Going to Pot
Mimbres author Doug Fine's new book is Too High to Fail

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About the cover

The Literary Life

Going to Pot

In his new book, Too High to Fail, Mimbres author Doug Fine
argues for taking the crime out of cannabis.

by Donna Clayton Walter



Doug Fine leans back in a chair on his porch, his mountain-man beard, tattered baseball cap — "Hemp!" he points out proudly — and somewhat goofy shades pulling together his quirky, multi-faceted, down-home persona of successful back-to-nature author, family man and adventurer.

Author Doug Fine sits on his porch at Funky Butte Ranch, holding a copy of his latest book, Too High to Fail.
(Photo by Donna Clayton Walter)

"Well, it's kind of cool, satisfying really, to think that researching the war on drugs is paying my mortgage right now," Fine says with a laugh.

But before you think this laid-back father of two and respectable author getting ready to go on book tour is suggesting he's got a marijuana business growing in the back field of his 41-acre Funky Butte Ranch in the Mimbres, think again. Or, as he says in his new book, Too High to Fail, "If you were inclined to stereotype, incline the other way."

While Fine is thoroughly convinced of the need to end the so-called war on drugs and decriminalize cannabis — the "go-to" term that includes the psychedelic "medical" version of the plant, as well as the industrial (fiber) and biofuel aspects — he hasn't put himself on the frontlines of actually growing. In fact, he jokes, "I'm just not a really good farmer! I'm good with livestock, like the ducks and the chickens and the goats. I'm good with protein. But I don't really do plants well."

No, that's for the brave people he interviewed, he says, the "courageous people who talked to me on the record about what they are doing, who are doing the actual farming, people out there on the front lines of this thing. We're still talking about felonies, here," he says. "People in the cannabis business are risking a Federal raid" — and Fine details one such raid that happened when he was on site, researching for the book — "yet, these people spoke to me."

Rather than growing his own crop, Fine says, he has been paying the bills with speaking engagements, sales and the like coming out of his last book, Farewell, My Subaru (see "Green Acres," March 2008). So he has been very thankful for the advance on this new book, published by Gotham Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), which comes out this month.

"Yeah, we're big on penguins around here," he says, making a light-hearted quip on his publisher's name, as one of his young sons holds up a stuffed-penguin hand puppet. As his two-year-old toddles around and the four-year-old snaps pictures of the family dog with the reporter's camera, Fine smiles at their antics and talks about how he hopes his book may encourage progress in the decriminalization of "herb," as the plant is sometimes fondly called in his well-researched and scholarly-yet-approachable book.


To research the issue and make his case for decriminalization — one based largely on cold hard financial facts as opposed to, say, impassioned pleas for freedom of choice or compassionate arguments about the much-discussed "medical marijuana program" — Fine packed up his family and left Funky Butte behind for a spell. He spent "pretty much the entire growing season" in Mendocino County, Calif. There he got to know and learn about the daily struggles of those who do the actual growing, processing, distributing and purchasing of cannabis.

One of the more surprising facts he came across, Fine says, is the sheer prevalence of the business. In Mendocino County, he points out, there are an estimated 5,000 rural residents (out of 80,000) involved in the cannabis business. This generated some $6 billion last year, compared to just $74 million from the area's "official" crop — wine, of course!

In California, cannabis generated just over $100 million in taxes, mostly on medical marijuana. And it is reported that 100 million Americans have, um, "inhaled." A whopping 12 million to 20 million used cannabis in the last year. Big business? You bet!

The book is laced with amusing facts about the, well, "industry" of cannabis. Fine quotes one woman as saying, "Nothing would be here without herb," indicating that a storefront on a small downtown Main Street serves as just a tax base for that family's thriving cannabis business. He talks about small towns where cannabis is such a big part of the local commerce that dollar bills give off the distinctive smell of pot, owing to the fragrant terpenes in the plant's chemical composition.

Along with inspiring interviews and digging up staggering statistics, Fine says, he also just plain had fun writing the book, coming up with puns on the words "weed," "buds" and so forth. And while his editor allowed a number of such tongue-in-cheek references, he says, "She had me take some of them out so the book would be taken seriously." Then he adds with a laugh, "Then she goes and throws a joint on the cover!" In fact, under the book's title there is a marijuana cigarette in the form of a dollar bill stuffed with what might humorously be called "MaryJane."


One chapter, "Meeting the Patients," is poignant and personal, introducing the reader to people with painful and even terminal medical conditions that were improved with the use of medical marijuana. This goes well beyond the average layperson's impression of saving cancer patients by giving them the munchies so they can find their appetites and keep something down after their chemo treatments. Fine lays out the facts about other aspects of how cannabis can be used medically by talking about patients whose pain was unresponsive to "standard treatment" drugs — including the now-banned Vioxx — but who now thrive, eat and walk normally with cannabis as their medication.

The herbal drug is also good for conditions such as insomnia and Crohn's Disease, he points out. Fine questioned one such patient about purchasing his "ganja" with his credit card: "I asked him, wasn't he afraid to leave a paper trail? And he just said, 'Hell, no, this is my medicine!'"

But while the argument for "medical marijuana" is much ballyhooed and the sum total of most people's perception of justification for decriminalization, Fine says this is a small part of the picture.

"The validating points are all, individually, so compelling," he says. "But putting the medical aspect of cannabis completely aside, even considering just one or two of the other aspects, it still makes sense to immediately end the drug war."

And Fine goes on in the book to carefully and methodically lay out those other arguments, involving the industrial and energy aspects of cannabis, specifically hemp household products and biofuel.

Hemp is a crop that's easier to grow and makes less of a carbon footprint than, say, cotton. Fabric, rope, soap and other products made from hemp fiber are stronger and easier on the environment. When it comes to biofuels — those agri-products that could reduce our nation's dependence on fossil fuels — hemp produces five times the biofuel of corn.

So why the resistance to legalizing cannabis and expanding the markets for and production of hemp? Fine believes the political power of "Big Pharma" and the current investment in agribusiness' corn "are factors in limiting the expansion of hemp."


But support for decriminalization has gone mainstream and is amping up, Fine says. His own "straight-laced" mother met him at the airport, he recounts, with a magazine under her arm and fired up about the war on drugs.

"She told me that she just felt the whole thing was a failure and needed to end. My mother said this," he says with a slightly amused laugh.

He talks about his surprise at venture capitalists' interest and open support for the cannabis industry. "You see Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal making cannabis industry recommendations right out there, you see it right in the names of the entities looking for investors, and the message is 'Buy, buy, buy!' When the money is heading there, you know things are really changing."

The result, Fine hopes, is a powerful groundswell for change. "Back in 2010, Pat Robertson, Pat Robertson, went on record saying that we shouldn't be putting kids in jail for possession (of marijuana). Now he's actually coming out and saying that the drug war needs to end! This is big."

He adds that he was genuinely surprised while doing his research at "how ready America is to end the war on drugs. Fifty-six percent favor drug legalization, up from 44% the year before."

And yet, what he calls the "wrong-minded raids," detailed in the book, continue. "I mean, they're raiding this sustainable, tax-paying farmer and leaving the drug cartels alone?" he asks rhetorically, yet incredulously. "I mean, really?"

So the time, Fine says, is ripe. Not only could the taxes generated by a legalized and unmolested cannabis business put needed revenue into the coffers of states that could desperately use it, he says, but the war on drugs itself is a huge expense. In a postscript in Too High to Fail, he writes that the organization Drug Sense's "Drug War Clock," which keeps a running tally on the big money spent on these efforts, showed that more than $35 billion had been spent, in state and federal funds, at the time he finished writing the book. "That's a number that could balance a few budgets," Fine writes.


Sitting at his outdoor table, watching his kids — both human and Nubian goats — Fine reflects on the book tour on which he is now embarking and the information he hopes to spread. He anticipates his appearance on Conan O'Brien's late-night TV show will be laced with humor, and he'll perhaps have to answer to some skepticism. But he knows he'll find a different audience when he goes on scheduled programs on Irish radio and New Zealand TV.

"They have hemp biofields there," he says of New Zealand. "They're already on board with it and working with it now!"

Leaning back in his chair, Fine reflects on living and writing in New Mexico, in the slow-paced Mimbres Valley. "I'm really thankful to have this life," he says. "I love how inspiring it is, much of it deriving from the vista and the hummingbirds right outside my office window. I love that I can do this, write books, and hear my kids giggling in the other room, hear my sweetheart making up something good to eat.

"We're on the front lines of change, right here. I don't like having to go through Border Control lines when I drive. I've had neighbors raided for (growing and/or possessing) very small amounts (of marijuana). I really believe it, America's going to be stronger, safer and healthier when the war on drugs ends."

But right now, today, it's just about packing for his trip, talking to a reporter here and there and bringing out the goat milk ice cream. The atmosphere turns to excited squeals as his sons run into the kitchen to help their mother dish up the cinnamon-flavored ice cream that they churned, earlier this morning, in their non-electric, hand-shaken ice cream maker.

Fine digs into a bowl and says that in the bigger scope of things, he's hoping that his book may help to convince "the other 44% of Americans who are not yet approving" the end to the war on drugs. "I'd like to have something to do with reaching that tipping point," he admits with a wistful smile.



Doug Fine's latest book, Too High to Fail, is available at local bookstores and online retailers. A short film about the book, including links to buying options, is at www.dougfine.com.

Donna Clayton Walter is a Silver City-based freelance writer.



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