Swans Commentary » swans.com December 5, 2011  



Love Letter To Mary Jane


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Raskin, Jonah: Marijuanaland, Dispatches From An American War, 2011, High Times Books, ISBN:978-1-893010-30-7, illustrated, 154 pages, $12.95.


(Swans - December 5, 2011)   Jonah Raskin has been intimate with the noble weed for a lifetime. It was a matter of family values. His father ran rum on Long Island during Prohibition to pay his college fees. When in the 1970s, at sixty, he left off practicing law and moved to California, he planted his own pot garden. At his death his son inherited 6-foot-tall sativa plants and the paternal machete. Jonah's salute to the elder Raskin is in the first pages of Marijuanaland, the perfect place for it. The lawyer, a Balzac aficionado and thoroughgoing non-conformist, had nothing about him of the stereotypical stoner. Raskin makes a point in his footloose enquiry of introducing us to a raft of users who are more like the family next door than the tie-dyed denizens of our out-of-date imaginations.

The author himself couldn't be further from a stereotype. He has a long academic career behind him. Among his many books, often studies of West Coast authors, is the impressive, recently reprinted The Mythology of Imperialism. His ideas went into the 1998 Hollywood movie Homegrown. For years he reported in the California press and latterly has blossomed into a poet. Along with the notion that pot smokers are ordinary folks, Raskin by his own intensely productive life illustrates how weed can fuel serious and sustained creative work. At the end of Marijuanaland he tells us how he began to write it:

[...]I rolled a fat joint, smoked it and was stoned instantly. I did not feel that it was medicine, nor did I think of it as a recreational drug [...]. Now, what I wanted was to work steadily and to be focused. The pot would put me in the frame of mind I needed and wanted to be creative. Could I have written without it? Probably. But pot made the experience more intense and I enjoyed the process, from the beginning to the end and all the points in between.

I sat down at my computer, my head filling with sounds and sights. I remembered my father's pot patch the summer I harvested his last crop (and dried it, and smoked it, too, to help me get through my grief). At my computer I remembered that long-ago event and wrote: "My father -- who was the first genuine marijuana grower that I knew -- left his marijuana crop to me when he died of cancer." (Page 149)

Growers and their relationship to their communities and to law enforcement will be the subject of Raskin's wanderings. The territory is Northern California's marijuana coast. He makes no bones about his method: He is a "gonzo pot journalist." The references to the late Hunter S. Thompson are several and admiring. Raskin will follow the maestro in making himself a player in the drama he intends to investigate. However, it's the reader's good fortune that Marijuanaland doesn't make it up any fearful loathsome desperate peaks.

Raskin proves without trying that his beloved Mary Jane is a much gentler creature than the hard stuff the hag-ridden Hunter S. Thompson ingested. The author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a bundle of violence whose worse addiction was to firearms. He would parachute into enemy territory, which was anywhere and everywhere, hand out insults, and generally dirty the place up. He was never in a state of mind to give us a sensitive account of the people he met or collided with. They were only contorted images on his dilating pupils.

In a word, to mark the difference between the two writers, the congenial Raskin isn't going to blow his own brains out like the truculent Hunter S. Thompson. His boast of "thirty years on the pot scene" means that Raskin has been crisscrossing the area in question for a generation. Many of the people he meets he has known before, some of the middle-aged he knew in their youth. He's less a character in a quickly stoked-up drama than a buddy they can tell their troubles to. They are right to trust him, because he's on their side though able to set apart his own beliefs long enough to report honestly on the opposition. In the end his position remains simply that, his own. It's important and to his credit that he respects the confusion created by ambiguous laws and the rough and tumble of debate. Something of an outlaw himself, a shade romantic, his sympathy goes out to these Californians still entangled in the pioneer myth.

As he travels from one contact to another, Raskin will make ample use of his familiarity with the terrain. His memories will give geography density for us. He notes that every county of California now grows pot, an estimated total of between $19 and $40 billion worth in 2010. But the largest producers, where weed as a cash crop reigns over bodies and minds, are three counties of "the Emerald Triangle," Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity. Raskin's road trips -- we can't speak about one as there are many -- result in remarkable micro-knowledge. Some writers would dismiss this Massachusetts-sized area as woods and mountains with rare small towns framed in greenery. Not him

For Raskin one place is not like another. Of the Anderson Valley, Mendocino County: "There were at least 100 times as many marijuana plants here as human beings." "Ukiah [also Mendocino County] was a backwater town that liked to think it was on the cusp of a magnificent future." After all, wasn't it haiku spelled backwards? "[...P]rim and proper neighborhoods with white picket fences, it struck me as a Blue Velvet kind of place and ready-made for film noir." In Arcata, Humboldt County, one in seven town houses was a "growhouse," or indoor pot farm. "A marijuana town if there ever was one, which literally reeked of pot." In Trinity County, "No one really held the community accountable; there was no community to hold responsible. [...O]ddly enough it advertises its underdevelopment. It strikes me as a colonial outpost." He heard it called "Appalachia West." "Trinity was a mess." On the other hand, Sebastopol in nearby Sonoma County, though "a mini marijuana empire within a larger marijuana empire," avoided "the kinds of extremes that characterized other towns." It had a restaurant with a star in the Michelin Guide and "hard working Mexicans in all walks of life."

Raskin is just as alert to differences in people. For him there is no typical grower just as there is no typical user. What is more, he relishes these differences and will take great pains to see them up close without hurry. It was a three-hour drive to his rendezvous with Raven in the mountains. Then Raven appeared on his scooter and led him another thirty miles on a dirt road. They left that for a track behind locked gates. Isolation up there seemed complete, but the first thing Raven told him was that there were other growers and thousands of plants on all sides.

Raven lived in a trailer with his wife June in the midst of a pot plantation that in a good year could render $250,000. He was in it for the money, but there was a lot more to him, as Raskin would learn pitching a tent by the couple's trailer and hanging out with them. Raven, who was in his forties, had survived cancer. Marijuana had got him through chemotherapy and back to health. Then he astonished his parents by announcing that he was going to devote the rest of his life to the maligned green plant that saved him. His mother would eventually see his point of view. At ninety she visited from New York, had her first puff, and helped with the harvest.

June had also been brought up in New York but attended university in Berkeley. Afterward she worked in a Los Angles nursery and garden-supply store where she learned about plants and soils from the self-taught Latinos who ran the place. After some hesitation she took to life in the mountains with Raven. She never used marijuana but outdid him as a true believer.

Raven's mix of idealism and acquisitive appetite would have been easy to pigeonhole as hypocrisy. But that was not the sort of thing Raskin, who respected contradictions, would do to a friend. Raven ranted about the pressure on growers and had a paranoid strain. Yet though clearly in breach of the law, he didn't seriously attempt to hide his unlawful number of plants. He thought they ought to be lawful and stood on principle sounding like one of the more eloquent founders of the nation. Some time later the police did raid his fields. The loss was considerable; he and June even went to jail for a spell. But Raven was convinced his lawyer could get them off. "We didn't do anything wrong," he said. "Now the only thing is to go forward." He had hidden some plants for a new start.

Rather than tidying up this mental hurly-burly, Raskin feels it is an essential part of the game, the life of the scene, what he calls the national marijuana ritual. In any case, who could ever grasp logic like that of one young guerrilla grower met along the way (A pirate, he farmed on terrain belonging to the Bureau of Land Management):

Pot is property. The law better keep its damned hands off. Hell, it's capitalism. This is America. We have a Constitution. It's medicine now, man." (Page 106)

Not that confusion was absent from the law and order crowd. Bruce Anderson, editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, provided Raskin with some prime contradictions. He subscribed to Norman Mailer's contention that it was American life that made narcotics necessary. But the editor, who disapproved of all drugs, closed his ears to Mailer's assurance that marijuana would increase his creativity and improve his sex life. Anderson held that law enforcement was unspeakably cruel and unjust to growers. But that didn't lead him to favor legalization, only to call for greater police presence.

Of the fifty-eight California sheriffs, Raskin thought Mendocino County's Tom Allman had the most enlightened views. However, "He was for marijuana and he was against it." The sheriff felt paternal about the growers in his territory for whom he had concocted an unworkable licensing system. He didn't want the federal authorities butting in. Yet he was glad to have their help in raiding growers in remote areas. He soon unleashed a brutal sweep in conjunction with Washington's Drug Enforcement Administration.

Kevin Hoover edited the weekly Arcata Eye. He wasn't anti-pot and favored legalization. He even boosted his locality to Raskin: "No one grows cannabis better that we do." All the same, he also insisted that growhouses were beyond the pale, repellent, filthy, and the ruin of the town.

That individuals can't keep their thinking straight hardly surprises. Raskin notes that Timothy Leary called "federal weed law" in the 1960s "a bizarre monstrosity." It so remains. Declaring cannabis a Schedule 1 drug, like heroin, is the mother of all contradictions. The irreality of the law not only makes it a handy tool for politicians but leads to every sort of evasion and variation in its application. It left up in the clouds those parts of California where Raskin tells us cannabis had been de facto legalized around 1970.

The countercultural-fueled idyll would last until the Reagan administration. The president's penetration of the subject was nil. He claimed he "had absolute proof that smoking one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast." Nancy Reagan made much of her good-fairy role in her just-say-no charade. But the crackdowns her husband initiated were anything but whimsical and funding for the so-called "war on drugs" tripled.

Raskin looks back to the antebellum days with a shiver of nostalgia. There was the time he stretched out on the redwood deck of his friend Flora whose Cannabis sativa rose all around them. Flora was for him "the femme fatale of the cannabis world." She was also just then stark naked. Suddenly the sheriff's helicopter stalled above them. Flora didn't rush for cover. She projected her Aphrodite presence skyward. With any luck the pilot would stare at her and miss the plants. Raskin comments:

[...N]ot everyone who grew marijuana was a hippy or even part of the counterculture. Over the years, I would meet hundreds of marijuana growers and discover that all of them had their own personal histories and their own individual styles of cultivating and harvesting weed. Pot farmers represented the diversity of California itself; no race or ethnic group had a monopoly on marijuana. (Page 10)

But all that was changing. Sacramental "sweet wheat" morphed into "the medicinal herb" and then, quickly, into "the greed weed." Medical marijuana became legal in California in 1996, but more confusion came with it. There were counties where it wasn't legal. Dispensaries would flourish in one town and be closed down in another. Overall the uncertainty didn't hurt the growers who now had a legal shield and legitimacy. Never mind the official limitations on the number of plants -- they ignored it and no one, even law enforcers, was sure of the rules. However, production had changed. "More" was the watchword. Growers started to cavort like Texas oil men. There were cartels in the woods, sometimes using indentured Mexican laborers. The Feds still occasionally swooped, depending on the political temperature, for of course any cultivation at all was illegal by federal law.

Raskin traces the decline in his conversation with Ray Raphael, a Humboldt County teacher and author. Raphael taught many of the growers as children in school. For him the illegality and erratic war on drugs played hell with human values. The marijuana economy reduced the locals to get-rich-quick paranoiacs. It produced hyper-individualism and wild-west violence. Raphael reflected sadly, "The idealistic time of wonder and amazement is long gone. It's not here anymore, and it's not coming back, not for a long time."

Did Jonah Raskin concur? In his role of enquirer, he prefers to let others have their say. But as far as Marijuanaland goes, it's chuck-full of the author's wonder and amazement in the face of life. In 1972 Proposition 19 to legalize cannabis statewide was defeated by 66% of the voters. Jonah's father didn't lose heart and as a retired lawyer told grower friends how they could protect themselves. When in November 2010 another Proposition 19 was defeated by 53.5% of California voters, Jonah didn't lose heart. He wrote a book. He's an optimist. Is it because of what he smokes?


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 5, 2011