What Is Normal?

We’ve been getting a lot of requests over at FWD/Forward to talk about medical marijuana, and I was recently having a conversation with some of the FWD contributors about what a complex issue this is, for me. I ended up going on quite the rant, and I realized as I was talking with them that what I think of as “normal,” what is “ordinary” for me is totally beyond the imagination of a lot of people.

(Note: Although I mention FWD here, this post is not appearing on FWD and it is not any sort of official statement about why FWD is/is not covering medical marijuana issues or when such issues will be covered. There’s a reason it’s appearing on my personal website and NOT FWD, so people who read both blogs, please keep this in mind. Be aware that we are discussing the issue, but I’m not going to respond to FWD-related questions about this issue on this post.)

I grew up in a weird place. I live in a weird place. I’ve written a lot about the social and class issues and the complexity of the community and society up here, but sometimes I forget that things which I view as fundamentally unremarkable are actually kind of extraordinary in the eyes of others. And the marijuana industry is one of those things; I see it and interact with it every day and as a result it’s just ordinary to me, like taking the bus to work or picking out oranges at the supermarket.

I live in an area known as the Emerald Triangle. Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino Counties. It’s difficult to get an estimate on a black market, but it’s been extrapolated that marijuana accounts for two thirds of Mendocino’s economy. Two. Thirds. Statewide, the estimate is at around fourteen billion dollars. This is not small potatoes. Among my meatspace friends who live locally, I know very few people who are not involved, on some level, with the industry; growing, dealing, trimming, etc. It’s a culture which I am literally steeped in.

This is a place in which people pay for services in buds. I am regularly offered marijuana in trade for my work. This is a place in which bars have signs reminding people not to talk about their involvement in the trade because the bartender does not want to know and you never know where a cop might be lurking. This is a place in which the local radio station plays a sound loop of helicopters to warn people when COMMET is out. This is a place in which helicopters are in the sky constantly during harvest season.

Marijuana has become especially fraught of late because a lot of Mendocino’s legitimate economy has been collapsing. Our fishery is pretty much done, the timber industry is largely over. The county is trying to position itself as a tourist destination, but this is extremely problematic, and it doesn’t even begin to chip away at the hegemony of the marijuana industry. (Not least because many businesses which cater to tourists are also supported by funds from the trade, in part because it’s extremely difficult to start a business, or to keep a business going during the months when the tourists are not here. If a business isn’t directly supported with weed money, the growers who come in during the fall may be the reason that business stays alive.)

Mendocino is a country of tremendous stratification; our real estate values are stratospheric, and people here tend to live at opposite extremes. You are either living in a tin shack with no running water, or you are living in a luxury house. Or you are living in a decent rental but you are scrabbling to make ends meet, to keep your head above water. Given this stratification and the fact that there are no jobs to make a living, is it any surprise that many people turn to marijuana to make ends meet?

Marijuana is tremendously profitable. It’s profitable because it’s illegal, and in Mendocino, where law enforcement is extremely lax, it can be pretty safe for minor players. Hence, during harvest season, you have people walking around with schwag stuck to their clothing. You have people paying in hundreds which reek of resin. You walk down the street and you’re probably going to detect a familiar skunky odor because grow houses are everywhere, or people are trimming in their houses. You stumble over a box in someone’s living room and pounds of marijuana spill out. “No biggie,” they say. You have a lot of flashy and expensive purchases happening every fall. There’s no attempt to be coy or discreet about it. Everyone knows. Not being involved in the trade is more remarkable than being involved, honestly.

This is the culture I grew up in. It’s the culture I live in. I’m used to laid back attitudes about marijuana, and I’m also very familiar with the huge social problems which accompany the industry. The use of state parks for growing, for example, which causes environmental damage and poses a threat to people who use the parks recreationally (you know, like, for their intended use?). The increasingly large size of marijuana busts, involving thousands of plants grown on public land and tended by workers who are smuggled into the United States to take care of the crop and take the fall if they get busted. The constant power outages caused by blowing transformers. The violence: Robberies, shootings, beatings, over deals gone wrong, arguments about splitting the take.

The curious thing is that legalization would resolve a lot of these issues; if people could grow openly and safely, some of the social problems would vanish. And be accompanied by a collapse of the local economy as the value of the crop plummeted and the county was no longer propped up by the industry. There’s a reason a lot of people in the industry are actually opposed to legalization.

Viewed from within this context, the medical marijuana issue is a complicated one, for me. Studies seem to suggest that marijuana may have some benefits for patients, and I think that we need to provide access to things which help patients. But I feel like the medical marijuana debate is more about an attempt to legitimize recreational drug use than it is about helping patients; especially since all of the people I personally know who have medical marijuana prescriptions use the drug recreationally, and admit it openly. (Which should not be taken to read that everyone with a prescription is a recreational user; personal anecdotes are not scientific data.)

There are a lot of problems with this approach to legalization. Personally, I think that recreational drug use should be legal. I think that it’s not my business to police the actions of others; if people enjoy getting high, I say have at it. And I say let’s take steps to make it safer for them. Legalization being a major step. I also think, though, that people who believe that recreational drug use should be legal should be open about it, rather than hiding behind the excuse of medical marijuana.

Because using medical marijuana as a gateway to full legalization delegitimizes the use of marijuana in medical treatment. Since people see the movement from the outside and go “oh, it’s just a bunch of stoners who want to get high.” The stigma faced by patients who need access to fully legal pain management drugs like, say, codeine is already intense. Patients who actually need marijuana and have not experienced a benefit from other drugs are constantly being informed with a nudge and a wink that they just want to get high. Medical marijuana advocates do not benefit from the widely held beliefs that marijuana has no medical benefits and that people really just want to get high.

Fun fact: While things like marijuana and codeine can make people high, they don’t actually have this effect in people who are taking them for medical reasons. A pain patient who takes, say, codeine isn’t getting high on the drug. The patient is experiencing a reduction in pain. And it’s important to avoid confusing recreational and medical uses. Both, in my opinion, are valid. But they are not the same thing.

Marijuana doesn’t work for all pain patients. It’s not a miracle cure (despite the beliefs of some medical marijuana advocates). It’s simply one option among many which should be available to patients so that those who do experience a benefit can receive it. Conversely, people who want to smoke to get high should also have marijuana available to them, because the pursuit of pleasure is a private activity which should not be legislated by the government unless it causes harm to someone else.

My relationship to medical marijuana is contentious and difficult because of the environment I live in. I think that in other areas, recreational use is less common and valid medical advocates are the primary face of the legalization movement, so it’s viewed very differently, and perhaps doesn’t carry as much of the social baggage that it does here.

And, on a personal level, I’m getting extremely tired of being told that marijuana would be good for me, and being asked if I’ve tried it as an option for managing my disabilities. Treatment recommendations/telling people how to manage their disabilities are never ok unless they are directly solicited.

One Reply to “What Is Normal?”

  1. I’m so with you on medical use as a way to get to legalization — it’s bad for both disabled people and legalization activists. I’ve got reasons for wanting to legalize most drugs but they have to do with how destructive criminalization has been here in the US and everywhere we’ve exported our attitudes and policies.

    Maybe cannabis would help my condition. But the legal pain meds I take definitely help. I’m not going to risk being able to continue care with a doctor who actually listens when I tell ou I hurt because someone thinks cannabis is better for me than opioids.

    So for me I’d like to keep legalization and medical-use issues widely separated.

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