Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Letter from California-January 11, 2004

Do you remember the character Woody from the old show, Cheers? In the show, he moved to Boston from Indiana and struggled to keep up with the city slickers that showed up in the bar, but he always made it through with his Middle America manners and humility. The role launched the career of Woody Harrelson, who of course has gone on to become something of a city slicker himself. He’s a fixture in Hollywood, as well as becoming the poster child for the legalization of marijuana. He’s a good friend of marijuana “activist” Todd MacCormick, who famously transformed his Bel-Air mansion into a “marijuana research facility.” I knew some guys who tried to use that excuse about their dorm room back in college.

Harrelson believes that marijuana should be decriminalized. He makes the point that simple possession of marijuana shouldn’t be treated with the same seriousness as crimes like theft or assault. He also strongly supports hemp for use in producing paper and other products and the medical use of marijuana for what ails ye. You may not agree, but these are generally reasonable arguments, and so, being a Hollywood star, Harrelson felt that it was his duty to make certain to add some idiotic stuff to the mix. For example, did you know that you aren’t “genuinely free”? That’s right. As an American, you’re not really free because you can’t “self-medicate” with a marijuana joint when you feel a little cold coming on. Harrelson is “deeply ashamed” of his country’s government for this. I think he’s a little out of whack. I mean, where else could a dopey small town boy grow up to be rich enough to help turn a Bel-Air Mansion into a marijuana research facility. I’m not sure it’s what the founding fathers had in mind, but it sounds like something only free people would be able to do.

Speaking of freedom and marijuana, there’s more ballot box fun on the horizon in the Golden State. In the next few weeks, voters in Mendocino County, in the north of the state, will vote on a ballot measure to ban Genetically Modified foods, or GMOs. As you probably know, GMOs are foods that are engineered with advanced biotechnologies to be more resistant to pests, easier to grow, more productive per acre, and of course more profitable to those who grow them. For example, a genetically modified corn might be more resistant to pests and need less pesticide. This translates into a smaller impact on the environment, less contamination in food and a lower cost to the farmer. Sounds good, right? Opponents would agree that GMOs have substantial benefits, but they would go on to say that the dangers of GMOs far outweigh them. GMOs, being created artificially, can have untold effects on the human body, and because they can be made heartier than their natural cousins, such plants could end up wiping out the natural variety. Though no negative health outcomes from GMOs have ever been officially reported, it’s logical to see that they could. Is Mendocino County right to be concerned about the menace in their midst?

Well, maybe, but not at the moment. It seems that no genetically modified growing goes on in Mendocino County, so the ballot measure, if passed, would basically keep it that way. What does grow in Mendocino, however, is marijuana. In fact, it’s considered the County’s number one crop. Official numbers don’t exist of course, but most concede that wine grapes, the top legal crop, can’t hold a burning incense stick to marijuana when you’re talking dollars flowing into Mendocino.

It’s not just people with a couple of marijuana plants in their backyard here either. The County is rife with commercial-grade operations under armed guard growing the stuff. A couple years ago, the sheriff’s department did a massive sweep to get rid of it, during which time Sheriff Rusty Noe grew frustrated. “It’s growing everywhere,” he said, “we couldn’t possibly get rid of all of it.” In fact, back in 2000, Mendocino legalized marijuana for personal possession. Get Woody on the phone! I’ve got a vacation spot for him, where he can be genuinely free.

So what’s the connection between opposing GMOs and supporting legal weed? It’s complicated, I’m sure. Some people, right or wrong, do feel that GMOs pose a hazard to their health. Others think maybe the County’s legal agricultural products will be more attractive to outside buyers if they’re guaranteed not to be Franken-fruit. It could be simply that these two ideas both generally fit into the nature-loving hippie philosophy many Mendocino residents hold to.

Perhaps it’s something else. It turns out GMOs cost money to develop, which puts them beyond the reach of many small farmers. Could an outsider with GMO-improved products move into Mendocino’s emerald land and put the pinch on the locals? Not if this ballot move passes, which it will. The marijuana law allows up to 25 plants for “personal use,” but even if Woody Harrelson and Snoop Doggy Dogg roomed together, they wouldn’t go through that much. The real story there is that in addition to the big marijuana farms, there are plenty of people who grow their “personal” stash so they can sell it. The 2000 law makes it semi-legal.

So maybe the gentle folk of Mendocino are going to the polls to bring to life their commitment to the Woody Harrelson image of paradise. Or could it be they prefer to be “genuinely free” to make as much money as they can without a hassle from The Man or pesky outsiders with a better, cheaper product?

I’m deeply ashamed.


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