By Terry Gotham
A caveat: things are heading in the right direction in places where cannabis has been legalized for recreational use for adults. We can all agree that Colorado, Washington, Alaska & the District of Columbia didn’t become the pot-drenched “Beyond Thunderdome” dystopias that pearl clutchers & puritans envisioned. My aim is not to deride legalization efforts, nor question the dedication or motives of anyone associated with the fight to get America’s head out of its ass. Because Burning Man can be seen as a laboratory for progressive thinking & ways of living, and because a lot of Burners live in states that are currently grappling with the “how” instead of the “if” of legalization, medicalization or decrmininalization, I felt compelled to mention them. We’re legalizing in uneven steps across the country, which has brought us into unknown economic, cultural & law enforcement territory and produced some worrying side effects.
Firstly, despite all of our hopes, mad people are still getting cuffed for weed yo. In Seattle, delivery servers have been going down in sting operations and in CO, when growers or suppliers decide they don’t want to (or can’t) pay the pot tax, it seeps into the streets where the same people are going to jail just like before. And of course, those people are usually poor and usually black. There is something deeply depressing about hearing cops make the same patrols and arrest/incarcerate the same kids on the same corners, both before and after legalization. When you’re already 4x as likely to be arrested for possession as your competitor and you add another 2x multiplier on being arrested inside of a legal state (paywall)? It gets better for some, but not all, and that is exactly the thing we need to be fighting.
Of course, this is the problem with uneven prosecution & state-based drug frameworks. However, there are a couple of things that could be done to alleviate some of these hardships. When it comes to reform, there must be plenty of opportunity for people previously incarcerated for cannabis, in the cannabis industry. I’m talking job training, networking and tax breaks for cannabis businesses that hire previously convicted individuals. I can’t think of a single reason that this pipeline shouldn’t exist, save pearl clutching and the vagaries of sin. The fact that we’re incarcerating people for this stuff at all is idiotic, but of course, very few politicians want to grant carte blanche reprieves to the “scourge” of many communities. We need to start thinking about how to use profits from taxes on cannabis (and alcohol and tobacco if you ask me, but I’m not trying to get into a “which vice is best” fight) to directly benefit those who cost society the most money. The more recreational drug users or dealers that spend time in jail, the more they’re not participating in society or paying taxes. I think getting the long-term prison population down as far as we reasonably can, saves time & money, not just for the cop, but for the entire legal system. There’s stacks of data about how most courts are clogged with non-violent drug offenses. Might as well get these all off the books in CO, WA & AK right? Let the courts deal with real crime.
While this is one of the effects of uneven progress in the legalization movement from the policy perspective, this isn’t the only segment of American life that is feeling problematic consequences from cannabis legalization. The Tech sector + liberalizing drug laws tend to be associated with spikes in rent/property values. This makes sense of course, when you work for Google, you can afford a bunch of pot and a 3 bedroom downtown in whatever city you’re in. However, one aspect of the discussion that gets left out is how this interfaces with the greater obliterating gentrification that occurs in a lot of liberal leaning cities. Brooklyn may not have legal pot, but if you’re white, you’re probably not going to jail for it. In San Francisco, it’s decriminalized to the point where you can throw parties without a cash bar & still pay your DJs. The market force pressures being applied by the tech sector in a lot of cities around the country seem to be similar to how the financial district & real estate industry essentially dictate terms to the Mayor’s Office here in NYC.
This ambient cost of living explosion pushed many of my friends out of Brooklyn, and I know more than one who recently left Denver for cheaper parts West. The formula is almost boring at this point, but the accelerant of cannabis legalization changes a lot of things. We need to think hard about who we want to be able to afford to live in our communities, and how Radically Inclusive a lot of these cities are becoming. As Burning Man’s average income seems to steadily increase, we are seeing the places burners live approach prohibitive expense. Some of us can shake these hikes off like it ain’t no thing, and to them much respect is given. NYC is getting so bad that short order cooks can’t afford to live less than a 60min commute from the Michelin starred restaurants they’re working in. Artists are shipping out to Philly, Baltimore, DC, Asheville & plenty of other places that don’t smell of Dubai.
If you don’t think these things affect the quality, diversity & caliber of both the art and your fellow Burners, both in perspective and culture, I don’t know what to tell you. Even if we’re just a lowly front-end designer, hooping performer, or mechanic who loves to Burn, we still agree that a better tomorrow is possible and we want to help bring it to life. Some of us spend months building what we believe to be a better world might look like. I think this problem deserves our attention. These issues of uneven enforcement & escalating living costs that surround progressive cultures are staring down the barrel at your city, and if they’re not, they will be in 5-10 years. Especially with the global recognition of Burning Man, the gifting economy and our willingness to tackle complex problems, even the smallest amount of mindshare from any of you still reading, on a local or national level, will better us all.