A New Leaf chronicles the demise of prohibition


If A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition sometimes reads as if it were being written as history was unfolding, that’s because it was. Journalists Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian began working on A New Leaf as the cannabis reform movement was gaining momentum.

“I’m from upstate New York, and I traveled to California,” Martin said during a recent interview. “I had never been to Venice Beach. I opened the car door and smelled marijuana and asked how they were able to have it. They said it was legal there. It was immediately the kind of federal-state clash that attracted me. It was illegal in most places and legal in California.”

Martin and Rashidian met in classes at Columbia University. They began working together and found they made a good reporting team.

“When we got back to New York, we started digging,” says Rashidian. “‘Why were they using it as medicine in some states and not others?’ And we realized it was an ongoing trend.”

They left New York in September of 2010 and found the growing community of cannabis supporters across the continental United States.

“We drove 30,000 miles,” Rashidian Martin said. “We hit every state with medical laws except Alaska and Hawaii. My background is in daily journalism. This was a challenge — the idea that, while I was reporting, the story was still unfold ing.

It required a great deal of flexibility, patience and persistence when we were traveling.”

Martin and Rashidian witnessed federal crackdowns on medical businesses. They went to California for the Proposition 19 effort. They were in Seattle for the vote on legalization in 2012. They spent long hours on the phone with Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project. They visited the federal farm at the University of Mississippi near Oxford, where the federal government grows cannabis.

“The road trip really helped us,” said Martin. “We continued to do reporting. We wrote up to deadline in April 2013, and we edited it through the summer. We had to write it that way.”

What they came up with is a refreshing, personal up-to-date — it mentions the James Cole federal guidelines for states last September — account of the long road from prohibition to the current momentum for decriminalization/legalization. They look at the long history of cannabis usage before the United States outlawed it in the 1930s. Along the way, they talk to the people — activists, medical patients, caregivers, lobbyists, farmers, physicians and business owners — involved in building a new green economy from the ashes of prohibition. One of the key stories in A New Leaf is the 2010 Proposition 19 ballot initiative. Proposition 19 would have allowed adults in California to possess cannabis and grow it for their own personal use under local government regulation.

“It was so clear that something was happening with Proposition 19,” said Rashidian. “We were in D.C. when that was up, and we decided we should be there. We jetted across the country and hung out two days before the vote. It was clear that it was strategically brilliant, but nobody saw it at the time.”

Proposition 19 was ultimately defeated by voters on Nov. 2, 2010, but it got people talking about cannabis around the country. “Proposition 19 revealed many of the dos and don’ts for Colorado and Washington,” Rashidian explained. “First, by obtaining 46 percent of the vote, Prop 19 revealed that legalization was within reach. The campaign unveiled coalitions and brought together groups like the NAACP and UFCW. They moved the messaging from ‘legalization’ toward things like tax revenue, civil rights and jobs. The proposition forced a national conversation about legalization that wasn’t happening before.”

The book follows closely the legalization campaigns in Washington and Colorado. Both states learned from Proposition 19, but Martin and Rashidian outline the similarities and differences in each state’s approach. All in all, they find Colorado to have taken a more measured stance.

“If I had to sum up a major difference in the two states’ approaches when it came to legalization, particularly in light of the possibility of a federal backlash, it would be that the Colorado campaign thought about how to keep the state’s thriving cannabis community happy while Washington’s focused on how to keep the Feds at bay,” Martin said.

“For example, Amendment 64 allowed home growing, in part as a safety measure in case the state-licensed production and retail was shut down, and existing shops had first dibs on the new retail stores. Home growing was not included in Initiative 502 because the plant was less regulated that way,” she said. “The Colorado campaign’s message was that cannabis is safer than alcohol. The Washington campaign’s message was focused on the harms of prohibition.”

But Proposition 19, even in defeat, served an even bigger purpose for Colorado and Washington in their successful campaigns just two years later.

“The failure of the proposition, in part due to loose wording, let the drafters of future legislation know that voters wanted solid regulations,” Rashidian said. “All of this in 2010 gave the 2012 campaigns a lot to draw from and made them stronger.”

More information on A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition, Alyson Martin and Nishin Rashidian (The New Press 2014) can be found at www.anewleafbook.com.

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