One author’s cannabis journey of discovery

Bruce Barcott will be at the Boulder Bookstore Monday night.

When Bruce Barcott began to research a book about the legalization of marijuana in the United States, one of the first things that concerned him was how he was going to talk with his children about it.

An author and science writer whose work appears in The New York Times and Atlantic Monthly, Barcott, like many Americans, was a novice about cannabis, apathetic until he had to vote for or against legalization in Washington in 2012, his knowledge limited mostly to its longtime status as a drug promoted as being more dangerous than cocaine or methamphetamine by the federal government.

Barcott, whose previous book was The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird, was stunned at what he found as he embarked on a twoyear journey of discovery into why American citizens and states are changing their minds about marijuana’s place in society.

Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America comprises what he has learned along the way and works as a great point-of-entry for novices as well as a readable, fascinating look at legalization in Colorado and Washington. If you’re curious about or on the fence about what’s happening with cannabis these days, Weed the People is a great place to begin.

An argument I’ve heard over and over the last two years about legalization is that it glamorizes the drug and makes it harder to be a good parent. Barcott found exactly the opposite.

“I expected it to be difficult to be able to talk with my kids, but I was able to dive into the research and talk with them about what I was finding,” he said about his children, now 13 and 16. “We have a lot of small conversations about what I am finding, what they should take into consideration. I don’t want them to smoke marijuana, but I do want them armed with the facts. It’s not only broken a taboo, it’s led to great conversations about other things as well.”

Barcott studied the history of marijuana in America, from the days when Pancho Villa began smuggling it across the border from Mexico through the fear campaigns of Harry Anslinger and Richard Nixon that demonized and isolated the drug as dangerous, even though there was no science to back up their claims.

He looked into the issue of medical marijuana and why so many states have allowed some kind of access to it, and he researched firsthand the issues surrounding legalization efforts. He was here on January 1, 2014, when retail stores opened, and talked with countless individuals involved in every aspect of the industry in both states. He dined with Kevin Sabet, the most outspoken anti-legalization lob byist in the country, And he tried cannabis as medicine and for recreation.

What he found really surprised him. He discovered that the subject of cannabis has been so steeped in misinformation, morals and politics over the last century that it was hard to even study it. And he found industry people in Colorado and Washington different than he expected.

“Besides there being some fantastic characters in the industry,” he said in a recent interview, “what it came down to was that these are people who are retail shop owners and farmers.”

Barcott, who resides near Seattle and lived in Boulder from 2006 to 2008, says that legalization has gone better in Colorado than his home state. “That’s something we are struggling with. Our regulatory and taxing schemes are tough. We need some reform to the laws already, but that’s hard to sell now.”

The main advantage is the regulatory framework Colorado enacted for medical marijuana in 2010.

“When retail marijuana came online, state officials already had a fairly wellfunctioning regulatory scheme in place,” Barcott explained. “And the first opportunity to apply for a retail license went to the known good actors in the medical marijuana space.”

After voters passed Washington Initiative 502, Gov. Christine Gregoire, expressing fears that state employees might be at risk for federal prosecution, vetoed the best chance at a similar regulatory scheme, Barcott said. Because the medical system was outside the law, state officials opened the retail license application process to anybody.

“The bar for applying was set too low, we got thousands of applicants, and winners were drawn by lottery. Result: Many, many winners who had zero experience with pot, zero retail experience, no real financing capacity or plan,” he said.

Some of those winners partnered with more experienced, well-financed entrepreneurs while others tried to go it alone and failed, leaving the state with dozens of unfulfilled “ghost licenses” attached to would-be entrepreneurs who had no chance of actually opening a store.

“And that is why, as of early 2015, Colorado has a pretty well-functioning system, and Washington’s is still hobbled,” he said.

Barcott is writing history as it happens, which means the book stops at the end of 2014.

“If I had had a couple more months, I would have covered the D.C. vote for legalization,” he said. “I think that’s interesting, the wrangling over whether Congress was going to allow the law to go through.”

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book was how he approaches the inevitable cultural clashes as cannabis moves out of the shadows.

“One of my favorite times was the Classically Cannabis evening in Colorado,” he said. “It was fascinating to see how we could use this legally at a technically private but public event. I found that the sort of friendly, neighborly culture lived and continued in that setting, with people sharing easily. It helped serve to break down barriers better than alcohol.”

You can hear Leland discuss his most recent column and Colorado cannabis issues each Thursday morning on KGNU.

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