Article: Willie Nelson Takes On Corporate Cannabis

NY Mag  has published a long and detailed piece on the issue and it is well worth  reading… Here’s  a short extract.

Nelson is gearing up for a different battle. He has been a vocal advocate of marijuana legalization for more than half a century, but he has watched the last few years unfold with a combination of joy and dread. Even as the country has softened its stance toward marijuana, a legion of large corporations has gathered to dominate the legal market. Nelson figures he has at least one good fight left. In what may be his last political act, he is declaring war on Big Pot.

By way of first principles, let us pause to establish that legalization is here. That fight is over; legal weed has arrived; all that remains is for the last chips to fall. Some form of marijuana has already been approved in 23 states, and roughly 80 percent of the American public currently favors medicinal use. Support for recreational pot has also been rising over the past decade, with more people in favor of full legalization than against it for the first time in 2011. The following year, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to permit recreational use: It is now perfectly legal in both places to shamble into a dispensary, plunk down a stack of crinkly bills, and purchase a bag of high-grade weed for no loftier purpose than to get high. Last year, Oregon and Alaska approved similar measures, and this month, the bellwether state of Ohio will vote on a proposal to join them. Next year, at least five additional states will ­consider the same question, while another dozen are working on comparable ballot initiatives, and in 15 states and Washington, D.C., possession of the drug for personal use is no longer a crime. The consensus among doctors has returned to where it stood eight decades ago, when the American Medical Association loudly opposed the decision to make pot illegal in the first place. Even the federal government is beginning to change course: Early this year, President Obama predicted that if enough states decriminalize marijuana, Congress might remove it from the list of Schedule I drugs, and he has informed officials in Washington and Colorado that the Justice Department will not prosecute anyone who complies with state laws.

In the face of all this, investors have naturally begun piling into pot. A race is on to establish the first truly national marijuana brand. The most visible contender in this contest is probably the company Privateer Holdings, which was founded by three Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, one of whom had never smoked pot in his life but who somehow managed to persuade Bob Marley’s family to license his name and image to their packaging. This spring, Privateer completed its second capital drive for a total of $82 million in start-up cash. Or maybe the rise of corporate marijuana is better illustrated by the tech millionaire Jamen Shively, who announced plans in 2013 to create a chain of pot shops modeled on Starbucks that would “mint more millionaires than Microsoft” — acknowledging at one point, “We are Big Marijuana.”

Even the most ardent advocates of legalization have been troubled by the rise of Big Pot. The legalization movement is organized largely around issues of social justice, and for activists who have spent decades railing against the disproportionate impact of the drug war on poor communities, it has been unsettling to watch legalization engender a new slate of economic disparities. Alison Holcomb, who wrote the initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in Washington State, told me that a cannabis industry dominated by large corporations would threaten the core values of the legalization movement. “It looks a lot like the concentration of capital that we have seen with Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco,” she said. “I think that’s problematic for cannabis-law reformers, because it plays into our opposition’s strongest argument.” Holcomb pointed to the initiative in Ohio this month, where a consortium of large marijuana investors has spent about $15 million to promote legalization, while opponents have spent less than $1 million and focused not on legalization itself, but on the fact that the new law would permit only ten of those large producers to operate in the state.

The arrival of corporate marijuana also raises public-health concerns. Pot smokers might prefer to imagine their plants being raised on a sunny organic farm near Boulder, but Keith Stroup, who founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, points out that when big companies grow things, they tend to rely on the chemical methods of industrial agriculture. “For the average little black-market grower, it’s done on such a small scale that they’re not even using pesticides,” Stroup told me. “But when you’re investing millions of dollars in a large cultivation center, you can bet they are not going to take the risk of their crop getting wiped out by mold or mildew or insects.”

Already, industrial pesticides have turned up on thousands of legal marijuana plants, but no one knows exactly how dangerous this might be for consumers. Nearly all of the standards, studies, and guidelines for American agriculture — not to mention enforcement — are provided by the federal government. Before a pesticide can be applied to any other crop, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency must specifically approve the use of that chemical on the plant in question. As various crops proceed through harvest, production, packaging, and distribution, a host of other federal agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, also play critical roles in defining safety standards. But under the federal ban on marijuana, none of these agencies has engaged with the pot industry in a meaningful way or conducted the usual studies. Because there are no pesticides currently approved for marijuana, many pot growers have been using whatever chemical they like. Whitney Cranshaw, a professor of entomology at Colorado State University and one of the state’s leading experts on pesticide application, told me that some of the chemicals being sprayed on pot plants these days are so noxious they will make your skin crawl.

“The Feds have completely abrogated their responsibility and let the situation devolve into chaos,” Cranshaw said. “Avid is being used; the other big one is Floramite; and the one I really don’t get is imidacloprid, which I can’t even understand why you would use on this crop — it actually makes the mites worse. But the growers don’t know what they’re doing.” Early this year, officials in Colorado discovered that 60,000 legal marijuana plants at a growing operation in Denver had been sprayed with another pesticide, myclobutanil. Officials placed the plants into quarantine, but when testing showed that the concentration had diminished, they released the crop for distribution. Since then, officials in Colorado have issued a list of pesticides that growers are permitted to use, but Cranshaw told me the list is based more on guesswork than on testing. “There’s almost zero data on inhalation exposure to pesticide at high temperature,” he said. “Those studies have to be done.”


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