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Nation & World

Author Heather Cabot On 'How Marijuana Went Mainstream'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It wasn't so long ago that a taste for marijuana could get you labeled a deadbeat loser or, worse, a criminal - labels that were too often attached to people of color. But these days, things are very different. In much of the country, the proverbial suburban moms who might otherwise unwind with a glass of Chardonnay might just as easily pick up an edible or joint. And on the way, they're helping to create a multibillion-dollar business. But it isn't all smooth sailing, and it's by no means fair.

So how did all that happen? Journalist Heather Cabot tells the story in her new book, "The New Chardonnay: The Unlikely Story Of How Marijuana Went Mainstream." And Heather Cabot is with us now to tell us more about it.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

HEATHER CABOT: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Heather, set the table for us. How widespread is marijuana use today in the United States? Is it legal everywhere? Like, what's the status quo right now?

CABOT: Well, 1 in 5 Americans live in a state where they have access to legal cannabis. That adds up to about 35 markets. So there's a huge number of Americans that have access to cannabis, either through recommendations from their doctors or being able to walk into a dispensary, order online for their recreational use.

MARTIN: Why, though, was marijuana treated so harshly to begin with? Because the medical - the kind of the medicinal benefits of it are something that could have been thought of before now. I mean, you know, there's this whole joke about alcohol. People say things, like, you know, like, during prohibition, you could still get alcohol for...

CABOT: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Medicinal purposes. In fact, like, that's a joke, right, that some people of a certain age might have heard - which is just for medicinal purposes only, you know? So it's not like people couldn't have figured this out before now. So why was marijuana treated so harshly to begin with and so different from alcohol?

CABOT: Well, I think it just really goes back to the origins and the folks who originated a lot of these policies, including Harry Anslinger, who was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the guy behind this propaganda that really stigmatized people who used marijuana back in the '30s - in particular, Mexican immigrants that were coming into this country. And he really played off the xenophobia that was happening at that time. And that continued also through the decades to the Black community as well.

And those policies fomented what you saw through the Nixon administration, the Reagan administration. So I think the intersection of race with drug enforcement policy and how it continued to be so through those decades I think laid this foundation where cannabis was demonized because of the people who were who were using it - not necessarily the plant itself but the kinds of people who people like Anslinger we're trying to say were using it and that it was dangerous to society.

MARTIN: One of the reasons this is so timely - your book makes the point about why that matters. I mean, you write in the book that efforts to diversify the cannabis industry haven't worked so well, in part because many people of color who are interested in the field have drug-related criminal records.

But the other point that you make in the book which I've really found fascinating is, partly because this remains restricted on a federal level, you have to have a lot of money to get involved in this business because you have to be able to self-fund. It's really hard to get a bank loan, for example. That was really sort of fascinating to discover.

And the reason we sort of discovered this is through one of your characters, Beth the banker-turned-marijuana investor. She is a really, really interesting character. Would you just tell me a little bit more about her?

CABOT: Beth Stavola is a Jersey Shore mother of six. Just to give you a sense of her persona, this is a woman who was once almost cast on "The Real Housewives Of New Jersey." She is glamorous, but she is smart. And she knows business. And she gets herself involved in the medical cannabis industry in Arizona.

And through her story - and the reason why I chose her is not only is she an incredibly compelling character, and there's so much suspense in her story, but through the people who she surrounds herself with over the course of the narrative, you really learn about some of these things we were just talking about, right? You meet this elder in the Church of LDS, this former federal prosecutor who was appointed by Reagan to serve on the War on Drugs Task Force who ends up becoming her legal savior when she gets in trouble and gets entangled with some of the bad people from the underworld.

And he ultimately ends up helping her create the blueprint for her marijuana empire as she expands to other states and helps her become ruthless about actually following the new regulations and the law so that she can have this legitimate business. And, I mean, that was really important to me - to be able to really show the unlikely cast of characters and how they got into this industry.

MARTIN: This one person that you also - you've profiled - Ted Chung is the business partner of rapper Snoop Dogg. And, of course, you know, Snoop Dogg just as a kind of a - as an entertainer, as a figure, has a long sort of connection to marijuana. But you see how kind of the image of him has changed. I do want to ask, though, if...

CABOT: Yeah.

MARTIN: A lot of the African Americans who have been incarcerated, who've lost, like, everything - like, you can't live in public housing with a drug arrest in some places. You can't get a federal student loan if you have had a drug arrest. What is the conversation about kind of - I mean, aren't they angry? I mean, some of the people who have suffered, let's say, because of this enforcement strategy over the years - I mean, aren't they angry? Like, how do people in Snoop Dogg's world feel about this?

CABOT: States are only now starting to address things like expunging records. I mean, the state of Colorado - it took them until this summer for the legislature to pass a bill to give the governor the ability to pardon low-level marijuana convictions. And he just did that last week. And Wanda James, who is one of the characters in the book who's a racial justice activist and the first African American to own a retail marijuana license in the U.S., was behind that.

But it is - change has been slow. I think as far as the people who are on the sidelines watching this happen who've suffered at the hands of these drug enforcement policies, I think that they are upset. But I think that they are hopeful that some of these programs will actually work and that they will be able to have their records cleared.

In San Francisco, for example, this very week, the first Latina dispensary owner who was awarded this opportunity through an equity program in the city is finally opening her doors this week. And San Francisco put together a program to set aside specific licenses for people in zip codes that were targeted by drug enforcement to be able to get into this industry. And I think that that's really important - that policymakers and politicians make good on those promises and ensure that this industry is equitable because it has not been to this point.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I was wondering how the current environment has affected them. You know, because, on the one hand, a lot of, you know, restaurants are closed, but in other places, a lot of the dispensaries are open, which is something that, you know...

CABOT: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...A lot of the religious leaders who've been complaining about the strictures on worship services have complained about that, saying marijuana dispensaries are open, but we're not open. So just how do you think this has affected them?

CABOT: Well, I think the fact that in most places, they've been declared essential businesses really legitimized the industry. I think they were really happy about that. I think the fact that it's still federally illegal, though, you know, put them at a disadvantage in terms of being eligible for any kind of federal aid. So many of these businesses have had to furlough employees.

I think that the demand for cannabis, at least - you know, it's a fragmented market, so you have to look state by state. But overall, there - the demand has continued, even during the pandemic. We'll see what happens as the economic crisis continues to unfold and what that does to people's disposable income.

But I think there are predictions that cannabis - the demand for cannabis will continue, especially as people are dealing with stress and anxiety and insomnia and all of that. So this could be a pivotal moment in some ways.

MARTIN: That is journalist Heather Cabot. Her new book, "The New Chardonnay: The Unlikely Story Of How Marijuana Went Mainstream," is out now.

Heather Cabot, thanks so much for joining us.

CABOT: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.