High Stakes: A #AAA2015 Panel Review

High Stakes: Marijuana, Ethnography, and American Geographies of Risk

Presenters: Joe Bonni (University of Chicago), Molly Cunningham (University of Chicago), Robert Chlala (University of Southern California), and Kaya Williams (University of Chicago). Discussant: Laurence Ralph (Harvard University). Sponsored by: Society for Cultural Anthropology.

There was no question that a meeting of the American Anthroplogical Association (AAA) held in Colorado, one of the first states in the United States to legalize recreational marijuana sales, would include a number of cannabis-related events and panels. At the “High Stakes” panel under review here, I recognized many audience members from the Cannabis Cultures tour the night before, during which I had the surreal experience of sitting inside a decommissioned charter bus in the parking lot of a dispensary as a group of professional anthropologists passed around several sizeable joints.

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Indoor hydroponics, from the Cannabis Cultures tour in Denver. Photo by Hilary Agro.

Impish grins and jokes abounded that evening and throughout the week’s activities. It seems that no panel on recreational drug use (nor, it will become clear, any panel review), no matter how thoughtful and anthropologically engaged, is immune to the temptations of making cheap puns—the “High Stakes” panel abstract asked how we might “puff, puff, pass, and engage methodologically in acts of defamiliarization with our interlocutors.” However, these quips do more than just create solidarity among those who study illicit drug use. They are an acknowledgement that our subject matter is still met with giggling or eye-rolling disdain by the general public, a sentiment which sometimes seeps into the attitudes of normally open-minded scholars. Given my own fieldwork among users of drugs even further from the mainstream—psychedelics such as LSD and MDMA—I am acutely aware of this phenomenon. Indeed, I could not help but notice the lack of discussion of other recreational drugs at the conference, which was surprising given the recent resurgence in attention to psychedelics in other disciplines. In any case, the very ability to make jokes or to be dismissive of the seriousness with which the anthropological study of psychoactive drugs should be taken, even as millions suffer in prison, illustrates the issues addressed by this panel: the discrepancies of prohibition’s disparate effects on different socioeconomic and racial groups.

An argument commonly found in legalization movements and cannabis industry rhetoric proposes that those growers and sellers who are criminals under prohibition laws will find avenues for legitimate employment when cannabis is legalized. Today, since convicted felons in Colorado are barred from working in the legal marijuana industry, these new opportunities favor only those former ‘criminals’ who did not get caught—unwelcome news for the racialized victims of mass incarceration. A prominent theme across many cannabis-related panels, the emerging discovery that legalization may reinforce some structural inequalities at the same time as it breaks down others should perhaps come as no surprise. Discussant Laurence Ralph echoed these concerns at the “High Stakes” panel, questioning whether the illusion of progress helps to obscure the ways in which neoliberalism and the Drug War continue to potentiate each other, to the detriment of already marginalized groups.

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Is cannabis legalization further entrenching, rather than alleviating, structural and racial inqualities? Photo by Hilary Agro.

In rich ethnographic detail, “High Stakes” panelists explored spaces that are structured as much by weed’s illegality as by its consumption. Joe Bonni laid the groundwork through an overview of the history of marijuana (and other drug) laws in the United States, drawing out the ways in which race and class have shaped not only the maintenance of prohibition, but also the movement against it. Structural barriers to political power have made those citizens most affected by the Drug War the most reluctant to vocally challenge them. During her fieldwork among grassroots activists involved with Detroit’s water wars, Molly Cunningham found that there are “a lot of stoners in movement politics.” Cunningham explored how this reality is woven into attempts to build consensus across racialized class distinctions, thinking through ethical and political quandaries that her participants navigate every day. Marijuana quiets pain and allows activists to listen, calming the rage that burns as steadily and unproductively as a joint against the lived effects of corporate capitalism’s negative externalities. Yet soothe as it may, marijuana by no means determines what activists are listening for.

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The “High Stakes” panelists. Photo by Hilary Agro.

In reference to Los Angeles’s unstable liminal state between prohibition, legal medical use, and full legalization, Robert Chlala invoked Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s concept of racial capitalism to describe how purveyors of marijuana fluctuate between being illegal dealers and legitimate laborers, with consequences cleaving predictably along socioeconomic and racial lines. Chlala explored the strategic ways by which fiscal zoning, neoliberal tax reforms, selective service cuts, and classic nimbyism—complete with pearl-clutching narratives of children having to walk through clouds of smoke to get to school—serve the purposes of racial subjugation.

In New Orleans, Kaya Williams confronted the starkest consequences of this racial subjugation in her work among public defenders, civil rights attorneys, and advocates for the reform of a jail so dangerous that inmates awaiting a trial will accept any plea bargain just to get them out: “Yeah, you'll have to do five or ten years, but you won't have to do them here.” The responses that her participants frequently offered to the unsolicited question of “How do you sleep at night?” framed Williams’ reflection on how the human body physically bears the affective toll that structural violence inflicts, not only on its victims, but also on its unwilling perpetrators. Their solutions to this literal and metaphorical problem are often chemical.

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“You could just smoke weed . . .” Michael Polson, moderating the question period. Photo by Hilary Agro.

The bitter irony of cannabis and other drugs serving as both the ultimate cause of, and proximate solution to, the stress of fighting prohibition and mass incarceration is one that was palpably familiar to those of us in the room at the “High Stakes” panel. Trying to slow, or even just expose, the nonstop onslaught of social and racial injustice that is the War on Drugs feels like trying to lift up a manhole cover with just one’s fingernails. Psychoactive substances help to solidify relationships in the field and provide an escape from the ricocheted damage caused by chipping away at the forces that obscure structural inequalities. Yet the anthropologist’s privileged position in relation to those inequities buffers us from most of the consequences faced by those at the bottom engaging in the same behaviors.

Kaya Williams grappled with her own position and those of her participants with respect to the legal system, oppositional positions that are nonetheless complicit in its operation. How does it feel to be part of a system one hates? This uncomfortable contradiction is a source of anxiety not only for those who work within the War on Drugs’ machine of oppression, but for many anthropologists more broadly. Finding a balance between attempting to reduce the harm a system causes without legitimizing and being complicit in the system’s tyranny is a confounding challenge.

For scholars who study drugs and their prohibition, whenever one’s potential status as a tool of state surveillance and governmentality threatens to overwhelm and paralyze, there are solutions. One is to remember Phillipe Bourgois’s call to influence and incite practical policy change aimed at alleviating the ongoing and devastatingly real suffering imposed by structural violence. Another is to do what everyone else does—get high, sleep, and keep working the next day.