label antipsychotic drugs like Seroquel to children.”
He continues by mentioning the exhaustive 2011 RAND Corporation study which found that crime actually went down near dispensaries.
But these facts do not deter the fearful. “To intentionally settle in Mendo with this view would be exactly like settling in Silicon Valley and opposing computers. You have every right to your opinion, of course, but if you seek inner peace, you might want to consider moving elsewhere,” said Fine in his book.
“Is cannabis a gateway drug? Multiple peer reviews indicate no. The ridiculousness is taking people’s property and spending tax dollars on something so much less dangerous than alcohol or prescription drugs,” he notes.
What about being buzzed behind the wheel? “Studies are mixed on whether immediate use of cannabis creates driving impairment. Researchers suggested that maybe because cannabis users know they’re doing something against the law, they’re extra careful. I accept public roadway intoxication laws. But how do cannabis users compare to zonked-out oxycontin or Zanax users driving around all the time? The breathalyzer model is not going to work. Today, if you’re 16 and you drank a Budweiser and had an accident, they can find out who sold it to you. We can figure this out.”
What advice does Fine have to current and future farmers? “Be an activist. Talk to friends, family, and neighbors. Contact Congress and help get cannabis out of the Controlled Substances Act. If you’re dedicated to farming now, practice sustainable methods and do it within local and federal limits. We can reduce our health care costs as well as get medicine to patients, I think it’s the brave thing to do. Be proud to be an American Farmer.”
“In every war it takes every kind of soldier. Some people do commit brazen acts to win. For me, the thing I most want to express to farmers within Mendo is how ready America is for this. Be positioned to be the craft brewers of the Drug Peace Movement. Cannabis will be an American farming product.”
“Stick it out and hang in there. Even if you don’t support a 99-plant permit system, a deputy shaking hands with a cannabis farmer is victory. It is Drug Peace. You folks are helping end this drug war while putting your freedom at risk.”
Laura Hamburg stopped by to give Doug Fine a gift- a “Peoples Republic of Mendocino” T-Shirt. She reminds him of the important lessons learned and time it took for women to win the right to vote- how legislation was passed and repealed, over and over, state by state. Will Doug wear his “Peoples Republic of Mendocino” T-Shirt for his appearance on Colbert? Let’s all cross our sticky fingers.
Meanwhile, at a Sonoma County senior living facility, Bill Harney is enjoying the fruits of Tomas Balogh’s labor- the dried, crystalline trichomes of Lucille. “I weighed 118 pounds 10 months ago. My oncologist said to get cannabis immediately. I weigh 155 now. The plant saved my life.”
For information on Doug Fine visit www.dougfine.com . For information on the Emerald Growers Association visit www.emeraldgrowers.org .