Op-ed: America’s past holds clues for solving current issues with marijuana industry

Historian Nick Johnson: Lessons from a troubled history of marijuana prohibition can make for a cleaner, more inclusive cannabis industry today

Marijuana might not have given many Americans a hangover, but prohibition certainly did.

In 1917, Colorado banned cultivation and sale of the drug cannabis, a peripheral yet legal medicine in early 20th-century America. Then, 95 years later on Nov. 6, 2012, Coloradans voted to re-legalize the plant and its products for adults 21 and older.

While the legalization vote was widely celebrated as the dawn of a new, more rational era in American drug policy, few observers took the time to appreciate what happened in the interceding decades, and what those events might mean for the modern cannabis industry.

As it turns out, two of the legal cannabis industry’s most vexing problems — racial inequality and environmental neglect — are hangovers from continuing federal prohibition. The sooner we recognize and appreciate this history, the sooner we can craft legislation and policy that will make marijuana legalization a truly progressive endeavor.

One of the most popular talking points in pro-legalization circles is the fact that racism toward blacks and Latinos played a major role in the establishment of national marijuana prohibition via the Marihuana Tax Act in 1937. This is true, but more broadly, marijuana prohibition was just one part of the institutional racism that systematically shut down educational and economic opportunities for black and Latino communities from the end of the Civil War through the present. The result was a huge wealth disparity for black and brown America compared with white America. Producing, selling, and using illegal drugs has long presented the nation’s poorer communities — regardless of skin color — an opportunity to make a living and cope with the everyday stresses of racism and poverty.

This meant that the War on Drugs took a disproportionate toll on communities of color; again, this is common knowledge among advocates of legal marijuana. Less common is the realization that, because of this historical inequality, black and brown Americans were not as well-positioned as white Americans to benefit from the reversal of a policy that hammered their communities for decades. States that have re-legalized cannabis have largely failed to address this opportunity gap in both rhetoric and policy. The result? A legal cannabis industry that is overwhelmingly dominated by white men — although there have been recent efforts to change the dynamic.

And while it’s true that fewer minorities are going to jail for pot, ingrained prejudice and entrenched patterns of over-policing minority communities have maintained the disparity in marijuana arrests between whites and non-whites — even in states that have legalized, and even though both groups use the drug at similar rates.

Meanwhile, the crackdown on American marijuana growers that began in the latter part of the 20th century was, among other things, an environmental disaster. Yes, people’s lives and livelihoods were disrupted and their possessions were unjustly confiscated — another common (and true) refrain from legalization advocates — but growers’ guerilla-like response to the War on Drugs effectively mainstreamed unsustainable and irresponsible agriculture.

Determined to take advantage of the high prices encouraged by marijuana prohibition, growers moved indoors and deeper into public lands and other remote regions such as California’s “Emerald Triangle.” Indoors, innovative but energy-intensive lighting and cooling systems widened the crop’s energy footprint; outdoors, unregulated cultivation disrupted and polluted ecosystems.

The environmental problems only got worse after states began legalizing medical marijuana in the 1990s, as more and more outlaw growers flocked to places like California and Oregon to capitalize on the cover of a gray market.

Campaigns to legalize marijuana in Colorado and elsewhere largely ignored environmental issues tied to cultivation. Lost in supporters’ jubilation after the legalization votes in 2012 was the fact that Colorado and Washington voters had just legalized a hugely popular crop just as their states began to feel the effects of an awful drought.

Trash and other items found during a raid of an illegal marijuana cultivation in Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest. (Provided by U.S. Forest Service)

Widespread injustice under federal marijuana prohibition made activists more concerned with the broad concept of legalization, while decades of prohibitionist rhetoric about cannabis as an “illegal narcotic” and “Schedule I substance” made state politicians more concerned about regulating marijuana the drug instead of cannabis the crop. For instance, not once in a 266-page report did Colorado’s Amendment 64 Implementation Task Force mention the word “water.” Washington state conducted just one third-party study on marijuana’s environmental impact. Oregon, which also legalized in a drought year, did better, but with federal prohibition buoying the price of illegal marijuana, black-market cultivation remains a lucrative enterprise.

Fortunately, states have recently been paying more attention to this problem. California’s new legalization plan includes strict environmental parameters, and nearly every state with legal recreational marijuana now regulates the use of pesticides. Denver Water representatives are increasingly “impressed” with conservation efforts from marijuana cultivators. Outdoor and greenhouse cultivation is becoming more attractive and viable.

These are all important steps, but advocates and authorities involved in cannabis legalization must continue to reflect and act on lessons from the plant’s history under decades of prohibition. States that have legalized must embrace plans to boost minorities and women in the industry and other efforts to make the cannabis industry more socially inclusive. They must establish green energy standards and continue pushing the industry toward greenhouse and outdoor cultivation. Contrary to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s “wait and see” advice, states that have legalized must call loudly for an end to federal prohibition that is the main driver of environmentally harmful, black-market growing.

Prohibition has given the marijuana industry quite a hangover, but strong leadership based on an appreciation for history may be just the seltzer it needs.

Nick Johnson is an historian based in Longmont, Colorado. He is the author of the new book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West.