Going Green: Emily Dufton on Nick Johnson’s “Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West”

Editor’s Note: Today’s review of Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West by Nick Johnson comes courtesy of Points managing editor emeritus Emily Dufton. Her similarly-titled book, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America, hits shelves Tuesday, December 5; the same day, Points will feature an interview with the author. 

2017 will mark the release of two books on marijuana history, and they share some remarkable similarities. Both seek to expand the history of marijuana, moving beyond the discussions of politics and policy that are too often the sole focus of other works. Both also analyze marijuana’s powerful effects. Beyond its psychoactive components, these books look at marijuana’s social impact, from individuals involved in the thriving marijuana industry to the drug’s ripple effects on popular culture. And, most notably, both books share the same name. My book, Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America, will be released by Basic Books on December 5, while Nick Johnson’s Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West, was published by Oregon State University in October.

51hvrkwsvfl-_sx331_bo1204203200_This is where the list of similarities draws to a close, however. My book is the history of grassroots marijuana activism in America, from the first legalization protest in 1964 to today. Johnson’s Grass Roots takes a different tact: it examines marijuana as a crop, and reveals how it has functioned agriculturally in the American West, from the mid-1800s to our current era of legalization.

This is a unique and useful perspective, and Johnson brings to it a reporter’s sensitivity and a historian’s eye. By examining marijuana as a crop, he also digs into aspects of this history that elude other analysts of the drug. For example, few policy analysts probably know that a single marijuana plant can consume between four to six gallons of water a day; larger plants can consume as many as fifteen. In northern California’s Eel River watershed, one of the centers of the “Emerald Triangle” that grows so much of America’s domestic herb, the cannabis crop there consumes half a million gallons of water each day. This is a problem when states like California have faced unprecedented multi-year droughts, even as recreational legalization expands and demands for domestic-grown marijuana continue to grow.

Beyond the deeply racialized history of marijuana in the American West (though Johnson diligently covers the drug’s negative associations with Mexican laborers and African Americans in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries), Johnson examines marijuana’s shifting agricultural effects. As a substance that exists in the liminal world between state and federal laws, America’s expanding cannabis crop lacks stable regulation, in either its indoor or outdoor growing arenas. Outdoor crops pollute local waterways with dirt, fertilizers, pesticides, and rodenticides. Forests are cleared to make room for more farms. Waterways are diverted, shifting the spawning grounds for local fish and filling streams and rivers with deadly algae blooms. Indoor growing is no better: intensive lights, air conditioners, and generators are run on fossil fuels, ratcheting up power consumption and pouring climate change-inducing gases into the air. Moved indoors by crackdowns on outdoor growing in the 1980s, by 2012 indoor cannabis production “accounted for 3 percent of California’s total electrical usage and pumped as much CO2 into the atmosphere as three million American cars.” Due to its long association with hippies, marijuana may seem like one of the most earth-friendly drugs, but its growing operations are the equivalent of millions of idling Hummers standing under stadium lights.

Johnson does a thorough job of bringing the agricultural history of marijuana forward. He spends six chapters tracing marijuana’s evolution as an American crop, following it from its early years in the American Southwest, to the crop’s participation in the counterculture of the 1960s (did you know that there was a short-lived Broadway musical called “The Ballad of Johnny Pot,” that traced the exploits of a hippie Johnny Marijuana-Seed in 1971? I did not), to its increasingly capitalized role from the 1980s to today. Focusing on America’s former appreciation of the drug (the USDA’s Farmer’s Bulletin once printed detailed instructions on how to grow marijuana in 1915), Johnson shows how marijuana, as a crop, went underground. Knowledge of cultivation techniques was increasingly stigmatized; just traveling with handbooks on growing marijuana could nearly subject people to arrest in the 1970s. As a drug that can grow wild across the United States, cops obviously focused on eradicating the scourge as well. Johnson details CAMP (the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting), a California-based coalition of state and federal officers who raided grow sites and destroyed marijuana plants in the 1980s, and the battles they often got into when facing off against farmers. While the drug war was fought in urban downtowns, courtrooms, and federal offices, Johnson makes it clear that it was also waged, often just as destructively, in rural America, on farmlands and fields.

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A CAMP agent on a raid in California, 2011

As more states legalize, decriminalize, and recognize the medical value of the drug, understanding how (and why) marijuana is grown is more important than ever, and Johnson points out that, at the moment, we seem a bit stuck. Crackdowns on marijuana have pushed growers inside over the past thirty years, and though this has birthed some of the most advanced cannabis cultivation techniques in the world, indoor growing is resource-intensive and fossil fuel-driven. Outdoor growing isn’t much better, since marijuana often destroys both its farmland and surrounding areas.

But Johnson’s book isn’t as pessimistic as the situation currently seems. “The history of cannabis, like the history of anything, is useful because it reminds us of things that can help us plan for a better, or at least a saner, future,” he writes. His goal is a greener America in all senses of the word. He hopes for “a sustainable standard for the nationwide relegalization of cannabis, a possibility that becomes more likely with every state that sheds prohibition.” And Johnson also believes that more eco-friendly growing conditions for marijuana will result in better conditions for all of America’s crops. “If we, as Americans, can reexamine and reform the way we grow a crop as immensely popular and culturally significant as cannabis,” he concludes, “then there’s no reason we cannot reform the way we grow other, arguably more important crops” too.

With his smart primer on the history of cannabis as a crop, Johnson adds a necessary addition to the growing body of literature on America’s favorite plant. Though he seems convinced that legalization is inevitable and the slide toward national acceptance of the drug is nearly complete (a stance with which my version of Grass Roots disagrees), Johnson’s swift-moving history is aided by startling statistics and unique insights. His ultimate conclusion is also sound: moving toward a greener, more eco-friendly, and more consistently regulated agricultural marijuana industry is in everyone’s interest, whether or not they smoke pot. Let’s hope Johnson’s Grass Roots helps point the way.