False Narratives in the Battle for Decriminalisation

For some reason, people tend to get very squirrely when I bring up the connection between marijuana cultivation and violence. I am informed that I am ‘stereotyping growers’ by pointing out that some outdoor growers engage in acts of violence, or giving marijuana cultivation a bad name by talking about issues like environmental pollution, home invasions, the dangers of walking in our state parks during cultivation season.

Yet, it’s a problem. It’s been well known around here for years that people grow in state parks and on hidden corners of private land, that it can be unsafe to walk in the woods at certain times of year. The people who jump all over me for saying I’d like to be able to walk in the parks I pay for with my tax dollars have some idealistic and starryeyed visions of what marijuana cultivation is about, evidently.

At the moment, it’s about money. Lots of it. It’s about money because criminalisation has ensured that prices remain high. One way to directly address the violence would be to cut the bottom out of the market. If people can grow legally and openly in facilities on their own land, there’s no incentive to cultivate in places like state parks. And if growing isn’t illegal, there’s no reason to station armed guards at grow operations to keep people away.

Growing in controlled environments would eliminate a lot of environmental issues, like release of herbicides and pesticides, damage to fragile environments caused by heavy traffic. Perhaps growers could even install solar panels and windmills and apply for green energy certifications, if what they were doing was entirely legal. In fact, falling costs could create an incentive for a niche market in things like certified organic crops or crops produced with minimal waste.

There would also be no reason to bring undocumented immigrants into the States to supervise grow operations. Because it’s not the growers who are camping out in the State Parks. It’s the people they use as virtual slave labour. People are brought over the border, often with false claims about what they will be doing and where, and they are kept compliant with intimidation and threats. Their passports and other identification may be confiscated, they will be told that if they approach anyone to ask for help, they will be imprisoned or deported.

These practices are, incidentally, not limited to people involved in marijuana cultivation. They are widespread across the agriculture industry as a whole, and are a major source of concern for human rights advocates. Farmworker rights coalitions say that it’s very difficult to find and advocate for clients because of these conditions, and that it may not be possible to estimate the true levels of people kept in very unsafe and exploitative working conditions, thanks to the revolving door aspects of agricultural work, paired with the threatening of workers who attempt to seek help or report on abusive employers.

These are things that don’t seem to be widely discussed during the decriminalisation debate. People focus on whether or not using marijuana is morally wrong, or whether workplaces will be inundated with stoned employees, or what have you. It’s framed as a purely ideological debate, when in fact current conditions clearly indicate that something needs to be done, quickly, to address very real world problems that have nothing to do with whether grandma wants to smoke a doobie on her front porch in peace.

Here in the Emerald Triangle, we have had several recent law enforcement shootings, the result of escalating situations with armed growers. People have died. A 68 year old former teacher went vigilante last week, gathering an armed posse of friends to root out a grow operation being run on her land. Luckily, her efforts didn’t end in deaths or injuries, but they could have. The presence of armed growers has become a topic of increasing friction and rage, not surprisingly; people want to be able to walk on their own land in safety, let alone visit state parks, or live in remote areas.

Home invasions related to cultivation have created safety concerns in some neighbourhoods in Northern California, as have other acts of violence associated with various aspects of the industry. People are growing increasingly unhappy with the current state of affairs and with what they perceive as a state of inaction while officials dither about what to do. Some have even suggested calling in the National Guard; the National Guard is not a drug interdiction or law enforcement agency. It is a branch of the military. Militarising law enforcement services in this region could come with some very serious problems.

I’d like to see many of the advocates for legalisation stop pretending that this is about a few people growing plants in their yard, or people wanting to be able to smoke without being hassled. The concerns about marijuana cultivation and sales have always been about large operations and the serious safety threats they represent. Ignoring the presence of large operations to try and make marijuana look safe and nonviolent is not a good strategy, not least because it means people can’t just say ‘hey, a lot of these problems would be resolved if we just decriminalised.’

It would also be nice, of course, to see opponents stop acting like large operations are the only form of marijuana cultivation, and to stop claiming that cultivation makes people inherently violent or poses a safety threat to communities by its very nature. This simply isn’t the case. The problem is created by the system as it currently stands. The solution to the problem is to fix the system. Remove incentives for illegal grow operations, and they will decline.

As the state prepares to vote on a landmark proposition on decriminalisation, I’ve watched the debate getting increasingly ridiculous, even as I watch conditions around me deteriorating, rapidly. It’s hard to watch decriminalisation advocates from out of the area telling me that I’m ‘stereotyping growers’ by pointing out some simple facts, and suggesting concrete methods for addressing the problem, especially since we’re on the same side.