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Barcott takes a clear-eyed look at marijuana legalization in 'Weed the People'

April 20, 2015 


There’s a great scene in Bruce Barcott’s new book, "Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America," in which after months of researching the issue with a smart and sober eye, the author walks to the side of an abandoned Denny’s in Denver and fires up a joint.

After it "smolders down to a nub," he returns to his room at the Quality Inn and opens his laptop to chronicle what happens.

"What would be the most beautiful type font?" is how Barcott begins a stream-of-consciousness riff worthy of Thelonious Monk, involving pretzel crisps and sexy curtains.

"This is far past high. This is stoned. And it is quite pleasurable," he typed.

No wonder it’s the Barcott kids’ favorite section of the book. The geeky dad with all the answers uncoils into a mass of random thoughts before falling asleep with his clothes on.

In "Weed the People," Barcott serves as the self-described "canary in the coal mine" of the cannabis crusade. He had no skin in the game when he started two years ago. Just a journalist’s curiosity (he is a contributing editor at Outside and has written for The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic), an investigative reporter’s skill and an ability to put history, culture and economics together in an easy, conversational style.

"Part of the challenge was figuring out my own preconceptions," he said recently.

Barcott — who lives on Bainbridge Island with his wife, the writer Claire Dederer and their two kids — grew up a child of the ’70s, when marijuana was for hippies. He was in high school when Nancy Reagan was urging everyone to Just Say No.

"I was the square," Barcott said recently of his high school days. "I was arriving late and leaving early. Pretty straight. I was having a beer and that’s about it."

He saw marijuana as "a bit of a trap." He didn’t want his future derailed because he got caught with the stuff.

That changed in college, when he found that marijuana "was not an unpleasant experience."

He smoked a lot of it, but his grades started to suffer and he stopped.

Fast forward to a dinner party a few years ago, when the topic at the table was Initiative 502 — the measure to legalize marijuana sales in Washington state. Barcott planned to vote against it. He didn’t want his kids to have such easy access to pot.

When a friend made an impassioned and constructive argument in favor of legalization (your kids can get pot at school, thousands in jail for minor offenses), Barcott found himself sitting on the proverbial fence.

It seemed the perfect place from which to start a book, especially after Barcott scanned store shelves and saw only books written by marijuana advocates or anti-drug people. Some were clinical, others legalistic.

"There was nothing current or fun to read," he said. "And I felt like there was this huge space to experience and observe."

This approach was exactly the one he took when writing 2007’s "The Measure of a Mountain," about Mount Rainier: "I told people that I am not a mountain climber, I am not Ed Viesturs. I am just a geeky guy obsessed with Mount Rainier right now."

This time, that guy was obsessed with marijuana legalization, and took readers along for the lesson.

He did research and found that every year between 2005 and 2010, around 800,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges, most for small-time possession.

He started going to Denver about once a month. He sat in boardrooms where Wall Street and Silicon Valley investors were seeding, ahem, marijuana enterprises. He toured giant grow operations. He researched the history of marijuana, spoke with patients and artists whose lives have been sustained by cannabis. He attended festivals and rallies, got his own medical-marijuana card.

And when the votes were counted, he stood in line to make a pot purchase on the first day of legal sales in Colorado — a scene with more tension than a John Le Carre novel. But funnier.

Barcott believes that Colorado "embraced" the legalization of marijuana, while Washington state "allowed" it.

"Colorado had a certain amount of pride about its system," he said. "That they passed their law over the objections of the powers-that-be, and Washington did it by collaborating with the powers-that-be."

Colorado — with the governor’s approval — set up a regulated medical-marijuana system and used that as the foundation for its retail applications and sales, which started six months before those in Washington state.

Washington had the chance to regulate medical marijuana in 2009, but then-Gov. Chris Gregoire wouldn’t sign the legislation. So when pot was legalized, "We left it up to the Liquor Control Board and then the good intentions of a lottery system," Barcott said, adding that some who received licenses couldn’t find money or approved locations to follow through.

"We set up a system that was hobbled at the start," Barcott said.

And now?

"I think we’re doing OK," he said. "I don’t think we’re doing great and I don’t think we’re doing a terrible job. The system was set up to be slow and overly careful."

With all this knowledge, has Barcott invested in the marijuana industry?

Nothing beyond a vape, he reported.

"But if I had the money, I would invest in ancillary businesses. Packing companies, security and video systems. Just plain, old slip-and-fall business insurance."

In the end, what Barcott feared the most — his kidshaving access to marijuana — has been turned on its head. Lucy, 16, and Willie, 13, are well-versed and thoughtful.

"Lucy loves the cultural context of it all, and Willie is much more of a philosopher," he said. "He loves to get into the ethics and morals of things."

But what about smoking the stuff?

"I am advising against the use of marijuana," Barcott said. "But I am saying that and saying, ‘Here’s why, here’s what I found, here are the top three reasons why you shouldn’t do it now. And if you’re going to do it, wait until your early 20s.’"

 

 


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