“If the common person has the ability to grow and use their own healing plants, and share with friends, they can forever hold the corporate interests accountable.”
By Carlos Plazola, Decriminalize Nature
We’re getting decriminalization and legalization of our sacred plant allies all wrong. I was part of the process that screwed up our relationship with cannabis. And these are my lessons I carry to a new movement called Decriminalize Nature, born in Oakland and now spreading across the country in over 100 cities and 30 states.
In 2010, I sat at a meeting in Richmond, California lobbying the City Council to allow dispensaries to become permitted. My team presented a complex rubric of regulations they could place on the dispensaries to ensure the world would stay safe, and we seduced them with the staggering tax windfalls they’d receive once the dispensaries were fully operational. It helped that the unregulated mortgage derivate industry had just sucked trillions of dollars out of the economy, causing de-industrialized towns like Richmond to hemorrhage from their dwindling budgets. We brought to them smoke and mirrors, complex regulations and greed. And they ate it up.
I was part of a large group of second wave organizers following early-in pioneers who, for the love of the plant, sought to decriminalize cannabis for medical healing purposes throughout the 80s and 90s. Where their version of the story focused on the healing power of cannabis, the assistance it provided to heal trauma and all the medical benefits, our version of the story in the mid-2000s focused on the power of cannabis to create taxes, to create wealth, to heal the budgets of cities and make communities rich. In other words, the full-blown commodification narrative was set loose.
But, to be fair, the war on cannabis was stupid to begin with. We all knew it, and the fear held by officials at all levels of government was dumbfounding. All anyone had to do to understand that the hype behind Reefer Madness and the dangers of weed was nonsense was to do a news search on the history of cannabis and read a few news articles and scientific studies. Two hours on a computer googling “why did cannabis get on Schedule I?” would have shown that available scientific research showed marijuana should NOT have been on Schedule I. But elected officials live in fear. It’s almost a prerequisite to re-election. Always looking over the shoulder at the next up-start poised to take their seat. “Can’t make a stupid decision that will wreck my career.”
But here we found ourselves on familiar terrain. How do you overcome the innate fear of elected officials who refuse to look at things rationally and prefer to “do more studies!” or employ the standard delay tactic of “send it to committee,” instead of righting Nixon’s wrongs? I’d spent eight years in government, as a congressional aide and council chief of staff, and I understood that fear and paranoia was just part of the game. So, it seemed logical to fight fire with fire. The ends justify the means, don’t they? (It turns out they don’t.) How do you get over an irrational fear of a decision maker? Desire. Offer them something they can’t refuse. So, we did. And in the process, we destroyed our relationship to cannabis.
From this strategy of appeasing politician’s fear were born the three horsemen of the apocalypse on healing plants. The three horsemen emerged as Scarcity, Complexity and Greed. Together they are destroying the sacred relationship between humans and cannabis, and are poised to destroy our relationship to entheogenic plants and fungi—if we, as advocates, repeat our mistakes.
Horseman #1: Scarcity
“But weed will be everywhere and everyone will be smoking it, children will die from it, cars will drive off bridges because of it and hell will break loose! How will you prevent this?!” sang the chorus of anxious elected officials. Now, at this moment, we should have all united as advocates and stood strong and calmed them down, like a mother calms a terrified child and says, “show me where the monster is.” And we should have shown them that there are no monsters in the closet. “It was all Nixon’s hype. And since progressive elected officials all hate Nixon so much, join us in righting his wrong against our natural world and our consciousness.”
It could have been so beautiful. We could have forced the conversation toward the truths about this beautiful plant that has co-evolved with humans and provided so much healing over the eons but, instead, we took the bait and we did something very stupid. We said, “OK, we’ll limit the number of plants that individuals are allowed to grow.” The intention was good (to allay their fear) but the logic was flawed. By limiting the amount someone can grow, we sent the message that cannabis is dangerous and we created scarcity, especially for those who most needed it to heal.
Horseman #2: Complexity
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius, and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” Einstein was right. As it pertains to cannabis, we wanted to allay the fears of the elected officials, so we offered them complex regulatory frameworks, and they ran with it.
In the early 2000’s, the herd began its stampede toward greater and greater regulatory complexity, and hasn’t stopped since. Everyone had to put their fingerprints on the regulations. By the time the California state cannabis regulations were completed and published in January 2019, only a few well-paid lawyers understood what the hell was going on, and most of them were faking it. Their $500 hourly billing rate wasn’t really all that attainable for that black or brown person in East or West Oakland who’d been cultivating the sacred plant for 20 years as their livelihood, did time in the 80s for having a baggy of weed in their car and would eventually get pushed out of the industry because of the cost of complexity.
Again, the intentions were good, but we were reacting to fear. How do we keep babies from going up in flames? Create new regulations. And while the stampede was running full-speed ahead toward Complexity Cliff, it seemed no one had the fortitude to just raise their hand and say, “uh, guys, gals, we have all these pre-existing regulations that have been working perfectly fine for well, about a hundred years or more. Why don’t we just apply these regs to cannabis, like we do to herbs, or tomatoes, or oranges, or Heinz Ketchup, or Newman’s Own lemonade?”
The initial reaction would have been predictable. “What?! Don’t you understand this plant is the devil’s weed! We must contain this THC/CBD Beast and tame it so it doesn’t destroy civilization!” But, over time, had we held to our message long enough, we could have convinced the decision-makers that “nope, cannabis is a loving and friendly plant that heals. You don’t have to treat it with disrespect. Just treat it like any other plant and relax.” The winners would have been everyone except lawyers and lobbyists. But alas, here we are. Weekly conference calls to make sure we’re meeting the most recent iteration of a regulatory requirement. A growing underground market of people telling the state to piss off. A bunch of angry advocates who helped create this complexity demanding justice. And the few true believers watching their mission of bringing the healing effects of cannabis to those in need become harder and harder.
Horseman #3: Greed
Create Scarcity. Check.
Create Complexity. Check.
OK, perfect. Launch Venture Capital! The final wave of total annihilation of our sacred relationship to cannabis.
To be fair, this was not some grand master plan by venture capitalists. I’ve been watching the cannabis industry take a big giant crap since 2000. Watching it all unfold. Paying my own heavy price for participating in this fool’s game of defilement. Venture capital wasn’t sitting on the sidelines waiting for their dastardly plan to finally unfold so they could rush in and collect their winnings. This is just how things work when we legislate from fear. It’s an inevitability.
Ruthless capitalism was created in response to fear hundreds of years ago. It feeds off fear and all the fear-based responses that emerge—well, like hoarding, for example. So, it was natural that the process we began in the early 2000s that started from a place of pandering to the fear of decision-makers would eventually end in the ultra-competitive world of venture capital. We did it. We came from love. We reacted to fear. We justified it by thinking the ends justified the means. And we set it down the road of destruction, so now the weed advocates hold conferences asking, “Where did cannabis go wrong?” and lamenting the lack of people of color in the industry, while down the road the capitalists hold conferences with panel titles such as, “Desktop and Mobile Technologies: CRM, POS, Blockchain, Digital Payment—what’s Hot and Needs to Disrupt?” in a room filled with primarily white entrepreneurs.
We did this. But we can learn from this to make sure we don’t destroy our relationship with our plant allies of the entheogenic type. Cannabis was the sacrificial lamb to the altar of human frailty. But here is our opportunity to get it right with our plant and fungal allies that lovingly heal our consciousness—ayahuasca, sacred mushrooms, ibogaine, mescaline cacti and the like, because if we fuck this one up, once knowledge, what forgiveness? None. Game over.
To Decriminalize Nature
Think about this for a moment. To Decriminalize Nature. Nature. Us. We’re Nature. We’re of Nature. Nature is Us. How did it come to pass that we would even need to create a movement that in essence says, “Decriminalize Us”? We, as humans, have become so embedded in fear that the absurd concept of criminalizing nature now actually makes sense to many people in the world. The logic is simple in their minds: “We must stop people from doing stupid things to themselves, and we can do this by declaring it illegal! And now, let’s throw them in prison for using these substances to protect them from themselves. There. Sit in a cage so you don’t harm yourself.”
That we have to explain this to elected officials can, at times, be maddening. Often the response is, “Do more studies! Send it to Committee!” Fear-based responses. But we must stay the course, be patient, build a movement and hold to our message this time, and our message is simple:
Build Abundance, Not Scarcity:
Any initiatives that seek to legalize, regulate or end the war on drugs must first, or simultaneously, decriminalize our relationship with natural healing plants without limits on growing, gathering or gifting of entheogenic plants for non-commodified uses. We must treat these plants as we would treat tomatoes, oranges or everyday garden herbs. By enabling anyone to grow as much as they want for non-commodified uses, we even the playing-field for the inevitable commodification down the road. If the common person has the ability to grow and use their own healing plants, and share with friends, they can forever hold the corporate interests accountable. They will retain the ultimate leverage of the freedom to home-grow if the products of corporations become unattractive or undesirable, or if they simply prefer to grow their own and not rely on corporate products—just like with oranges or tomatoes.
Don’t Reinvent The Regulatory Wheel:
Like oranges or tomatoes, it is likely that commodified products from healing plants and fungi will emerge. But we don’t need to create complexity where the only winners are lawyers and lobbyists. Keep it simple. Use pre-existing regulatory frameworks that work just fine.
Ok. This is a tall order. And will likely take a couple of centuries for us to achieve, presuming we can get there as a species. It is also inevitable that this single-motive technology (capitalism) will eventually evolve to encompass other values, such as compassion, ecological protections and empathy. But, until then, we will all have to work together to push full decriminalization without caps on amounts as a balancing force, keep regulations simple and work together to encourage any for profit venture capitalist or corporation to approach nature with reverence.
This next great frontier of humanity is not out there in space, on Mars or on some new undiscovered continent. The next great frontier of humanity is inward. It involves conquering our fears; the fears that have us treating ourselves, each other and nature with disdain, allowing the emergence of destructive policies and practices that hurt only us. The next move is to decriminalize our relationship with nature which, when we finally wake, we’ll understand was really about decriminalizing our own relationship with ourselves and letting go of fear.
Carlos Plazola is the chair of the board of Decriminalize Nature. He formerly worked as a lobbyist in the cannabis industry from 2008 to 2012 and as chief of staff to the Oakland City Council president from 2000 to 2006.