Monday, August 24, 2009

Of pot and cough syrup, or Where random thoughts lead me …

This is a post pondering issues dealing with the legalization of marijuana, but bear with me as I share the sequence of random thoughts that brought me to that reasonably significant social and political issue. It’s a good snapshot of how my mind works at times.

I’ve had a nasty cough dogging me the past few days, the kind that’s powerful enough to give you the same sort of headache you get from shaking your head back and forth vigorously. So I went out and bought some cough syrup, and yesterday as I sat at my office computer I saw it sitting there; the following bit of West Wing dialogue dropped into my head.

SPEC. AGENT CASPER: Cough medicine with tractor starter fluid strained through a coffee filter is methamphetamine.
PRESIDENT BARTLET: Tractor starter fluid doesn't kill you?
CASPER: No, it'll definitely kill you, but first you'll get pretty high.

This led me in turn to the episode of Friday Night Lights (yes, I watch a lot of teevee) in which Tim Riggins realizes that his skeety roommate is actually a meth dealer, and the cough medication he’s been getting Riggins to buy for him is one of the key ingredients.

And then from there to the idle thought as I looked at my bottle of Benylin, “Well, if only I had some tractor starter fluid …”

The white-water rapids that are the stream of my consciousness then turned it into a philosophical and ethical question between personal morality and societal prohibition. On the one hand, I thought, I would have no specifically moral qualms about growing and selling small amounts of marijuana to friends and acquaintances, as I firmly believe that weed is a relatively harmless social drug—much less so, for example, than alcohol. The reason I don’t do so (besides laziness and an inveterate brown thumb) is that I would fear arrest or other legal punitive measures. So my hypothetical career as a small-time pot dealer founders on the reef of the law.

Conversely, even if I did have some tractor starter fluid on hand, I would never consider making or selling a drug like crystal meth, for the simple reason that it is a deeply harmful drug and I find its dissemination morally repugnant. There is no need for the social prohibition in this case, as my personal morality preempts even the thought.

This little unbidden thought experiment (which unfolded in all of about thirty seconds as I paused with my hands above my laptop keyboard) then opened up in my mind the various issues at stake in the current state of laws surrounding marijuana’s legality and lack thereof. I personally see the incremental decriminalization of pot in this country as a progressive and positive thing—the stigma attached to marijuana for the better part of the twentieth century, largely an American import, is the height of irrationality. We now fortunately have a much better sense of how it differs qualitatively from narcotics, and the benefits it offers in some medical contexts.

The problem with marijuana from an ethical and moral perspective is not its effects on users, but where it comes from. One of the upshots of its deeply entrenched illegality for the last half-century is that it offers big money to organized crime, and large-scale grow ops have become a suburban plague.

I never fully appreciated the pervasiveness of this until recently when my brother and sister-in-law went on the market for a new house. One of the first ones they saw, an early favourite, seemed priced oddly low for its size and location. It had been totally renovated, and the pictures of the renovation provided to prospective buyers showed that the walls had been taken down to the studs and replaced, as had been the ceilings and floors. It was then that the penny dropped for my father, who realized that the house had been a grow operation.

Weirdly enough, one of the inquiries about my brother's house asked a series of bizarre questions that made sense when you realized those making them were themselves looking to buy a house for a grow op.

The damage done to houses by large-scale marijuana cultivation is catastrophic. This is from a website for an indoor environmental testing company in Ontario:

“These homes or industrial units are operated at a minimum of 27 degrees celsius with a sustained relative humidity of 80% or higher. The end result is an excessive amount of mould growth often hidden inside wall or ceiling systems. Extreme humid conditions cause extensive mould growth throughout these buildings. Mould growth resulting from these conditions are considered extremely hazardous due to their toxigenic nature. Species of mould growth found in these buildings in most cases posses mycotoxins which can be extremely hazardous and life threatening for anyone who enters these structures. In many cases mould growth is growing inside wall cavities out of sight without any indication of a problem or any visible signs of moisture damage.”

What happens is a house is purchased with a down payment anywhere between $20-$50K, depending on the value of the house, through shell companies which then pay the mortgage for six months to a year. Considering that the yield at the end of that period ranges from hundreds of thousands to over a million dollars, the investment is minimal. After several harvests, the buyers just walk away, leaving a ruined house in their wake that will never, however much renovation is done, reclaim its pre-grow op value because the damage can be so pervasive.

There is apparently a pot drought in Newfoundland right now. The police seized a massive shipment coming in, and as a result pot-smokers everywhere here are suffering weed privation. Upon being told of this, I joked that I should scatter some seeds in the unruly rear section of my backyard, which I have not trimmed back this summer, and cultivate small amounts of marijuana to sell to friends and acquaintances and supplement my income. Of course, I am not about to do this (and the way you know I’m not is because I’m musing about it on a blog—so if the constabulary happens to read this, I ask you to keep that in mind. Though if you do want to come and inspect my backyard for cannabis, feel free. Just watch out for the spiders).

On the other hand however, this makes me wonder if one way to reconcile pot decriminalization with the problem of organized crime’s predations would be with—pardon the pun—just this sort of grass roots approach. Legalization advocates point out that the regulation and taxation of marijuana as a cash crop could be a financial boon to government; I find it hard to imagine that we won’t arrive at that point eventually, but it will likely take a long time, and in the interim organized crime will continue to destroy houses (to say nothing of the concomitant violence accompanying large-scale drug trafficking). In the meantime, what about making small personal gardens of maybe a half dozen plants legal? The hypothetical scenario in which I cultivate a few plants and provide for a small circle of people would have the minor but very real effect of taking that business away from the big grow ops. Spread that out on a broader scale of people planting cannabis alongside their hydrangeas and heirloom tomatoes, and that effect could be profound.

Incidentally, since drafting this post I watched the episode of The West Wing mentioning the ingredients of meth, and as it happens I got it wrong: Special Agent Casper says allergy medication, not cough medicine, is what is used. That this entire sequence of thought began with me misremembering a key detail seems eminently appropriate.


Lesley said...

My old house ended up being busted as a grow op. Which made me laugh for two reasons. 1. Because when we lived there it was so effing cold that no amount of layers could ever make it warm (how they grew pot in the basement is beyond me) and 2. because we were a single parent the time, one of the most despised familial brands going, so certain people on the street thought it was horrible that a "broken home" was actually in their midst and felt we should leave. We took such good care of that house and then a grow op came in and ruined the street and the house itself.

Last I heard, they were ripping the house to the shell to fix it up and resell it.

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Anonymous said...

lol...a doctor of english on the topic of weed:D

im sick of people talking nonsense about something they know nothing about. but you Doc, i get a feeling u know a lot of what you burped about here. i imagine you as pure evidence that weed doesn't make people stupid'er (lol) , and that it has more purpose than the welfare class of our society...