Book Review: 'Too High to Fail,' by Doug Fine; 'Smoke Signals,' by Martin Lee

Could legalizing weed give the GDP a badly needed boost?
What if toking up could, like, save the country? Illustration by Ana Benaroya

In a more enlightened world, proponents of legalizing marijuana would gather around red-white-and-blue bongs and watch as President Barack Obama made the following proclamation: “My fellow Americans, depending on how much pot you smoke, you may or may not recall that I was the first presidential candidate to admit inhaling. And so I stand before you today to declare my full support for legalizing marijuana. We will put farmers, small business owners, and truck drivers back to work. We will heal this nation’s deep economic wounds—and give a shot in the arm to the snack food industry, too.”

Watching their heroic president, pot advocates would stare at each other more blankly than usual. Their rhetorical strategy had previously involved waxing poetic about the plant’s long history and miraculous medical benefits, claims even the staunchest pot supporters barely utter with straight faces. They could now rejoice in finally hitting upon the winning argument for legalization: It’s the economy, stupid.

Such is the case made by two new books about the struggle to legalize cannabis, and both authors address their points squarely at bankrupt local governments faced with stubbornly high unemployment. The idea is that the most popular illicit plant in the U.S. has the potential to give birth to a dynamic agricultural and medicinal industry employing hundreds of thousands of people who grow and legally sell a substance more than half the country has already used.

The title of Doug Fine’s Too High to Fail reflects its capitalist polemic. Fine spent a year in Mendocino County, Calif., where officials, with the help of the sheriff, offered $8,500-a-year permits for “ganjapreneurs” growing and selling the plant for medical purposes. Based on his experience in Mendocino, Fine argues that “anyone who crunches the numbers can see that the simple decriminalization of cannabis can almost immediately act as, if not a cornerstone, then at least a significant piece of a national economic recovery.”

Smoke Signals, by Martin Lee, is more of a social history, detailing every medical, scientific, and pop-culture fact about cannabis he can stuff into the binding. (The slang word “roach,” for example, derives from the song La Cucaracha, about a stoned soldier.) Lee also imagines a bright, legal, lucrative future for weed. Unfortunately, you’d have to be smoking something good to imagine it’s that simple. The economic rationalization is perfectly timed, but neither author seems to recall that ending Prohibition did not end the Great Depression.

These book ideas likely found eager mainstream publishers in 2010, when California, which legalized medical marijuana in 1996, was weighing a ballot initiative known as Prop 19 to essentially make pot as legal as alcohol. The state’s budget was in shambles, unemployment was high, and a quarter of state residents had no health insurance. Lee notes the yearly untaxed dollar amount of the state’s pot crop: $13.8 billion. Proponents pushed the economic angle hard, releasing TV ads promising “billions of dollars for local communities.” Yet Lee and Fine underestimate a key cultural force in the country that cares little about pot’s potential to restore jobs—that is, the powerful, not-in-my-backyard crowd that argues marijuana is essentially a gateway drug to the end times. In their ads, Prop 19’s foes used images of wrecked school buses to hammer home their argument. More important, the authors fail to see what voters in California apparently did when they eventually defeated Prop 19: The economic argument is voodoo ganjanomics.

Sure, the state could save funds by not fighting the pot trade and raise funds by taxing it, but high tariffs on weed would likely create black markets in need of crime fighters, thus cutting into the savings. And since pot is already basically legal in the state—the sheriff in Fine’s book estimates that only 5 percent of prescriptions are truly medically needed—private-sector job growth might prove inconsequential. Another problem: Small-time ganjapreneurs, including those in Mendocino, were quietly against Prop 19, fearing that legalization would cause a supply surge, with scores of new plantings driving bud prices into the ground. That effect would be even more considerable on a national level. Beau Kilmer, a Rand Corp. researcher who has studied the potential economic effects of marijuana legalization, writes that if farmers nationwide were able to farm pot outdoors and in greenhouses, “a ‘joint’ might cost pennies rather than dollars.”

Not only did America’s first big pot legalization vote go up in smoke, but so did the movement’s supposed ally in the White House. Obama the pot smoker has turned out to be Obama the narc. Gil Kerlikowske, the nation’s drug czar, has left little room for doubt: “Legalization is not in the president’s vocabulary, nor is it in mine.”

That makes for some unhappy endings. Lee, in Smoke Signals, calls the past year or so a “period of retrenchment,” describing a “green light strobing” from Washington to crack down on medicinal pot programs. One of the localities feeling the wrath of the federal government was Mendocino County, where Fine spent a year reporting. He writes that the U.S. Department of Justice threatened lawsuits against county officials if they didn’t stop permitting the growers to cultivate pot. By a 4-1 vote, the County Board of Supervisors gutted the program.

Fine remains convinced that this was a failure of political will, not reason. The last paragraph of his book cites the cost of America’s war on drugs in 2011 alone: almost $36 billion. “That’s a number,” he writes, “that could balance a few budgets.” Problem is, only a small amount of drug-fighting money is spent on marijuana. More important, the current U.S. budget shortfall is $974 billion. There is no stimulus in getting high.

A chronicle of marijuana's journey toward legitimacy
Photographs by Alamy (3); AP Photo; Getty Images (2)

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