TOO HIGH TO FAIL
Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution
By Doug Fine
Illustrated. 319 pp.GothamBooks. $28.
Review by Bill Maher, 8.1.12
“Too High to Fail” is a good rebuttal to those who say stoners never accomplish anything — Doug Fine did. Review by Bill Maher.
He has written a well-researched book that uses the clever tactic of making the moral case for ending marijuana prohibition by burying it inside the economic case. We’ve become a ruthless society, and almost everything (I’m looking at you, Environment and Health Care) has to be sold as “first, it’s good for business.” To his credit, Fine doesn’t do what so many of us do and scream, “Can’t we just stop jailing potheads because that would be the right thing?” Also to his credit, he never admits he’s one of them.
The “war on drugs” is America’s longest war. It has cost taxpayers $1 trillion in the last 40 years, Fine notes, and it has turned our nation into “the most highly incarcerated society in history.” In 2011, a global commission on drug policy (whose members included Paul Volcker, George P. Shultz and former presidents to Brazil, Colombia and Mexico) declared that “the global war on drugs has failed.” Sixty-seven percent of Americans agree. Antonin Scalia and Pat Robertson are now to the left of President Obama on pot.
In a way, the author of a polemic on marijuana policy suffers from the odd case of having too many facts on his side. To a person coming to this subject pot-agnostic, it might seem as if the issue is being loaded. No, it is loaded. As Fine points out, the real addicts of the drug war are the law enforcement agencies that live off this senseless game of cops and robbers.
“Too High to Fail” takes the form of a fly-on-the-wall account of Northern California’s burgeoning legal cannabis industry. Fine, an investigative journalist, takes us to Mendocino County, where he follows one plant from seed to medical marijuana patient in the first county in the nation to decriminalize and regulate cannabis farming.
Fine fits in well in Mendocino. Bearded and driving his vegetable-oil-fueled truck, he looks and plays the part. But be warned: if you are indifferent to drug culture, you may roll your eyes at some of the stoner talk. When Fine says, describing a Mendocino grow house, “I felt like I was inside a Peter Tosh album cover photo,” even I wanted to tell him he was harshing my mellow.
Mendocino County is depicted here as a kind of democratic utopia where local law enforcement and cannabis farmers are on the same side. In 2008, the county passed a land-use ordinance called Chapter 9.31, which authorized growers to cultivate up to 99 cannabis plants (this has since been reduced to 25). Rather than turning the county into a police state, legalization made it safer. Revenues in the municipality increased, and cannabis farmers were treated as law-abiding citizens.
Fine calls Mendocino the state’s “progressive lab,” because it was essentially engaging in an act of civil disobedience. It may have been in accordance with California law, but ever since states (17 now, plus the District of Columbia) started legalizing medical marijuana, the federal government under a Democratic (Clinton), then a Republican (Bush) and now a Democratic administration has consistently resisted going along. Consequently, Fine observes, Mendocino has a kind of fifth season: helicopter season. “Helicopter noise is Mendocino County’s summer soundtrack,” he writes of the federal choppers circling overhead. “Something you just have to deal with in warm weather, like the summer before 10th grade when it was ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ ”
The most eye-opening and persuasive parts of the book explore the revenue and benefits to be had from cannabis without a single joint’s being lighted. Throughout human history, cultures from Mongolia to Peru have used the non-psychoactive cannabis plant for food, shelter, clothing and medicine. Early drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on hemp paper, and the covered pioneer wagons that took America westward were made of cannabis fiber. In 1942, cannabis prohibition was suspended because of a shortage in industrial supply during the war, and the government actually encouraged farmers to grow it, using a propaganda film, “Hemp for Victory.”
The place industrial cannabis is not found yet, Fine points out, is in the above ground American economy, thanks to its listing as a Schedule I narcotic. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s official stance is that it has no medical value at all: “Smoked marijuana has not withstood the rigors of science — it is not medicine, and it is not safe.” O.K., Fine seems to say, but tell that to the doctors with evidence of its ability to shrink tumors and ease the effects of chemotherapy; or to the seniors of Orange County who depend on medical marijuana to treat their arthritis, and the doctor who uses it to treat his glaucoma; or to the 30-year-old Iraq war veteran with the shrapnel injuries who thanks God every day for this drug. It is prescription drugs that are now the leading cause of fatal drug overdoses — more than 26,000 each year. Also each year, over 23,000 Americans die of alcohol-related causes. None have died from cannabis alone.
As I said, the issue is loaded. And yet the side that has all the load never seems to win in America. The ending of “Too High to Fail” — spoiler alert — is a real bummer. Just as Fine was about to send the manuscript to his publisher in November 2011, the feds cracked down in Mendocino. The 9.31 program was essentially abandoned, and the local, participatory democracy Fine immersed himself in for a year was pushed back underground.
He should have seen it coming. Halfway through his adventure, Fine was pulled over by a state trooper when he left the friendly confines of Mendocino and crossed into Sonoma County— where it’s cool to get high on wine, but not on pot. Fine was doubtful that anyone in California actually used the old war-on-drugs tactics until this incident, but it was a reminder that some people are still in battle mode.
Relating how he was taken into custody, Fine describes something he calls “Panzer’s Paradox” — basically, the fact that “when it comes to distribution, there is no uniformity in cannabis legal interpretation now,” as William Panzer, a lawyer specializing in cannabis defense, says. (Panzer was an author of Proposition 215, the medical-marijuana act passed in California in 1996.) Fine boils down the difference between a cannabis-friendly county and an unfriendly one to “the career ambitions or personal cannabis views of the local D.A. and sheriff.”
He also paraphrases “The Art of War”: “If a war is ill conceived at its core, it can’t be won.”
Bill Maher is the host of “Real Time With Bill Maher” on HBO.
A version of this review appeared in print on August 5, 2012, on page BR11 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Reefer Madness.