He’s lived off the grid, fueled by solar power and goats, in New Mexico since he first decided to leave modern-day conveniences behind for his book Farewell, My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living in 2009. Especially interested in sustainability and alternative fuel and food sources, Doug Fine, a.k.a. the Organic Cowboy, turned his attention to the world of cannabis and all its wonderful benefits in his next two books, Too High to Fail and Hemp Bound.
Doug spoke at Hempfest in Seattle, and we snagged a few minutes to talk cannabis.
Tell us what inspired your first book about cannabis, Too High to Fail?
For Farewell my Subaru, I moved to a remote ranch in New Mexico and started raising goats for dairy products and living on solar power, basically trying to show that you can live in the 21st century consuming a lot less petroleum. You know, the “regular guy” tried it premise. Lots of laughs ensue.
While I was living there on the Funky Butte Ranch, one morning, instead of humming bird wings waking me up, it was like that loud final scene in Goodfellas. There were helicopters and planes in the air, and it turned out to be like 50 or 100 guys with earpieces and SUVs in the nearby creek bed instead of bobcats and deer.
At first I thought I was being busted for a petition against fracking. It turned out it was my retired AARP neighbor and one of those bazillion pots of money we pay into to fight the War on Drugs. Instead of going after real criminals, they go after the guy self-medicating after his military service and his medical weed.
It was the final straw for me. Like most Americans, I know the Drug War is a failure and one of worst policies ever, probably since segregation. I didn’t want to whine. I wanted to offer a positive solution.
So you headed to the epicenter of medical at the time, Mendocino County in Northern California.
I lived there one year, following one locally developed plant. The Emerald Triangle, which Mendocino is a part of, is kind of amorphous—it’s boundaries are Mendo, Humboldt and Trinity Counties, but the culture goes into southern Oregon and down into Sonoma. It’s more a culture called “redneck hippies”—old pioneers’ sons coming back from Vietnam and cannabis-friendly. The expression is that the ’60s happened in the ’70s in Mendo. People who were serious about it found cheap land in beautiful northern counties and they developed the best cannabis in the world.
What struck you about the culture in Mendo?
I was impressed with how developed this culture is, how people are, in some cases, third-gen cannabis cultivators. The fellow who developed Cashmere Kush is a guy in his late 50s, a second-gen farmer, who loved doing that side of it. It is a well-developed, local, multibillion-dollar sustainable cannabis industry.
It also impressed me how organized the farmers were, ready to get central processing for quality-control testing and talking about using cellulose to create local power. That led to Hemp Bound. I always joke that if Mendocino were any more progressive, it would be clothing-optional in grocery stores.
It seems that the rest of the nation is slowly but surely following along. What’s your take on the recent changes?
Drug policy changes are unfolding at such a fast pace in a good way. To give two recent examples why it’s soon to be over, thank God, are Obama’s recent statement that cannabis isn’t any more dangerous than alcohol. In an official White House response to a bill that was put forth, the administration said, to paraphrase, “We’re going to veto this bill. It has problems and needs changes.” They basically said it was a provision that prohibits Washington D.C.’s new cannabis decriminalization, and we oppose that and said it’s a states’ rights issue. It was historical for the White House to throw states’ rights back to mess with the District’s right for representation.
I don’t think it’s Republicans vs. Democrats any more with drug policy and certainly not with hemp. It’s a safe policy for all politicians to say that cannabis is a states’ rights issue. I don’t think there’s a candidate in the land who would lose in supporting for key next steps, including removing cannabis entirely from federal drug law and making it something for states to regulate like alcohol. The political tide has turned. Even The New York Times is saying “legalize.”
Can you talk more about the industry’s potential?
If we just blocked out the name and told people that there’s a new industry that will immediately contribute billions to the tax base while lowering crime, making American families safer and—though intended for adults, other than the medical side—that it is safer than many industries like alcohol and tobacco, we would say, “Of course, we have to make it happen.”
It brings $6 billion to Mendocino every year and that’s a conservative estimate. Here’s how I came to that number: In 2010, accounted for by local law, there were approximately 600,000 plants seized in Mendo, and they claimed that was 10 percent of crop—the farmers there laugh and say that is about 1 percent—so that’s roughly six million plants that got to market. Outdoor plants can do up to 10 pounds of flower per plant, so we’ll assume one pound per plant. The lowest wholesale plant is about $1,500 to $2,000 per pound at depths of low prices, so we’ll call it $1,000. So, super-conservatively, six million at $1,000 per plant becomes $6 billion untaxed for one county of 80,000 people in northern California.
The San Francisco Weekly reported the recreational market alone in California could top $2.1 billion. Now, take that estimate and borne it out in Colorado and what it can do.
Hemp Bound focuses on industrial hemp. How did that come about?
It started out from meeting with farmers who were cultivating for the zip-tie experiment in Mendo. It was a sheriff-supported plan, but even in that tentative first year, Mendo raised $100,000 more in revenue from farmers and permits than they projected. It was a complete success.
It was one of the best experiments in 21st-century commerce I’ve ever seen, and I say that as sustainability journalist. Watching these farmers have their meetings and following their outdoor growing season, they would form trade groups, talk about branding Emerald Triangle cannabis—because everyone knows that Napa makes more money from tourism than wine—and at these meetings, they would also talk about what to do with the stalks. They were saying, “Maybe once we have 1,000 farmers in a group, maybe we could really produce some energy.” Weaning us off fossil fuels via cannabis was the genesis of Hemp Bound.
Can you explain the difference with industrial hemp and give us some everyday uses?
Industrial hemp is any variety with .3 percent THC or less. Cellulosic ethanol may not be ready for prime time yet, but I actually took a hemp-powered biodiesel limo ride. It works. There are some issues, but it would be great if an entire commercial truck fleet was on hemp diesel.
European research has a process called biomass gasification, an anaerobic, carbon-friendly process that turns farm waste into energy. European communities are becoming energy dependent by throwing whatever the crop is—even rice plantations in India. They are taking hulls and instead of hucking them, are using them to power an entire community. It seems promising, if we replaced amber waves of GMO-processed grain with industrial hemp.
Seeing that and knowing it works and is easy, hemp for energy is going to come through the power plant rather than at the pump. One big message in Hemp Bound is that it can also become profitable hemp oil—it’s a nutrient superfood—an industry that’s bringing Canadian farmers a billion dollars this year, and the industry is growing 25 percent per year. They can’t keep up with demand.
Hemp also has famously strong fiber. I’ve seen hemp fibers in BMW door panels and even saw an entire tractor made out of hemp fiber, so the future’s there. Anything petro-plastic can do, hemp can do better. However, the next big killer application is likely to be in construction. Hempcrete, hemp fiber mixed with lime and another organic binder, provides insulator for buildings that outperforms fiberglass installation and decreases carbon. [British department store] Marks & Spencer already built a huge flagship store out of it.
You participated in Hempfest in Seattle. What’s your take on how things are going here?
In one of my talks, I thanked Seattle Police for showing that the drug-peace era really is a better mode for America. Washington, to me, seems to be more on board on an official level than other places and that is helping it succeed.
Blessings for Colorado and Washington voters who changed the world. When I testified before the UN for changing international drug law to reflect worldwide changes, like the ones happening in the U.S. and Uruguay, people greet me like a liberator because of voters in Washington who show that it can exist and the world doesn’t fall apart.
In fact, as many of us predicted, we’re seeing improvements in public health and safety, as well as the exceeding economic predictions. Also, I think Oregon’s legalization, which looks to begin this November, is going to be a fantastic model, sort of the second stage after you pioneers in Washington and Colorado.