Photograph : Bob Doran cc (Some Rights Reserved)
APOLOGIES IF YOU'RE EXPECTING this review to be lighthearted stoner fun, but I'd like to start by revisiting the case of Jose Guerena. The former Marine was shot two dozen times by a SWAT team on May 5, 2011, in his own house, while his 4-year-old son and wife hid in a closet in the next room. Guerena's door was one of four that the officers of the Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff's Department kicked in on that Thursday morning, with the intention of busting a marijuana trafficking ring. They found nothing drug-related, not even rolling papers, and left a 26-year-old father of two dead on his living room floor.
As Mark Haskell Smith and Matthew Gavin Frank note in their respective books, Heart of Dankness and Pot Farm, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug, in the same legal class as heroin or LSD. This is what gives a sheriff the right to dispatch a half-dozen heavily armed men to a private residence. You don't have to be a pot smoker to consider Guerena's fate a travesty and an outrage, and in fact, I'd bet most pot smokers would prefer not to think of it at all. The vast majority of the estimated 17 million Americans who use marijuana won't ever have to confront the system that killed Jose Guerena, or feel its presence in any way other than in headlines. No amount of bureaucratic bluster or police muscle, not even the occasional horrific drug-arrest-gone-wrong, is going to scare them straight, because chances are they'll be able to continue getting high in peace indefinitely.
Nevertheless, crackdowns have become more obscene and government rhetoric more heated. In an infamous February 2011 memo, Oakland-based U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag pledged to "enforce the Controlled Substances Act vigorously against individuals and organizations that participate in unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law" (emphasis added). Headline-grabbing pot busts have grown more violent than ever, but the drug is still so easily accessible and its use so widespread that those who would benefit most from legalization might reasonably choose to let others do the fighting.
Heart of Dankness and Pot Farm present two very different examples of civilians wading into the legally murky, phenomenally profitable marijuana industry. The former is a globetrotting, journalistic trip through the nerdier echelons of marijuana development, while the latter is a lyrical, present-tense memoir that barely strays from its Edenic setting. Sticky situations arise, particularly in the Sierras and surrounding regions where the federal/state distinction breaks down, but in both cases it proves perfectly easy for the writers to buy, grow, pick, and ingest as much weed as they please. Marijuana's illegality is an obstacle in both stories, but a benign one, present mainly in the threat of arrest more than actual raids. For Smith and Frank, pot is foremost a safe, easy way for individuals to calmly enhance the world around them. Their books are proof of how the national conversation around this drug is changing, and how the market has evolved to meet the growing demand while federal and local governments remain stuck in the 1960s.