.Year in Review: Higher Education

How two UC professors dove into the weed world of Santa Cruz and beyond to explore the future of legal cannabis

Back in 1965, Bob Dylan ridiculed the eternal square in his song “Ballad of a Thin Man” on the Highway 61 Revisited album. (“Something is happening here and you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”) In one verse, he singled out “the professors” and the “very well-read,” as if the highly educated elites couldn’t possibly have a clue about the counterculture.

That may have been true back then—although ironically mass student protests on campus would start just a year after Dylan wrote the song. But these are different times, with nearly half of all states legalizing weed, and dispensaries proliferating across the West Coast and the country. And the two authors who have stepped in to educate the world about the rapidly shifting realities of modern weed are, of all things, academics.

Yes, the new book published by the University of California Press and written by two professors who teach at the University of California at Davis is a sure sign that the world of weed is now taken seriously in a way it wasn’t even a few short years ago. And Can Legal Weed Win: The Blunt Realities of Cannabis Economics by Robin Goldstein and Daniel Sumner also shows that it’s now safe for academics to venture into territory once off limits to any writers except dyed-in-the-wool marijuana journalists and gonzo reporters unafraid to puff on a joint and write about it.

Then again, there’s not much that Sumner is afraid of; he’s not intimidated by anyone inside or outside academia. “The cotton industry tried to get me fired,” he tells me. “I also pissed off the dairy industry. I studied tobacco subsidies and that made me suspect, too.”

Rolling Off the Presses

Just a decade ago, an editor at UC Press rejected my own book, Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War, saying it was too hot to handle. Fortunately, High Times published it, along with a dozen color photos and a glossy cover that depicts a big fat bud of the kind that makes cannabis connoisseurs drool (or so the publisher told me).

A French paperback appeared in print in France soon after the American edition went on sale. “Everyone from Paris and the Riviera to Normandy and Brittany knows the word ‘marijuana,’” Virginie Giraud, the translator, explained. “There’s no need to find a French equivalent.”

On a book tour in France, I met French growers—many of them self-styled anarchists who weren’t mad bombers, but advocate for community control of everything, from power to wealth, in their communities. In Paris, I appeared on an anarchist radio show. The host met me at a stop on the Paris Metro and took me to a clandestine location.

A New Weed Reality

Sumner and Goldstein conceived their book in a new, very different era. Goldstein is the younger of the two authors; a native of Massachusetts who settled here more than a decade ago, he has reinvented himself as a Californian. (Although his hometown, Northampton, Massachusetts, is a tamer East Coast version of Santa Cruz.)

Sumner, who was born in 1950, has kids who have smoked weed. Back in the day, Sumner was once a wrangler who doubled as a hippie. He wore boots, a cowboy hat and long hair in a ponytail. “I straddled two worlds,” he says.

Goldstein focuses on sales and retailing issues, while Sumner looks at weed as a crop.

“I get excited about technical stuff like rice and drought in the Central Valley,” Sumner tells me.

The two professors explored the weed world in and around Santa Cruz, where they visited the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana and met its founder, the legendary Valerie Corral. Unusual issues abound in this corner of the cannabis industry.

“In the Santa Cruz area, some people in the cut flower business were worried that weed farmers would monopolize greenhouses and put them out of business,” Sumner says. “That has not happened, and they’ve calmed down, though some of the best managers in the cut flower business have jumped ship and joined the weed industry, where salaries are heftier.”

Sumner and Goldstein also obtained valuable information from students on their own campus in Davis who say they don’t buy marijuana from dispensaries because it’s more expensive than the illegal product on the black market. In California, the law states that you have to be 21 years of age or older to purchase weed. That leaves preteens, teens and kids aged 20 with no choice but to spend millions of dollars on the black market. A legal grower in Santa Cruz County tells me that most students here buy on the black market.

“Everyone is doing the black market thing,” he says. “With the high price of gas, people have less disposable income, so the market for dispensary weed has narrowed.”  

Yolo County, where Davis is located, has a double standard when it comes to weed, Sumner tells me. Farmers in Yolo don’t have a problem with the cultivation of weed. After all, it’s a crop. “But they don’t like the cannabiz,” he says. “In that regard, Yolo has a lot in common with the Central Valley.”

A large portion of Can Legal Weed Win? is devoted to predictions, but when I interviewed the authors, they backed away from their crystal ball. “The future is uncertain,” Goldstein says. “We’re not in the business of making industry forecasts.” That’s a wise choice. “The industry is evolving faster than books can keep up with it,” Sumner and Goldstein write in their book. Ain’t that the truth.

The Potency Myth

Goldstein also argues that consumers don’t know much about the marijuana they purchase. Sumner adds that the prohibition against weed, like the prohibition against booze, has prompted consumers to focus mistakenly on potency.

In the days of Al Capone and his fellow mobsters, they looked at the alcohol content of bootleg whiskey and gin. Now, for cannabis, it’s THC. But weed with high levels of THC isn’t necessarily better than weed with lower levels of THC, Sumner points out, much as whiskey with a high alcoholic content isn’t always superior to whiskey with a low alcoholic content.

Caveat emptor: buyer beware. That slogan made sense during the days when con artists sold snake oil as a miracle drug to unsuspecting consumers. Caveat emptor still makes sense today when the market is flooded with so many different weed products with different packaging that it’s challenging to separate the ordinary from the extraordinary.

Over half a century after Dylan wrote “Ballad of a Thin Man,” there are still plenty of Mr. Joneses, even if they’re harder to pigeonhole. But if they read Goldstein and Sumner, they’ll learn a thing or two—and so will the rest of us.


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