A Conversation with Nick Johnson

Whether you live in California, Massachusetts, Colorado, or even Iowa, the topic of marijuana is a pressing political topic. But the plant has a much longer history, particularly in the American West, notes historian and author Nick Johnson in his book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West. It was with this in mind that we sat down with Johnson to ask him about the plant’s history and what it tells us about the current debate over its legalization.

BlogWest: To start, how did you come to write about cannabis?

Nick Johnson: I really didn’t know a whole lot about it when I moved to Colorado in August 2012, though I knew enough to think it should be legalized, or at the very least decriminalized. I didn’t think Amendment 64 would pass, so when it did that prompted a lot of questions from me, such as “why here” and why now?” Then, as I started reading more about cannabis, I realized that there were so few people writing about it as a crop, as part of agriculture, so I felt that needed a bit of correction. At the heart of all these stories about hippies and jazz musicians and all the unjust persecutions of prohibition, etc., is a plant, and a pretty remarkable one at that.

BW: How do you wish readers to understand the various terms used to describe cannabis and marijuana in the book?

NJ: In general, I think it’s easiest to understand this plant by 3 names—cannabis, hemp, and marijuana.

“Cannabis” is the scientific name of the genus in the family Cannabaceae and refers to all varieties of the plant—both hemp and drug varieties. “Hemp” refers to cannabis grown for fiber, seed, oil, or other industrial purposes. “Marijuana” refers to cannabis grown for medicinal and recreational drugs. Marijuana and hemp are genetically different; you cannot get marijuana from hemp plants, and you cannot get hemp from marijuana plants. Since marijuana technically refers to the flowering tops of drug plants, I also use the term “drug cannabis” to refer to these plants as a whole.

So, hemp and marijuana are genetically distinct varieties of cannabis, but the question remains as to how distinct they are. There is still a debate among scientists as to whether there are multiple species of cannabis or just one, Cannabis sativa L. “Sativa” is the Latin word for “cultivated.” There have been other proposed species in the past, most notably Cannabis indica, “Indian cannabis” or “Indian hemp,” which was coined by the French botanist Lamarck in the eighteenth century.

When hippies began traveling the world and bringing back different varieties of drug plants in the 1970s, they noticed that the Afghani or Indian marijuana plants looked a bit different produced a different high as opposed to the Mexican varieties they were used to smoking. So, they used Lamarck’s name for the “Indian” cannabis and started calling Mexican, Colombian, and Jamaican varieties “sativa,” to differentiate between the plants and the highs. Today, employees of legal marijuana dispensaries will tell you that they sell “indica” and “sativa” varieties. But the reality is that science has not yet figured out whether there are multiple species of cannabis or just one with thousands of different varieties.

BW: You draw a lot of connections between race and marijuana – particularly in the Southwest. How did these racial overtones shape persecutions of marijuana?

NJ: It all began with the Chinese, who were disparaged for their use of opium in the mid-nineteenth century West. Opium use became one of the many bogus reasons used to justify persecution and stereotyping of the Chinese, often to the point of mob violence, especially in the West. Yet at the same time, there was a massive epidemic of morphine addiction in the U.S. thanks to the Civil War. Morphine, of course, is a derivative of opium. Yet morphine was seen as a medicine, while opium was seen as something that the Chinese were inflicting upon the nation.

Marijuana, which arrived after opium, went through a similar dichotomy. Drug cannabis, commonly called “cannabis indica” or “indian hemp” at the time, was widely recognized as a medicine among doctors and pharmacists. But when Mexicans introduced the practice of smoking marijuana in cigarettes in the early twentieth century, that was viewed as another dangerous vice brought by degenerative foreigners. Like morphine and opium, marijuana and “cannabis indica” were essentially the same substance, but the way in which they were imbibed, and who was doing the imbibing, shaped the public perception of both substances.

BW: Building on that, how did the adoption of marijuana by the counterculture define, or redefine, both the drug and the West?

NJ: Like other weedy plants, marijuana crosses boundaries with little concern for those who would police those boundaries. This includes physical boundaries, like the different landscapes and ecosystems it has colonized, as well as cultural boundaries, because it is a plant that has proved useful to nearly every human society, and to the various subgroups within societies. So, while working-class Mexicans and Mexican Americans valued marijuana for its medicinal qualities and the value it fetched as a drug product, middle-class, white, well-educated hippies valued marijuana because the high served as a bringer of insight, a creative tool for art, as another way to explore consciousness. More often than not, throughout history we see that the multifaceted nature of cannabis means that it holds something of value to practically everyone who comes to know it.

BW: How much is cannabis’s history an agricultural history? Or, should we see it more as a political story? Something else?

NJ: I think you have to start with the agricultural history, and build up from there. I make the argument in the book that cannabis history starts at the seed and with the roots and the grower, and the cultural and political history begins at the top of the plant, where it starts producing the psychoactive flowers. Because it has fit the human niche better than almost any other crop (cannabis has the largest geographic range of any crop), the history of cannabis is very much a human history. So, it’s agricultural, political, social—all of those. But to understand the political or social history, I think you have to understand how it works as a plant and as a crop first.

BW: Many folks were surprised when Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, but is there a historical difference between the legalization of medical and recreational use?

NJ: In the case of how legalization played out, the process was very similar. In both cases, advocates won more public support by pushing the conversation around cannabis beyond just a user’s right to get high. In the 1980s and 1990s, medical marijuana advocates refocused the conversation around patient rights and righteous relief of suffering, particularly with AIDS and cancer patients. Of course, this was not mere rhetoric but was based in the herb’s actual medical efficacy, established by American physicians in the early 1900s.

In the 2010s, proponents of recreational legalization focused on marijuana’s safety relative to other legal intoxicants, mostly alcohol and cigarettes. This shifted the discussion away from marijuana on its own and toward the larger drug-use context in the United States. The rhetorical result is a pretty obvious gulf between the relative safety of marijuana, from which nobody has ever died from overconsumption, and the greater dangers of other drugs, including alcohol and pharmaceutical drugs. Total-legalization advocates also touted the unequal and unjust persecution of minorities under prohibition, which made marijuana into a social justice issue as well as a safer-drug issue. In both campaigns, the stifled but still-evolving science on marijuana played a large role.

BW: Outside of Massachusetts, Maine, and Washington D.C., the five other sides that have legalized the recreational use marijuana are western states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington). Why is this do you think? What makes western politics more readily open to legalization?

NJ: Since the U.S. conquest of the region, the West has always been a destination, a place where people go to improve their lives or start new ones. Over the last couple centuries, this has resulted in a decidedly optimistic, cosmopolitan region, one where a variety of cultures have struggled to live peacefully together but, when you boil it all down, they can usually agree on one thing: no one should have to cede basic control over their own destiny to anyone else. Of course, on the ground this isn’t always true (look at the massive investment of eastern funds that built the modern West), but the power of this mindset, I think, is part of what gives the West a distinct cultural identity that is a bit more libertarian than most other parts of the country.

For instance, the South and East are more firmly anchored in tradition, and I would argue in institutions, than the West, which historically has been the new home of people wanting to escape or buck tradition and create their own institutions (for instance, immigrant families finally getting their own farm on a western homestead, or the builders of railroad empires).

So, this long standing culture of self-determination that permeates the West makes it fertile ground for things like sagebrush rebellions or direct democracy – things that make ordinary citizens into powerful directors of their own futures, if only temporarily, and if only (in some cases) in their heads. The West, especially in the states you mentioned that have legalized marijuana, uses ballot initiatives and referenda more than any other part of the country (California and Oregon have always been 1-2 in that ranking). As marijuana became more popular and more acceptable after the 1970s – particularly in California, where the medical movement really took off – the West was really the only part of the country where marijuana’s popularity could be leveraged into actual policy change, thanks to the citizen initiative. Then, if you look back east at the states that have recently legalized marijuana, those are mostly ballot initiatives, too.

In January, Vermont became the first state to legalize pot via the legislature – after 8 states already approved via the initiative process. Consequently, the West was the leader, but I think you can extend the argument to say that anywhere direct democracy flourishes, there’s the possibility for essentially populist causes, like marijuana in the 21st century, to flourish.

BW: Stories of dispensaries overrunning Colorado communities, post shortages in Nevada and California, and tax revenues abound in the media. Is there something they are missing?

NJ: From what I’ve seen, there aren’t too many stories nowadays about dispensaries ruining communities; in fact, there’s plenty of stories describing the economic benefits of legal marijuana in communities, both large and small. Pueblo, Colorado, is a great recent example, where a pretty robust study from CSU-Pueblo researchers found that the county took in a net $30 million or so from legal weed. I think we see an awful lot of reporting about the connection between legal marijuana and homelessness, but that has less to do with marijuana legalization than it has to do, again, with the nature of marijuana and its relationship with people (I wrote a blog about this a couple weeks ago).

Marijuana, along with alcohol and other commonly available substances, makes people feel good; homelessness obviously makes people feel bad. Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when homeless people move to Colorado—they can indulge in this habit, which takes their mind off of their distressing position in society, without fear of getting arrested for it. When journalists ask questions like “does marijuana cause homelessness?” they’re getting it backwards—homelessness is a pretty powerful incentive to use not only marijuana but other drugs. Responsible journalists should be asking why we have large homeless populations to begin with. The answer to that question is in the city halls and state legislatures, in housing policy and real estate markets—not in marijuana dispensaries.

The product shortages in California and Nevada, on the other hand, merely reflect the growing pains of a newly legal industry. When you legalize something that has been illegal and taboo for more than a century in most parts of the country, you’re going to have trouble estimating the demand, because people aren’t going to readily admit to using marijuana, and more people who haven’t used it because it was illegal are going to try it out. So that’s something that will work itself out in time. I do not think there will ever be a shortage of marijuana for very long in this country—Americans have simply become too good at growing it.



1 comment on “A Conversation with Nick Johnson

  1. Pingback: A History of Cannabis in the American West: An Interview | Buffalo Doug

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