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Blunt Impact: Writing the History of Cannabis Cultivation

Elizabeth Elliott, December 2017

Indoor cannabis farming requires massive quantities of energy for lighting and climate control. This photo shows a Denver facility attempting more sustainable greenhouse cultivation. Nick Johnson Nick Johnson calls himself a “hempiricist”—the Colorado State University MA and senior associate editor of Colorado Encyclopedia writes prolifically for blogs and news sites as an expert on the history of cannabis. But unlike medievalists, Americanists, or Africanists, hempiricists like Johnson don’t have a lot of company in the discipline. Despite the growing momentum to legalize marijuana around the country and evolving public perceptions of the drug, historians have remained aloof from the conversation. Now, with his monograph Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (Oregon State Univ. Press, 2017), Johnson has become one of the first historians to study cannabis from an environmental and agricultural perspective.

Taking the phrase “grass roots” literally, Johnson’s book traces the cannabis plant from the mid-19th century, when Americans first took notice of its medicinal and intoxicative properties, to the present, where it is suspended between the contradictory domains of state legalization and federal prohibition. Johnson situates his study in the American West, a region that was critical to the development of the American cannabis industry, and that has recently seen the rise of a robust yet problematic growers’ culture. Bringing an agricultural history perspective to cannabis as a crop—which Johnson distinguishes from marijuana, the product that comes from the plant—he argues that the continued federal ban on the drug has caused environmental devastation to fragile western ecosystems.

Marijuana has been illegal at the federal level since 1937, but the drug has gained various allowances under state-level ballot initiatives. Seven of the first eight states to legalize medical marijuana between 1996 and 2000 were western states, and most have since passed measures permitting adult recreational use. Grass Roots describes California and Oregon as the “epicenter” of a regional cannabis culture. In California alone, the crop is estimated to be collectively worth around $7 billion. In some regional communities, says the book, the crop “underwrite[s] the entire local economy,” with profits supporting businesses, charities, and public institutions like fire departments. “A lot of people out there wouldn’t know what to do if they couldn’t grow weed,” Johnson told Perspectives, because so many livelihoods are now linked to its cultivation.

Johnson senses that the reason for the dearth of scholarship on cannabis is that researchers are hesitant to confront a taboo topic.

How and why did cannabis farming take off in the West? Since the early years of European settlement, Johnson explains, many parts of the West have functioned on backwoods, extractive economies. Commercial fishing, followed by commercial logging and finally industrial agriculture, carved a niche for large-scale cannabis farming. But federal prohibition has kept prices high and the market unregulated. As more and more cannabis farms go into operation to chase profits, irresponsible energy consumption and pollution scars the land. Clashes between growers and law enforcement have led to harassment, imprisonment, and disproportionate targeting of minorities for cannabis crimes. Western cannabis culture, according to Johnson, thus carries the weight of suspicion, resentment, and gross environmental negligence. And understanding the history of how this happened, he writes, is the best way to guide the cannabis industry on a more progressive, sustainable path.

As Johnson documents in Grass Roots, popular media and political propaganda of the early 20th century falsely characterized cannabis as a powerful narcotic associated with violence and degenerate behavior. Meanwhile, certain enterprising groups, such as poor Mexican Americans working on western sugar beet farms, started cultivating small and secret plots of cannabis within existing irrigation frameworks. Johnson argues that the plant was well-equipped to “meet certain needs of a marginalized and exploited people”—cultivating cannabis not only fostered autonomy and brought in extra cash, but using the drug medicinally and recreationally helped workers cope with the stresses of everyday life.

During the 1960s and ’70s, the counterculture attracted new growers seeking a “back to the land” way of life to the California and Oregon wilderness. These upper- and middle-class newcomers, along with scientists calling for investigation of the plant’s medicinal uses, began to reshape popular conceptions of the “menacing” drug. As decades passed, crackdowns on imports from international markets allowed the market for homegrown cannabis to explode into a multi-billion-dollar economy. In the meantime, law enforcement raids, invigorated by Reagan’s War on Drugs, drove many growers off the land and into basements and warehouses.

Grass Roots highlights specific properties of the cannabis plant that Johnson says show an urgent need to regulate its cultivation through legislation. Cannabis is a notorious water-guzzler: a single plant consumes an average of four to six gallons per day. Unlike farmers of licit crops following supervisory guidelines for proper water usage, cannabis growers in gray markets are more likely to funnel water improperly and wastefully. Moreover, the cannabis plant enjoys almost none of the commercial protections afforded to other products of American agriculture. Unlike vineyards, cannabis farms destroyed in the October 2017 wildfires in northern California are ineligible for disaster aid and insurance claims, simply because marijuana is illegal under federal law.

Johnson considers himself to be a relative latecomer to the world he’s studying. He grew up in the Chicago suburbs—a place not exactly known for its cannabis culture—and experienced somewhat of a shock when he moved to weed-friendly Fort Collins in fall 2012 to pursue his master’s in history at Colorado State. That November, Colorado voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana by adults over 21. “I agreed with the concept of legalization, but I never thought it would be something that would actually happen,” he told Perspectives. This watershed inspired his thesis, titled “‘Rocky Mountain High’: An Environmental History of Cannabis in the American West.”

“When I was writing my thesis,” says Johnson, “the only academic history of cannabis was Isaac Campos’s Home Grown.” But Home Grown (2013), which documented the rise of marijuana prohibition in Mexico, focused more on those who smoked cannabis than those who produced it, and did not provide the environmental or agricultural perspective Johnson was interested in. “There’s a lot written about . . . the counterculture and prohibition, and how racist prohibition is,” he explains. But these social and political aspects of the history of pot, according to Johnson, didn’t say anything about “where people were growing it, how were people growing it, and how that changed over time.”

Johnson senses that the reason for the dearth of scholarship is that researchers are hesitant to confront a taboo topic. “If your professor is writing about pot, he must be some kind of kooky, stoner hippie or something,” Johnson quips. “I think that people who write about drugs, especially in a positive way or a neutral way, are kind of frowned upon. . . . We don’t do that with the history of alcohol. The stigma has carried forward from the days of prohibition, and that’s been a barrier to professional history taking it seriously.”

While he was researching, the high environmental cost of unregulated cannabis farming became clear to Johnson.

While researching Grass Roots, the high environmental cost of unregulated cannabis farming quickly became clear to Johnson. Illegal outdoor grows have permanently diverted rivers and tributaries while residual pesticides, chemicals, and sediments have disrupted fragile ecosystems. Recent shifts to indoor growth sites have exacerbated the problem, as massive quantities of energy are used to fuel artificial lighting and climate-control systems. Conscious of these irresponsible practices, but unable to operate within modern agricultural regulations, western weed growers are extremely hesitant to come clean about their methods.

Johnson hopes that Grass Roots will guide new conversations about sustainable agriculture. “It became increasingly clear to me as I talked to growers and other people who were involved that they want to see this industry done right from an environmental perspective,” he said. “My thinking is, if we do weed right, that can be a model for other parts of American agriculture.” He’s already seen good news: 29 states, plus the District of Columbia, have passed legislation legalizing medical or recreational marijuana. Johnson describes a “cross-coastal pollination effect” where new growers in other parts of the country are beginning to look at the lessons learned by the industry in the West to prevent problems before they begin.

Armed with historical context, Johnson believes that politicians, long the chief enemy of the “menacing drug,” can be convinced of the urgent need to officially regulate cannabis farming. “I think there is an opportunity to shift the discussion from things like ‘legalization’ to using terms like ‘regulation,’ which will get more politicians on board to study environmental standards and crop limits,” he says. As Johnson writes in his book, “The history of cannabis, like the history of anything, is useful because it reminds us of things that can help us plan for a better, or at least a saner, future.” In this opportunity for history to perform public good, Johnson hopes that other “hempiricists” will join his mission.

Elizabeth Elliott is program associate at the AHA.

For Nick Johnson’s research and commentary on cannabis-related events, visit his blog Hempirical Evidence. He tweets @TheHempiricist.


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