Book review: ‘Too High to Fail,’ by Doug Fine
October 11, 2014
Money and morality have butted heads for centuries, rarely making very compatible bedfellows. The most memorable, perhaps, are the ill-conceived years of Prohibition in the 1920s, a curtailment that ended when calmer and more reasonable heads prevailed but not until a great deal of money was wasted on enforcement — and not until two amendments to the Constitution entered the annals of history. Looking back now through the sharp lens of progress, it seems foolish that this nation ever even contemplated such an excessive policy. The main impetus for the banning of alcohol had been driven by the religious convictions of an outspoken and influential segment of the American population, and frenetic momentum drove the nation to succumb to the pressure.
The longstanding Drug War of the modern era, in contrast, seems more deeply rooted in the miasma of corruption, racism and the almighty dollar than in any sense of righteousness. At the epicenter of the decades-old drug policy is that controversial and ancient plant, marijuana, or, as author Doug Fine insists on calling it in his recent book, "Too High to Fail," cannabis.
Cannabis, pot, marijuana, hemp or whatever moniker it is given, the herb has a legacy of well more than 5,000 years of human usage. Though his book's afterword touches on the recent monumental decisions in Washington and Colorado to legalize marijuana — even outside of medical uses — Fine's book was researched and written in 2011, when those votes were still pipe dreams (yes, pun intended). The book uses the example of cannabis growers in Mendocino County, California, to represent the larger picture of what is at the center of the contentious and shifting debate on marijuana's status in America, both medical and recreational.
Fine points out early that, though there are numerous and varied uses for cannabis, federally, at least, the plant is still marked as a Schedule 1 narcotic (placing it on the same level with heroin and methamphetamine, among other drugs), and that classification imposes strict limits on even the benign version of the crop, which is hemp. Hemp in particular, he states, could have a hugely positive impact on the U.S. economy, as it is an ancient plant with many broad, well-documented uses. Even discussing the virtues of hemp has been confined, in spite of its clear potential as a sustainable crop. This, he implies, is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to the economic boon that could come from removing cannabis from the list of prohibited substances and regulating it the way we do alcohol and tobacco.
For much of his book, Fine looks at the cannabis plant from the perspective of the farmer, who, in most cases, is merely a businessperson eager to function in the daylight, away from the toxic and costly underworld of the black market. But to maintain a varied perspective, the author opens analysis of the evolving situation with a cast of characters — "The Farmer," "The Plant" (which he names Lucille), "The Police Officer" and "The Sergeant," and in the balance of the book, he plays out various scenarios and arguments on both sides of the debate, using those characters to illustrate certain points and positions.
He also introduces the concept of the "Ganjapreneur," the savvy farmer who wants to bring to Northern California's cannabis industry the same reputation and comparable economic impact as the famous wines of the Napa and Sonoma valleys. To research from the inside, Fine relocates his family to the heart of Mendocino for a year and sets out to follow the birth and life of one plant — the aforementioned "Lucille" — to truly understand the challenges and the controversies that arise along the way.
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Many surprises greet him, and he is forced to reconsider stereotypes he has long held. For instance, the farmer who agrees to give him access to the process is a serious young man who is committed to the idea of bringing valuable medicine to patients in need. The concept of being able to produce an organic, sustainable and affordable pain-relief substance for those suffering from a myriad of debilitating illnesses is a powerful motivating force when one is facing the ever-present threat of a federal raid or an arrest.
But Fine is shocked to discover that the "Police Officer" in his character list is an ally of the farmers and an unexpected advocate of the shifting status of marijuana. The author cannot shake the disbelief he feels when he sees a roomful of cannabis farmers singing "Happy Birthday" to the local police sergeant. Law enforcement in Mendocino County has shifted from punishing the growers to protecting them. With the costly legal burden lifted off jurisdictions regarding marijuana, the police department can focus on those truly detrimental substances that fracture and hinder society, not to mention the many actual crimes being perpetrated every day.
Few can argue that it is hard to justify the illegality of cannabis against the backdrops of the high rates of addiction to prescription painkillers, alcohol and tobacco, all more prevalent killers. For Fine, this meant he had to follow the money, which led him to the cynical conclusion that current cannabis policy continues to come out of a desire to keep the lucrative status quo, which benefits "Big Pharma," law enforcement agencies that rely on the funding, private prisons that get the revolving door of offenders into perpetuity and legislators who want to keep those entities happy, voting and donating.
In spite of Fine's obvious cynicism and distrust of the "system," he concludes his book with a sense of hope, as he watches, along with the rest of the nation, as the unthinkable happens. With Colorado and Washington clearing the way for what he sees as the inevitable end to the drug policies that have led to the overcrowding of prisons, the propping up of drug cartels and the suffering of patients simply looking for some relief, he is awed and overjoyed, stating that "it is no stretch to say that the Berlin Wall of the Drug War fell."
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