Craft Weed offers clear-eyed optimism on cannabis farming, regulation

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from new contributing editor Nick Johnson. Johnson is a historian and editor based in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Grass Roots: A History of Cannabis in the American West (2017) is a history of cannabis agriculture that explores the environmental and social dynamics of the nation’s most controversial crop. He also blogs (and occasionally podcasts!) about all things cannabis on his website, Hempirical Evidence.

In his 2018 book Craft Weed: Family Farming and the Future of the Marijuana Industry, Ryan Stoa, visiting professor at Louisiana’s Southern University Law Center, aims to put cannabis agriculture at center-stage in the legalization movement. He argues that legalization has the “potential to revitalize the American family farm and rural economies nationwide” (p 15). His main reason for thinking so: growers care—about their plants and their local communities, and they can be regulated in a way that suits both, despite what industry analysts might be predicting.

Stoa understands that when it comes to cannabis regulation, “it all starts at the beginning of the supply chain, where farmers plant, care for, and harvest marijuana” (p 7). Despite this, in places such as California, his main study area, “lawmakers completely neglected the subject of marijuana agriculture for twenty years” after a citizen initiative legalized medical marijuana in 1996. The result has been an unregulated Green Rush that has left many well-intentioned, small-time growers to fend for themselves and given rise to fears that, when full legalization does come, it will privilege only the largest and wealthiest entities.

Stoa devotes the first part of his book to tackling this “Myth of Big Marijuana:” the idea that a handful of corporations, including tobacco and alcohol firms, will eventually dominate the legal cannabis industry with the help of big business-friendly politicians. While he admits that there are “many roads” to Big Marijuana, it is not inevitable. Stoa notes that voters already shot down one “Big Marijuana” model in Ohio, and that regulation friendly to small-scale producers is already in effect in California (p 11). He also argues that, in the context of increasingly popular organic, local, and fair-trade foods, a Big Marijuana model seems out of step with Americans’ changing values on consumables (p 13-14). Still, in an important nod to lower-class marijuana consumption—a constant theme in the history of cannabis—Stoa acknowledges that there is still a place in the industry for large cannabis producers because “not everyone subscribes (or can afford to subscribe) to the idea that our agricultural products should be organic or locally grown” (p 12).

Ryan Stoa

After dealing with the specter of Big Marijuana, Stoa begins a historic tour of northern California’s early pot-growing landscape, offering vignettes of outlaw pot farmers that are captivating as well as instructive. Stoa artfully provides readers with faces to match important historical developments, such as a man named “Ralph” who blazed the Hippie Trail of the 1970s—bringing back more potent cannabis cultivars from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—or the travails of Sunflower, a former hippie grower who found herself dealing with the legal uncertainties (and consequences) of growing pot under California’s ambiguous 1996 medical law.

Along with his on-the-ground history of twentieth-century cannabis farming in northern California, legal analysis is another strength of Stoa’s book. He offers some important insight on the double-edged sword of ballot initiatives: while they have proven to be an effective way to legalize in the face of obstinate politicians, they also mean that “policymakers are not prepared to regulate the marijuana industry” (70-71). The persistence of Drug War attitudes means that agricultural regulations often get ignored in favor of tight controls on consumption and sale. But instead of harshly critiquing policymakers, Stoa recognizes their missteps and misunderstandings as part of the “messy” process of legalizing a multi-billion-dollar industry practically overnight (71-72).

Throughout the book Stoa applies his knowledge of the relatively young field of cannabis law to provide some insight into the tricky problem of regulation. For example, balance between local and state or federal regulation is key to maintaining a fair and sustainable marijuana industry. While local authorities are “more likely to develop regulations that reflect the realities of marijuana cultivation,” they do not have the enforcement resources and capacity that states or the federal government does, so a combination approach would likely benefit growers and other stakeholders the most (p 84-85).

Stoa is also an advocate for regulating cannabis production through an appellation system—think Humboldt County weed alongside Napa Valley wine—something that he actually helped get off the ground in California since his book was published. “People thought that was kind of a pipe dream,” Stoa told me in a recent interview, lending some heft to his statement in the book that forging a new kind of cannabis industry starts with “believing it is possible” (p 9).

While it convincingly portrays northern California’s marijuana farmers as willing stewards of the land, Craft Weed may be a bit overly optimistic about the region’s capacity to sustain a large industry. Stoa argues that craft weed can thrive in northern California in part because “[t]he scale of production that Humboldt [County]’s tens of thousands of farms can sustain, as well as the region’s reputation for quality product, are unrivaled” (p 41). But the inherent sustainability of “tens of thousands” of farms in one region is questionable, even were they all to be regulated.

The history section of Craft Weed includes some hiccups, including the mention of the debunked conspiracy theory that marijuana prohibition came at the expense of a domestic hemp industry, as well as some overgeneralizations about the relationship between Mexican immigration and cannabis prohibition. However, these are simply contextual issues and they do not take away from Stoa’s broader arguments about the future of the legal cannabis industry. Moreover, his history section also includes some important, overlooked nugs, such as how the “the widespread availability of American-grown tobacco changed the way the world consumed cannabis” (p 30).

Overall, Ryan Stoa’s Craft Weed is an energetic, informative, and optimistic vision of cannabis’s past, present, and future. Even though it was published two years ago—a lot happens these days in two years, especially with cannabis—the book remains timely, as the US House of Representatives just passed a historic cannabis legalization bill that included no agricultural guidance.

For his part, Stoa has not seen anything in the last two years to suggest his notion of a viable craft weed industry was off-base. Federal prohibition has continued to stymie interstate commerce in cannabis, keeping many big corporate players away from the industry. Additional state-level legalization has created more of the small businesses and family farmers he sees benefiting from a craft cannabis model, and consumers continue to demand more artisinal cannabis products. “I’m really encouraged by developments since the book was published,” Stoa said.

With Stoa’s effective marshaling of evidence and logic, stemming from his deep understanding of cannabis law and markets, as well as the plant itself, the Craft Weed reader cannot help but agree that a high-quality niche market in cannabis will be a major part of the legal industry’s future. But, as the House bill shows, that will not come naturally. “Now is the time,” Stoa urges in his book, “to ensure that the marijuana farm of the future is the type of farm Americans want it to be.”

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