Doug Fine’s well-received last book, Farewell, My Subaru, detailed his attempts at living a sustainable, carbon-free life on his Funky Butte ranch in New Mexico. It was an antic, shaggy dog story of off-the-grid living, told mostly in the first person, as Fine converted his big-honking American truck to burn bio-diesel and eventually produced organic goat-milk cheese.
For his latest nonfiction effort, Fine moved his family to Mendocino County, in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, the first jurisdiction in the United States to decriminalize and regulate cannabis cultivation.
Fine’s concept, executed in a growing body of acclaimed newspaper and magazine articles and books about food and spice production: Follow one plant from seedling through harvest to legally dispensed medication. Along the way, discuss the plant’s rich history of industrial, medical and recreational uses, the burgeoning market of voter-approved medical marijuana consumers, and, in a nod to the stalled economy, try to quantify the potential job-creation and tax-revenue generation if it were legalized.
In Mendocino, local commissioners and the sheriff backed an ordinance that allowed farmers to grow up to 99 plants a year, each tagged with a $50 government-issued zip-tie, in return for maintaining stringent records and complying with specific zoning, agricultural and safety rules. The zip-ties generated more than $400,000 a year to the rural county’s coffers, more than enough to pay for the affable deputy who regulated the growers, a clerk and the jobs of seven other deputies facing the budget ax.
But just as that season’s crop of “Mendo Grown” was going to harvest, and as Fine’s seed-to-ingestion narrative was reaching its planned conclusion, the feds swooped in with helicopters and machine guns, cracking down in a big way on legitimate and black-market growers in the Emerald Triangle. The raids threw a wrench into Fine’s ambitious manifesto for a “New Green Economy.” The zip-tie program has largely been abandoned, the growers driven back underground, and the pipeline for voter-approved, doctor-prescribed medicinal marijuana in California severely disrupted.
Unfortunately, Fine and his editors didn’t have the discipline to realize that this book required a different tone and approach to the first-person-focused Farewell, My Subaru. Too much of Too High to Fail winds up in Fine shtick: Tortured syntax to crack pop culture jokes, repetitive digressions and tangentially relevant parenthetical cul-de-sacs about lifestyle choices, child-rearing, the hemp oil shakes his family ingests on a daily basis, his truck, his goats, his neighbors, meditating in the lotus position, quoting Dylan and the Dead.
Fine isn’t really an investigative journalist; he’s an advocate for the Legalize It and Live Organic crowd. Most of what he cites can easily be found in open-source materials, think-tank white papers, semi-obscure economic impact reports and academic studies.
He isn’t the first to persuasively argue that the War on Drugs, especially as it pertains to marijuana, has evolved into a multibillion-dollar waste of resources, a job-protection scheme for law enforcement and the prison industry.
Nor is he the first to rail against the Drug Enforcement Administration’s refusal to consider the growing body of scientific proof regarding the medical uses of marijuana. DEA continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, placing it on the same level as heroin, LSD, Quaadludes and Ecstasy — drugs defined by statute as unsafe, with a high potential for abuse and lacking any acceptable use in medical treatment.
But the evidence shows cannabis can provide genuine relief to cancer and glaucoma patients, the terminally arthritic and other chronic-pain sufferers. Some researchers believe cannabis oil inhibits the growth of cancerous tumors. Meanwhile, highly addictive drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and OxyContin, rank lower on the Controlled Substances hit parade because of proven medical uses (and the power of Big Pharma), but wreak exponentially more societal damage than weed.
Like others before him, Fine argues that decriminalizing and de-stigmatizing cannabis and hemp production could generate untold billions of legitimate tax dollars, thousands of new jobs and allow for a societal reordering of law-enforcement priorities.
If the reader can slog past his narcissistic, undisciplined excesses, Fine still has the components of a solid tale here, the latest dispatch from the front in the 21st century version of Prohibition.
Larry Lebowitz is a Miami writer.