Author and NPR Contributor Doug Fine on the Economic Future of Marijuana

Doug Fine wrote the book on marijuana.

The book Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution delves into a cannabis-based economic plan and its leaders, "ganjapreneurs." It chronicles the journey of a single flower from farm to patient in Mendocino County, California. Just north of the San Francisco Bay Area, the county has developed a system to legalize, regulate, and tax the growth of ganja. The zip-tie program, where plants wore yellow zip-ties bearing a permit number allowing them to be grown without legal repercussion, was formally shut down after pressure from the federal government at the end of the 2011 farming season.

See Also: Marijuana Legalization Supported by More Than Half of Arizonans, Poll Says Pot Smokers Are Skinnier, and Here's Why Marijuana Legalization Campaign Trying to Get Issue on Arizona Ballots in 2014

Pot is an unregulated industry generating $35 billion dollars a year in unrecoupable, underground funds. A 2010 study from the Cato Institute in Washington claims that legalizing weed could generate tax revenue upward of $8.7 billion annually -- and would save the government roughly the same amount in enforcement spending. Over half of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, and if Mendocino County is any indication, the federal government is starting to notice.

Fine, whose résumé includes backpacking across five continents, contributing to National Public Radio, and goat farming, comes to Changing Hands Bookstore on Friday, July 19, for a conversation about these numbers and their impact on Arizona. We caught up with him on his book tour to talk pot, the War on Drugs, and whether he's been known to "puff, puff, pass."

What was your process going into writing and researching Too High to Fail? A retiring neighbor of mine got arrested for a very small amount of [marijuana] plants. There was a huge aerial raid that terrified me and my family, and it didn't seem like the Drug War was in sync with American ideals of freedom and civil liberties.

[But] I was conscious to write a book about not just why America is better off ending the Drug War, because 80 percent of Americans already know that. I chose to study this one program called the Zip-tie program in Mendocino County, California. I followed this one cannabis flower from farm to patient. It was a terrible success.

How did you come to that conclusion? What might a cannabis economy look like in that sense? The model is just awesome! It's farmer-centric. In other words, it puts small farmers back to work in a way where they can support themselves. It mandates sustainable practices, it increases public safety, it creates local jobs -- not just on the farms but inspectors, flower trimmers, et cetera. And it was really win-win for everybody and something that can be replicated everywhere. They were even talking about later-stage, once the Drug War ends, using the unusable stocks to create ethanol and local energy.

Why a cannabis-based economy as opposed to something like narcotics or one incorporating all drugs? What makes pot different in terms of readiness for taxation? Cannabis is considerably safer than alcohol and safer than America's real epidemic, which is prescription drug use -- and any cop will tell you that. The sheriff in Mendocino County doesn't even think cannabis is in the top 10 problems for the county.

Arizona is going to see a lot safer state with cannabis legalized, because the criminal cartels south of the border make the majority of their profits from cannabis. Use rates go down in every place that's legalized cannabis so far. There's even a study out of Rhode Island -- a university study -- that when medical cannabis got going there youth use rates went down as well, and that's due to the fact that criminals don't ask for ID. Legalizing actually decreases the rate of youth use, which I care about as a father. Banning it doesn't work. Now, I don't want to say anything has zero risk, but we can reduce 90 percent of our drug war spending and focus the rest on real education and treatments to prevent abuse. So, what I'm focusing on here is taxing and regulating responsible adult use. I still believe we should go after the really dangerous things like cocaine, meth and, really, prescription pills, too. [But] I think ending the war on cannabis really ends the Drug War.

Then why do you think the U.S. government lags behind countries like Canada or Portugal where it's legalized and they've noticed these drastic cutbacks? Because we're the world leader in spending on the Drug War and there are thousands and thousands of jobs that go into the Drug War plus $40 billion of our taxpayer dollars every year. That causes a slow-motion kind of turn, but the train is already turning around and people know what the truth is. Slowly but surely, begrudgingly the bureaucracy is paying attention.

The Drug Enforcement Administration really fought hard last week when the U.S. House of Representatives voted on legalizing test crops of hemp -- which isn't even psychoactive. They threw all their old myths and legend about marijuana and cannabis at the House and the House did not listen. It passed and legalized industrial cannabis by a vote of 225 to 200. Unfortunately the bill that it went into, the Farm Bill, failed, but the trend is set and we're on our way to ending the longest and most destructive war in American history.

Fine is referring to an amendment to H.R. 1947, introduced by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). The proposed amendment would allow for research on industrial hemp, classified as a strain of cannabis with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The amendment passed by a vote of 225-200 but failed in the Senate -- along with the Farm Bill it was attached to.

How long do you think it's going to take until there is something like this nationally? Not only state-to-state medical marijuana programs or legalization of marijuana in terms of state governments? I think within five years you'll see cannabis removed from the Controlled Substances Act, which is the most important thing. Then states can regulate it as they like.

You mean in terms of taxation per state government? Yeah. Taxation or age limit or whether the state is going to control how people have access to it, like some states do with alcohol.

What could this mean for a state like Arizona, where medical marijuana has been legalized by voters but is still prosecuted under conservative county and state governments? There's a long tradition of cannabis use in the culture of this region, and that's been driven underground, which is too bad considering the relative safety compared to alcohol. Arizona is polling at 57 percent in favor of completely regulating cannabis like alcohol, so the people are very much ready for this. Arizona probably has potential to grow both psychoactive cannabis (which would be for social and medical use) and hemp. The hemp side is going to add big value to the economy, maybe even bigger than psychoactive cannabis.

To me this is a patriotism issue, and I think that conservatives and progressives alike "get it." But I'm also urging them to "get it," to understand why it's so important that the Drug War ends. And I think Arizona's realizing it. If someone might be older and conservative -- by self-identification politically -- for example, lots of folks like that have been coming to cannabis because it's more effective for things like pain and sleep aids than pharmaceuticals without some of the terrible side effects. And, when it's your health or your family members' health or safety, you no longer care about rhetoric or cultural war or whether or not you have to also agree with people who live in San Francisco. It's that everyone's right on this one. It's time to end the drug war.

Do you smoke? I'm a pretty sober person [but] cannabis is in my life every day. I wore a hemp shirt today; I buy hemp oil [for] my family's health shake every morning. The role of cannabis in my life, it's spiritual. Genesis 1:29 says, "He shall have all the plants and seed-bearing herbs to use." Not "...unless Richard Nixon believes otherwise." It's very clear. This is just a plant. The very basis of the drug war is fundamentally wrong; it does much more harm than good, just as alcohol prohibition did. Things are safer when it's legalized.

Fine speaks at 7 p.m. Friday, July 19, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. Admission is free, and paperback ($16) and hardcover ($26) copies of the book will be available for purchase.

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