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Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian with Amy Deneson

Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian
A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition

(The New Press, 2014)

The professional networking organization Women Grow invited investigative journalists Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian to discuss their critically acclaimed book A New Leaf with a room full of budding cannabis entrepreneurs. The atmosphere was abuzz with curiosity in the eclectic office of Meier Advertising, when the authors took center stage in front of a mirrored armoire.

            Alyson and Nushin gave off the jocular vibe of colleagues who have spent a lot of time finishing one another’s sentences. After completing Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, they set off in a red VW Beetle (nicknamed Maude), planning to drive to every state with a medical cannabis law in order to document the efforts behind legalizing its use. The longer Alyson and Nushin drove, the further they had to go: from 2009 to 2012, one state after the other changed their cannabis laws. With a weary chortle, the authors said they had lapped the country four times, covering over 30,000 miles, chasing the ever-expanding landscape of cannabis legalization.

            As a result, A New Leaf became a comprehensive presentation of the gradual legalization and adoption of cannabis use into American society. Many firsthand accounts of historic moments, such as the vibrant Seattle scene when Initiative 502 passed to legalize cannabis for personal use, are captured in the book and brought to life through in-depth interviews with patients, growers, researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, politicians, and regulators. Deft storytellers, Alyson and Nushin distilled their findings into a fast-paced, riveting read about the 75-year cannabis prohibition coming to an end in the United States.

            After I had a chance to, er, inhale A New Leaf, we met for this interview at the Made in New York Media Center where Alyson and Nushin are preparing to launch a multimedia news site“to inform the experiment” of legal cannabis.

Amy Deneson (Rail): Currently, medicinal use of cannabis is legal in 23 states, while Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia have legalized it for personal use. Based on your extensive interviewing, why do you think Americans are now challenging, as you wrote, “nearly a century of bad policy and misconceptions about cannabis” and voting to not only decriminalize cannabis possession, but also legalize its use to varying degrees?

Alyson Martin: A lot of people look at what is happening today, at what seems like a rapid change in cannabis policy in the United States, but it has actually been decades in the making. Also, people are starting to become more informed about the racial implementation of laws across the country. On average blacks are at arrested four times the rate as whites but they use cannabis comparably. You’ll also notice that a lot of drug policy reform happened at a time when the country was hurting economically. During the recession, there was a need for jobs, and it coincided with a time that some people call the ‘Green Rush.’ When a lot of people were flocking to states with medical laws for jobs. And finally, there has been a lot more to come out about cannabinoid research and what medical cannabis could someday be capable of. 

Rail: The New Leaf is objective, thoroughly researched, methodical, and successfully balances a multitude of perspectives. The results of your investigation clearly indicate that though the subject of cannabis can be polarizing, the national conversation is far from being simply for or against the plant. Currently, the United States has four different stances on legal cannabis use within its own borders. What are some of the consequences you observed as a result of this dissonance between citizens, states, and the federal government? 

Nushin Rashidian: The most striking examples are when different federal and state laws both apply. If you are on a transplant list at a hospital and medical cannabis is legal at, let’s say, a hospital in California, you can be booted. People have been booted because the hospital gets funding from the federal government, and the federal government says that cannabis is a drug. So the way they see it is that you are a substance abuser on a transplant list and therefore you’re not really worthy.

Martin: There certainly were examples of people who faced the harsh reality of a federal prohibition even during state legality. Shortly after we visited Montana Cannabis, there was a multi-agency raid: ATF, FBI, DEA, etc. Chris Williams and others were charged for activities that were legal under the state of Montana law at the time. He is an example of these people who sit at the intersection of state legality and federal illegality. He faced up to 80 years of mandatory minimums when he was charged. His penalties were later reduced and he took a plea. He is currently serving a five-year sentence for growing cannabis and being a caregiver.

Rail: You toured the Coy W. Waller Laboratory Complex in Oxford, Mississippi, the single legal federally run cannabis research laboratory in the U.S. There you wrote that cannabis is “grown not as medicine, but for medicine.” Why is this distinction so crucial?

Maritn: In the eyes of the federal government, cannabis is not medicine. Cannabis, however, could be used for medicine. A cannabinoid could be a component of a medicine that is created and marketed by pharmaceutical companies. There is this catch-22: Cannabis is Schedule I [federally classified, alongside heroin, as a controlled substance with “zero medical value” and “high potential for abuse”] so it is very difficult to research; but it is not researched so it can’t be rescheduled as a medicine. Some researchers say it is easier to gain access to and study methamphetamines than it is cannabis. So many people have called for more research—I’m totally included here. I don’t understand why there there’s not more research—whatever the research concludes.

Rashidian: This distinction doesn’t get enough attention. What do we mean when we say we support medical cannabis? Many times people say “I support medical cannabis” but they just mean CBD [Cannabidiol] oil, or they just mean something from GW Pharmaceuticals, or they may mean actually the whole plant. Medical cannabis is not a single thing. There are two conversations that need to happen: A. What do we mean when we say medical cannabis? And B. What do we mean when we distinguish medical cannabis from recreational cannabis, when they are both cannabis? Those nuances are not being drawn out as much as they should be when we are making policies. This creates a lot of confusion that is not good for a country marching forward.

Rail: The federal prohibition of cannabis began with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, championed by Harry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who said, “Its use frequently leads to insanity.” Early critics of the probation charged that the punishment for consuming cannabis was worse than the crime. In what ways might you have witnessed this during the writing of A New Leaf?

Martin: A lot of people share the opinion that the punishment for consuming or cultivating cannabis is worse than the act of doing so. We met a woman in Egg Harbor Township, NJ, who had ALS. She was bed bound and her caregiver was administering medical cannabis. We asked where it came from. It was from the black market because the law had stalled in New Jersey. She has since died, but she had a really fiery personality. She basically said: “If they want to come and knock on my door and arrest me for consuming this medical cannabis then let them!” In all reality, the federal government could have.

Rashidian: A question we explore in the book is should drug use be considered a crime in the first place? Some people feel with cannabis—as it used to be with alcohol—how can you criminalize someone’s personal choice to do what they want with their bodies? When you get to some other substances, like heroin, the question is, are you treating someone as a criminal who might have a substance-abuse disorder who may need to go to rehab and not to jail.

Rail: The federal drug policies have been costly. Since Nixon declared a war on drugs, a succession of U.S. presidents continued to wage this war as well as wager billions of federal dollars that law enforcement was the way to win this said war. You wrote: “Taking inflation into account, Nixon’s original drug war budget of $112 million has increased approximately fortyfold to over $25 billion by 2014.” Consequently: “The combined 40-year outcome of this law-enforcement heavy strategy is 45 million arrests, $1 trillion spent, and America’s international title of number one in incarceration.” What do you consider to be the major contributing factor to the federal government’s reluctance to change their course of action?

Rashidian: The War on Drugs is very, very, very closely tied to our current situation of prison overcrowding and mass incarceration. We have been on course to overpopulate our prisons since the ‘80s. There have been people all along the way—warning about that approach—but now it has gone to the national spotlight. People are realizing: “Wow. We’ve locked up way too many people for non-violent offenses and they’re getting old and it is getting expensive.” Democrats and Republicans are both saying: “Enough is enough.”

The War on Drugs took the same course. We were thinking we were solving a problem. We were pushing resources into this, and we got to a point recently where many stopped and realized: oh, we failed. They are starting to switch their course. If you study the budget over time, how much money goes to squashing the supply side and how much money goes to helping those on the demand side. For a long time it was really imbalanced, a ton of money—like 70 percent—was going toward getting at traffickers and maybe 30 percent toward treatment centers and that sort of thing.

Once during [President G.W.] Bush’s time, the treatment side of the money was going toward these really misguided commercials that aired during the Super Bowl that linked drug use to supporting terrorists. They did no good. So even when money was going towards treatment, it was not going towards effective means.

Rail: In A New Leaf, you wrote about one of my personal heroes, Robert Randall. In the 1970s, he sued the federal government to gain access to cannabis for medical use and won. He became the first cannabis patient in the FDA Compassionate Investigational New Drug program for glaucoma and then advocated for its effectiveness in relieving the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and the effects of its treatment. Has there been one particular story or person who has stayed with you?

Martin: Valerie Corral. She was one of the first medical cannabis patients in California, and she started the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Northern California. People look at California and they see the kind of Wild West that it has become with various hash bars and other sorts of cannabis culture throughout southern California—but really cannabis started in California with people like Valerie, who was an early pioneer in medical cannabis in the state. WAMM is a true example of a collective effort where seriously or terminally ill patients grow cannabis for each other. If somebody doesn’t have money, it’s okay; they can still have access to their medical cannabis. Valerie is somebody who has a very holistic approach to life and death. Everything from eating healthier and having a more relaxing space to re-cooperate to incorporating medical cannabis, which she believes has helped people to die peacefully.

Rail: In year 2011 alone, of the 1.53 million drug arrests in the U.S. nearly half were for cannabis and 87 percent of those were for possession only. And yet the Obama administration allocated less than half of his $25.4 billion allotment to treatment, education, or prevention programs. The majority went to domestic and international law enforcement and interdiction. Who do you believe bears the brunt of this federal policy?

Rashidian: Everyone! Truly, the impact is global. But people with substance-abuse problems across the globe primarily bear the brunt of it. Their need for treatment is not really being adequately met. When we talk about drug treatment in this country, what are we talking about? Rehab? Twelve Steps? There is very little attention paid to innovating on that front. Also, I think those who bear the brunt are those who are getting arrested for having a gram or two in their pocket, and then their whole life is set back. And as a country, $25 billion is a lot of money; it is more money than a lot of us can wrap our heads around. The fact that right now that money is going toward an approach that the majority of Americans don’t support is not fair.

Rail: I found your efforts to give voice to those who are ill to be especially moving. You wrote: “Ironically, the very patients who provided the initial impetus for these laws are oftentimes lost in a complicated process dominated by activists’ desires, legislators’ fears, relentless taboos, and the looming possibility of federal intervention. Every day, millions of people across the country wake up in pain that could be alleviated with cannabis.” How did this (I would call it an injustice) act as a driving force behind your work—if at all?

Rashidian: We wanted to document the end of a prohibition. However, as we went along, we discovered that within this current legal framework of prohibition a lot of injustices occur. Whether that is the patient getting kicked off the transplant list, or the racial disparity in arrests, or the fact that somebody for whom cannabis oil is the only thing that is going to stop their seizures, these are a series of injustices that are worthy of a conversation that is starting to happen.

Rail: In A New Leaf, you ask: “In the years ahead, will cannabis exist as both a medicine and a nightcap?” Comparing cannabis to, say, whiskey is understandable—the medicinal qualities of alcohol have been winked at for a century—but as far as the actual substance goes, does the comparison perhaps perpetuate the misconception of cannabis as a less than bona fide drug with proven medicinal values?

Martin: It can. I think a lot of people can get behind medical cannabis because they can see patients who really need access to the medicine. We have images of the movie Stepmom in our mind, where it is very clear that the Susan Sarandon character needed cannabis for nausea. People might make a moral exception, quote-unquote, when oh, that person needs it for medical relief, oh that person’s time is limited anyway, give them anything they need for relief. But when we start talking about combining [cannabis] as both medical and social-use, it disrupts how people naturally think about substances.

Rashidian: This plant is in a unique position where it’s challenging our understanding of substances. We think of alcohol now as something you just do at Happy Hour, and we think of pharmaceutical drugs as something you take when it is required, but we are—as a country—embracing this plant as both. That is worth philosophical examination. What are we talking about when we talk about medical cannabis? Are we talking about the plant or the things within it? Also worth philosophical examination is the fact that we, as a country, are in some cases…actually talking about a whole plant as medicine. Does comparing it to alcohol diminish it? In our conventional ways of thinking; yes. But is this plant also opening a whole different way of looking at substances? Possibly.

Rashidian & Martin: Probably.

Martin: Some people think that medical cannabis is different than social-use cannabis, that it is grown differently or looks different or has different components, but they are the same thing. A cannabis plant is a cannabis plant. Whether they are used for medicinal purposes or social or recreational or adult-use purposes, they are not different botanical beings. They are the same botanical beings.

Rashidian: You do have this weird ‘Who owns the plant thing?’ happening on four levels. You have patients who are like ‘This is my medicine.’ Then you have these recreational or social people being like ‘No it’s my happy hour’ and then within that you have another layer of these old timers who feel like they are being edged out of this big business even though they were the ones who took the greatest risk to create the infrastructure for that business. And then you have these corporate people coming in and being like, ‘I don’t really care what’s happened for the last century, but I do want to become a millionaire.’ There are so many layers that are so just so fascinating.

Martin: And that’s why we’re creating Cannabis Wire!

Rail: A perfect transition. We’re here at the Brooklyn Made in New York Media Center where you are preparing to launch this spring. What are your hopes for the site in this exciting and dynamic time?

Rashidian: We want to be seen as a source of information through this time of experimentation and change—to inform the experiment. While journalists are increasingly paying attention…the stories sort of scratch the surface and often don’t offer enough. When most talk about cannabis they say: ‘Did ya hear about that new vaporizer?’ Very seldom is it about the deeper questions. What do we want our relationship to the plant to look like in fifty years? I’m hoping that with our sources, with our five years—half a decade—of being on this beat, with our individual and collective understanding of what has happened that we can add a new authoritative voice to the debate.


Amy Deneson

AMY DENESON is a writer in New York via the Heartland. Her reviews of activist art and other essays have contributed to the New York Times, The Guardian, Salon, Bust, Curve magazine, and more. All of her raves can be read at


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2015

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