Anti-Legalization Pot Farmers

So I found this Doug Fine piece on keeping cannabis production out of corporate hands a little frustrating. Fine’s basic argument is that with the increased likelihood of legalized marijuana production, we have to keep pot farming out of corporate hands.

Now, you might agree with this in principle. Certainly corporate farming has gigantic problems–terrible labor practices, vast monocultures that threaten the long-term health of the ecosystem, fertilizer use that creates a giant dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, erosion, the squeezing out of small farmers, etc. So it’s not a good model for a sustainable and just food (and other things) system.

But we also have to look at the underlying arguments behind an anti-corporate message. Here it gets quite a bit sketchier. Read this:

The answer has as much to do with simple accounting as the more common outsider assumption: that farmers fear the price drops that come when a prohibitionary economy dissolves (though this is certainly part of the story). When, in three generations of farming, your family has never had to pay taxes, record payroll or meet building code, let alone meet a customer (the Emerald Triangle has an entire caste of middlemen and women who broker wholesale deals, so the farmer doesn’t have to leave the farm), the prospect of coming aboveground — and dealing with the same red tape every other industry does — can be terrifying.

Some of these farmers, like all successful small-business owners in any industry, resist change in knee-jerk fashion by distributing worst-case scenarios the way some people pass around business cards. “Look at tobacco,” Mark told me at the Food Bank. “They’ve made the paperwork crazy complicated so only giant corporate farmers can afford to grow it commercially.”

He’s actually correct. Section 40 of Title 27 of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s regulations has 534 subsections. You need a corporate lawyer on call to endure this document without a migraine. The system favors big producers, and Big Tobacco is at least paying attention to federal drug law: NPR has reported that Philip Morris trademarked the brand “Marley” at the height of Just Say No in 1983 (though this doesn’t turn up at the United States Patent and Trademark site, and the company is mum). And Dan Mitchell reported in Fortune that tobacco company Brown & Williamson “enthusiastically” advised, in a 1970s internal report, that the company start viewing marijuana as “an alternative product line.”

A couple of points.

First, I’m not seeing any of this as a particularly bad thing. You mean, marijuana farmers should have to comply with federal regulations? Um, yeah. And pay taxes? You bet. I’m sure it’s a pain to deal with, but so what? The anti-regulation argument is one I really can’t stomach. Sure, the document causes a migraine to read. So is the answer that we get rid of these kinds of complex federal regulations? What is the alternative here? Fine notes the desire to look at marijuana more like craft beer and that’s fine, maybe the market will fall this way. But those craft brewers also deal with all kinds of regulatory frameworks.

Second, there’s some stories not told here. Marijuana without regulation means crops grown with absolutely no environmental restriction. It means farmers can dump gigantic amounts of rat poison around marijuana plants so that rodents die, which goes right up the food chain, among many other examples. Right now, the marijuana economy also does not have to abide by labor standards. On the farms, my understanding of it is that it’s a lot of transient labor looking for short-term work, but there’s no one enforcing any real labor law at all (though some of you may know more about this than I do). In the California dispensaries, the United Food and Commercial Workers has stepped in to represent these workers. While the article portrays the union as having generally OK relations with employers, the idea that hippies aren’t union-busters doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Hip capitalism is often as rapacious as its traditional counterparts in other industries.

There’s no question that northern California marijuana farmers are acting with their ballots–the risk of prison is worth the profits. Both Mendocino and Humboldt counties voted against Proposition 19 in 2010, despite the fact that marijuana is their prime economic base.

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