Done with Sugar, Now for Weed!

My first rule of living in Florida: If Governor Rick Scott thinks it’s a good idea, I better take a second look. The Miami Herald yesterday reported that a judge has cleared the way for medical marijuana in Florida. The state will begin issuing growers licenses in 3 weeks. Wait, what? Wasn’t there a medical marijuana ballot measure defeated in November? Indeed there was! The medical marijuana that will soon be available (the so-called low-euphoria Charlotte’s Web strain) was authorized in June 2014 through SB 1033, signed into law by Rick Scott. Nothing to do with any ballot initiative. The Herald article mentions a couple of provocative details: licensed cannabis producers—of which there will only be 5 in the state—have to be large-capacity nurseries that have been in business for at least 30 years and are well-enough capitalized to post a very large bond.

As a historian, I have been working for the last year on a new research project on the environmental history of the war on drugs. Now that my book about sugar is about to be released! What I have learned so far is that ideas about nature and agriculture have long been central to strategies for combating the narcotics trade. At least since the 1920s, prohibitionists have struggled to restrict the production of poppies, cannabis, and coca–all agricultural commodities. Even before the Reagan-era supply-side drug control strategies, farmers and their land were at the center of drug control efforts.

It turns out that agriculture is still very much at the heart of our debates about cannabis. Or, it would be more appropriate to say that horticulture is. Last November when we voted on medical marijuana in Florida, I had thought it had a pretty good chance of winning here. The vote was indeed close. The reason it failed? Hardcore lobbying and a well-funded opposition campaign. Notably, but not obviously, the plant nursery industry in Florida was a major opponent of the ballot measure. They even hired a “strategic communicator” with experience in “grassroots operations” to coordinate their campaign to defeat it.

Suddenly a few things make sense to me. Last fall in my “War on Drugs in Historical Perspective” class I had a student who was earning a second BA after a long career as a nurseryman in South Florida. He had a keen interest in medical marijuana laws and told me a few times about how avidly the issue was being followed in the nursery business. Honestly, I didn’t really think much about it at the time. I also didn’t think too much about the fat stack of “Vote No on Medical Marijuana” brochures I saw last November at the plant nursery where I buy vegetable starts. Well, I did think about it enough to wonder why, of all political issues, the plant nursery had medical marijuana brochures prominently displayed on their counter.

This morning I read the full text of SB 1033 and was surprised at how deeply and obviously it was crafted to represent the business interests of large, highly-capitalized greenhouse growers. Out of curiosity, I also looked at the laws that authorize medical marijuana in other states. There are currently 13 states that have approved medical marijuana by legislative act rather than through a voter-driven ballot initiative. The earliest of these was Hawaii in 2000, followed by a handful of other states. There has been a boom in such laws since 2012. Three each in 2013 and 2014. There are variations among the laws, but they have an awfully lot in common—suspiciously so. Is ALEC getting in on the medical marijuana business? When I compared states with voter-driven versus legislature-driven measures, here’s what I found. They differ in the scale of production, financial requirements for authorized producers, limitations on the total number of legitimate growers, and whether licensed users can grow their own plants. The last legislature-approved law that allowed production for personal use was New Mexico’s in 2007. Since 2010, every single legislature-approved law has followed a similar formula that seems designed to put a few large-scale, well-capitalized greenhouse operators at the top of a very tightly regulated supply chain. Florida’s law is the most explicit in its favoritism. And, as the Florida Black Farmers Association points out, the result is also profoundly discriminatory.

Greenhouse growers are ready to seize the opportunity created by years of prohibition. One of the things I find most fascinating about the war on drugs is the interdependencies between licit and illicit economies. Illicit producers transformed cannabis into an indoor crop in the 1980s in response to DEA surveillance, herbicidal eradication (yes, even in the United States), and supply-side enforcement that punished growers more aggressively than others in the supply chain. There are lots of reasons to worry that this is far short of the decriminalization that drug-policy reformers hope will undo the civil rights discrimination endemic to the war on drugs. Florida’s system will–by design–continue to criminalize small producers,  undermine efforts at further reform, and assure that profits are concentrated where they usually are. At the top.

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About aprilmerleaux

I am an Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University. My research and teaching focuses on the 20th century United States in international context. My book, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness was published by UNC Press in 2015.
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