Saturday 30 June 2012


June 29, 2012
"Two years ago, I found you with cannabis, you went to jail. Today I see you're just more farmers in our community, like I see at the Farmer's Market with my wife on Saturdays." ~ Mendocino County (CA) Sheriff's Department Sergeant Randy Johnson, addressing permitted cannabis farmers at a 2011 meeting
With that pithy statement, cannabis cultivation administrator Johnson, one of the many society-spanning figures who populate Doug Fine's fascinating account of America's sustainable cannabis growing industry, sums up the rapidly evolving development of the new "green economy" and changing attitudes from all sides of the issue. The results have bearing on all of our lives in the realms of government spending and civil liberties.

In TOO HIGH TO FAIL (Gotham Books; August 2012), Fine, an international investigative journalist and author of the acclaimed Farewell, My Subaru, moves his family half way across the country to a place where a small group of resourceful and determined individuals are creating a roadmap for America's economic future.  


Spurred by journalistic curiosity, a dawning awareness of the role cannabis (aka hemp) played in his own family's daily life, and, finally, a too-close-for-comfort breach of his own back yard by America's Drug War, Fine searched for a locale that even today could demonstrate the benefit of decriminalizing cannabis ~ an event that could simultaneously tap a multi-billion-dollar resource for the American and world economies and provide medical relief to millions. 

He found it in Mendocino County, California, a "northern coastal paradise" where a small group of farmers are legally growing cannabis for medical purposes and creating a template for sustainable farming.

Cannabis, Fine reminds us, has played an important role in the world's economy since ancient times, having been used in the earliest known fabric and oldest surviving paper, as well as "food, shelter, clothing, baskets, medicine and/or spirituality on every continent except Antarctica." 

The paper on which Jefferson wrote the "Declaration of Independence" and the cloth covering pioneer wagons? Made from cannabis.  In the 21st century, Fine found hemp ingredients in everything from his health shakes to his children's diapers, his twine, and his soap ~ none of which were made in the U.S. or benefit its economy.

America's War on Drugs, officially declared by the Nixon administration in 1971, actually has its roots in prohibition era crusaders, and the opposition of competing industries (timber, and chemical and petroleum based synthetics) led by Williams Randolph Hearst and Pierre DuPont.   Critics of the War on Drugs, according to Fine, point out how keeping marijuana illegal allows illegitimate growers and distributors to thrive, thus supporting the black market, organized crime and Mexican drug cartels, not to mention costing taxpayers $15.5 billion annually in Drug War financing.   Fine takes us along on several raids to show how the constitutionally-questionable war is often fought (AKA how the money is spent), and its strange choices of targets.

The legalization of cannabis in this country, Fine argues, "not only has the potential to return thousands of American small family farmers to the land," but "could have a staggeringly large and positive impact on the American economy in sectors far beyond the agricultural; beyond the cannabis field itself.  
Think domestic energy.  
Think South Carolina textile industry.  
Think Nebraska family farmer." In such an economy, says Fine, marijuana for recreational use could merely be a niche market. 
ED: Think also that big incarceration would NOT like this because marijuana is the crime of crimes that fills the prison system with slave labour.

Armed with this knowledge, Fine moves to Mendocino to learn firsthand about an agricultural and community template for how such an economy might develop; a place where cannabis has been effectively decriminalized and tightly regulated in order to provide medical marijuana to nearby California residents. It is also proving an indispensable source of financing for the local economy. 

It helps that this happened in a place where cannabis was already 80% of the economy, to the tune of billions of mostly black market dollars per year. With this legitimate medical purpose of cannabis in mind, Fine carries out his investigation by following one local farmer's plant from birth through cultivation, harvesting and into the hands, literally, of a patient in need. 

After settling his family into their almost-as-romantic-as-it-sounds cabin in the Mendocino hills, Fine immerses himself in the local culture and seeks out the key players in the MendoGrown trade group as well as local law enforcement officials. 

Ultimately, he is connected with Tomas Balogh, a 33-year old Berkeley graduate who thus far had only developed the indoor variety of the plant as a means of paying his tuition.  Now, however, Balogh, like other Mendocino farmers, is on a mission to "pay his taxes and provide medicine for patients while demonstrating the economic and social legitimacy" of sustainably-grown, fairly-traded cannabis farming. 

Fine also familiarizes himself with the perspective of the law enforcers: the members of the Mendocino Sheriff's department, including Mendocino Sheriff Tom Allman himself, a local boy who developed a begrudging respect for the law-abiding farmers and their mission. 

Their job is to enforce the "Ordinance 9.31 Zip-tie program" that allows for local farmers to legitimately grow up to 99 cannabis plans annually (the zip-ties being the being the registration anklets that farmers must purchase and attach to the stalk of every permitted plant). 

It is through the steep cost of the zip-ties (approximately $8500 per farmer annually) that the crop contributes directly to the Mendocino county budget ~ in 2011 those funds prevented the lay-offs of seven county deputies. That's not counting the value of hundreds of first time above-ground taxpayers. People who can now call the Sheriff in an emergency.  And Fine follows several who do.

From greenhouse to outdoor crop, through an extended California rainy season and federal raids, Fine follows the Mendocino growing season and, in particular, "Lucille," his farmer's chosen plant, for nine months until, at last, she is harvested, dried, and trimmed. 

Fine accompanies Balogh as he personally delivers a jar of Lucille's flowers to an elderly husband and wife who joined a collective in order to have access to the pesticide-free cannabis their doctor has recommended for chemotherapy-related appetite stimulation.

Having witnessed first-hand the seriousness, dedication and example set by the Mendocino farmers and the legitimacy of their industry, Fine considers the failed War on Drugs and why several generations of American presidents and politicians, including President Obama, have refused to end it. 
Relying on the journalist's tool of "following the money," he spells out how the end to cannabis prohibition is a threat to many influential industries that benefit from the ongoing war: pharmaceuticals, banking, the private prison industry, and the prison guard lobby (not to mention the DEA). 
If taxed, though, cannabis would bring in tens of billions of dollars in revenue to the American economy. Not the first time a substance that Americans very much like will have bailed out the economy: at times in the nineteenth Century, alcohol provided 70% of federal tax revenue.

Fine also acknowledges the risks that legalization of cannabis would entail, namely addiction, but suggests that the risks are, judging by the experiences of law enforcement in Mendocino, without doubt less threatening than those of alcohol and prescription drugs. Abuse of the latter is the real epidemic, Sheriff Allman insists, and influential studies are even showing that cannabis can help in a patient's alcoholism or pill addiction battle. 

Ultimately, Doug Fine concludes in a narrative the reads like wildly humorous investigative journalism, the benefits of ending the 40-year, trillion-dollar Drug War, particularly the enormous potential such a decision has to revive the American economy and cripple the drug cartels, far outweigh the risks. As Sheriff Allman puts in,
"I was raised to believe these people were ruining our county. Now I think they're helping save it."
Local law enforcement gets it. The question is, will the open, taxpaying farmers Fine follows avoid federal prosecution at the tail end of the War on Drugs?

About The Author: Doug Fine is an investigative journalist, author and solar-powered New Mexican goat herder.  He has reported from five continents for the Washington Post, Wired, Salon, High Times, The New York Times, Outside, NPR, and US News & World Report, and he has a regular column in New Mexico magazine.  Fine is the author of two previous books, Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man and Farewell, My Subaru. A Web site of his work and a short film about Too High to Fail are at

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