Cannabis, Decommodification & Brake Lights: Gifting in 2017

Column by Terry Gotham

While the Best Coast has just about legalized the growth & sale of cannabis from the Mexican to Canadian borders, us poor unfortunate souls stuck in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and what’s traditionally thought of as the Deep South, remain mired in drug reform purgatory. In New York state, medical cannabis laws allow for purchase of concentrates, edibles and, non-plant matter containing products that have THC/CBD, but dispensaries are few & far between, and there is a steep fee to obtain an MMJ license. In Massachusetts, cannabis became legal a full year before dispensaries are allowed to open, providing legal cover to people who can already access the stuff, while propagating the same patterns of arrest and harassment of gray/black market channels as before the law was passed. We’ve seen similar patterns of arrest for dealers who don’t play by the “tax stamp” rules in Colorado, but Washington DC takes the cake when it comes to cannabis market dysfunction.

“Thank you and here’s a gift for you to have as a souvenir.”
~Legal loophole in DC creates bizarre pot bazaar, Ashraf Khalil – Associated Press 9.28.17

In Washington DC, cannabis was legalized, but a congressional committee gets to review all laws the District of Columbia passes. Some asshole named Andy Harris, an anesthesiologist member of the “Freedom Caucus” who opposes the cannabis legalization, got a rider passed that prohibited DC from spending cash on figuring out how to tax or regulate pot. So, it remains legal to possess, but illegal to buy or sell. While this is one of the dumbest things you’ll hear all month, that hasn’t stopped DC. Businesses all over the city have started selling mugs, t-shirts, calendars, and tons of other swag with “a little something.” With DC police in no hurry to stamp out anything but the most in your face abuse of this system, we’re starting to see what happens when something that starts as Mutual Aid or gifting, turns into a market economy.

We’ve all seen this happen. A Burning Man camp, party crew or production company that enjoys any modicum of success faces the question of how to grow and both enrich themselves/their members, and the community around them. On playa, this urge to both benefit yourself (have a dank Burn) and benefit others (gift stuff to people who come to your camp or that you meet while there), largely benefits Burning Man as a whole, making the event the undeniably unique thing that it is. No matter how much fun you have at TomorrowWorld or EDC, no one’s making you pancakes, or providing you with the untold diversity of gifted experiences and things on playa. While lots of other festivals have “give-aways” or some form of free entertainment in the form of rides or DJs, you’re paying out of pocket for everything. Just like regular, capitalist/commercialized society. On playa, some of the gifting is useful, some is outlandish, and some is totally unnecessary, potentially even detrimental to a camp’s MOOP profile. I bring this up because Burners, more than any group I know, have the potential to take the gifting system and decommodification to truly help people around them.

The New Orleans Democratic Socialists recently deployed a great example of decommodification & gifting (Mutual Aid) done right. They hosted an event where they fixed tail lights.  Having a broken brake light as a minority carries with it a latent risk for interaction with the police. Given how many Americans have lost their lives at routine traffic stops, fixing a brake light for an African or Latino American could be a life saver. To quote Kaitlin Marone, a NOLA DSA organizer:

There are a lot of reasons, but the main one is a few years ago, I got pulled over for having a brake light out, and I had a really traumatic experience with some cops in Florida. It was horrific. Recently, it happened to me again, but it wasn’t nearly as bad. As I was changing my brake light, I realized it was extremely easy to do, and also really cheap. I thought, We should just do this for everybody.
~The Democratic Socialists Are Here To Fix Your Brake Lights, VICE 8.30.17

These are people getting to the heart of what it means to “serve your community.” Which got me thinking about the entirety of the “gifting” economy that we celebrate and cherish at Burning Man. Think about the sheer scale of the gifting enterprises and the required logistics involved with getting all of the stuff required to be so lavish & luxurious on playa. Remember with me if you will, the response Burners had to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Harvey THIS YEAR. Think about what the community was able to provide for not only NOLA/TX based Burners, but their communities in turn. Remember, that was largesse and extra resources,  people giving what they had left, not people organizing to give.

We speak about decommodification all the time as this solemn virtue, with Burners lording our lack of commerce over other festivals. But, what good is getting away from the commodification of the default world if the ways we act once we remove money from the equation are just as conspicuous, unsustainable, and adolescent as how we act on an idle Tuesday in line at the Walgreens. Some Burning Man camps have non-trivial incomes, with others having exceptionally rich members. What if, instead of donating/advocating in traditional ways, they just cut out the middle humans and combined direct action with parties? Just think about what the nationwide network of Burners could do if they decided to be real advocates for the communities their members live in.

But, that assumes that we both want to be that, and are willing to make a good faith effort to be that. There are plenty of venues and party crews that use events to gentrify or otherwise fortify themselves with the spoils of gifting under the guise of “helping the community.” When real estate developers connect with local talent to throw parties in efforts to get real estate values to spike, hoods all across the country start waking up to that shit. This speaks to the need to actually serve communities that we proclaim we like to help, without recruiting or attempting to extract value from the interaction. You’re not giving out swag in exchange for app sign ups, you’re actually providing a service. Like giving tired parents an activity and a pile of costumes for their kids during the day, or, fixing brake lights.

The only way we can change that if we’re sincere about wanting to represent all the people in the working class is by making a sincere effort to center issues that affect people of color, and [the brake light repair event] seems like a good way of showing that in good faith.
~The Democratic Socialists Are Here To Fix Your Brake Lights, VICE 8.30.17

Ultimately, this isn’t to berate or guilt trip anyone, nor am I trying to tell people how to spend their money (hard-earned or otherwise). What I am trying to point out is that the gifting system isn’t as alien to regular society as muggles have said in their dumb-ass think pieces. We can make it about sparkles, navel-gazing, hedonism, service, sustainability or anything we’d like. Some organizations even make it about profit, producing Burning Man-themed experiences for billionaires & tech bros. We may not be able to prevent them from doing so, but we can decide how we want to use the excess labor & capital that our fundraising efforts produce.

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