How marijuana, legal and not, is reshaping the West

A 4/20 roundup of the industry’s trials, triumphs and political conundrums.

 

Marijuana plants at a dispensary in North Hollywood, California.

It’s 4/20, and if you live in any of the nine Western states that have fully decriminalized both recreational and medical marijuana, it might be hard to remember that it was ever any different — especially when you can meander into a dispensary and pick up a holiday deal on a pre-rolled joint. The plant’s legal status has come a long way from its criminal, countercultural roots, and its acceptance across the country might appear to indicate that this once-fraught issue has been settled. Last year, a Pew study found that two-thirds of American adults believe in fully legalizing it, while just 10% think marijuana should not be legal at all. 

But even though the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to decriminalize cannabis, future federal legalization is hazy. Some Western states are also holding out: Idaho, for example, maintains a punitive and often discriminatory approach. In 2018, Black Idahoans were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to ACLU data. In Montana, which just recently legalized adult use, Blacks were nearly 10 times more likely to face arrest.

When it comes to growing cannabis, Western farmers — both legitimate growers and illicit ones — have to navigate uneven and complex legal terrain. In California and Oregon, governments once saw the promise of a new tax base, but some legislators say they’ve created a dysfunctional regulatory environment instead; legal growers in the two states say their policies are crippling their businesses. Communities across the West also face the ecological cost of a black-market industry that the state struggles to regulate. The workers bear the brunt of all this regulatory uncertainty: On increasingly industrialized illegal farms, they are exceptionally vulnerable to wage-theft, squalid working conditions and coercion. 

For all farmers — big and small — marijuana farming ultimately comes down to money. And as long as black-market prices are high in states where the drug is illegal, growing and selling there remains good business, however risky.

An employee quality checks a bag of medicinal marijuana at a growing facility near Colorado Springs, Colorado.

This year, activists are using the 4/20 holiday to try to kick-start a stalled-out U.S. Senate into action. Legal or not, cannabis is changing the West. Here are some highlights of some recent marijuana coverage, from the promise and challenges of social equity to the tangled politics of trying to manage a continually profitable black market.

California, the weed-basket of the United States, has led the nation in progressive policy. In 2017, HCN reported on local solutions to a national problem: Without access to traditional banking, activists were starting a city-owned public bank to support a local economy without Wall Street.

Read: Public banking goes to pot

In 2018, HCN reported on the challenges, opportunity, and community Black entrepreneurs saw in the largest legal weed market in the world: Los Angeles.

Read: Black women rewrite weed’s legacy in Los Angeles

The New Republic followed up this year on the city’s attempts to find equity for a community that has suffered disproportionately from the war on drugs. It hasn't gone as well as hoped.

Read: Legalized Pot Was Supposed to Help Build Black Wealth in Los Angeles. It Failed.

For farms and communities — from New Mexico to California — the black market has spawned a variety of new issues. On the Navajo Nation, an enormous illegal boom brought violence and conflict to the community, and exploitation to cannabis farmworkers. Searchlight New Mexico and HCN reported.

Read: Chaos and cannabis
A massive hemp empire is accused of growing illegal marijuana and sowing violence on the Navajo Nation.

Read: Fields of green
COVID-19 is pushing thousands of Chinese immigrant workers into the marijuana business — and sometimes exploitation and labor trafficking have resulted. 

Read: Illegal cannabis operation looks for roots in Indigenous communities 

In California’s far north, a community of Hmong American migrants struggles to find equal footing in a majority-white county. Many of them grow cannabis, and the county’s war on drugs has caused seething distrust. The county claims to be eradicating cannabis, while Hmong Americans say they are being forced out of their homes, denied water and treated as second-class citizens. 

Read: Hmong Americans in Northern California fight wildfire — and distrust

When it comes to the science, prohibition has made it exceptionally difficult to study a criminalized black market. The true ecological costs are still largely unknown, and estimates for things like water use have changed significantly over the last decade.

Read: In Clashes Over Cannabis, Race, and Water, Hard Data Is Scarce

Read: For cannabis farms, ecosystem science is scarce

Read: Cannabis has a carbon problem

Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email him a [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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