Interview: Michael Polson

Michael Polson is a Visiting Professor of Anthropology at American University. In 2010, while a doctoral candidate at the City University of New York Graduate Center, he was awarded the Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to study the elaboration and negotiation of social relations and practices in the emerging medical and underground marijuana markets of northern California. We spoke to Polson to learn more about his fieldwork experience.


What’s your background in anthropology? How did you become interested in marijuana as a project? 

Prior to graduate school I had two formative experiences that drew me toward anthropology. One was conducting a project as an undergraduate on underground networks of men who have sex with men in Kathmandu at a time when many people I spoke to believed these men didn’t exist. This showed me the importance of inquiring into people’s lives as they are lived, not as we think they live—particularly for people in illicit realms. The other was being a political organizer and co-educator, which taught me to listen to and value the experience of people as they grapple with the world and the expertise they accumulate on their own condition. While other disciplines might view people as a result of knowledge, anthropology views people’s complex, everyday lives as the source of knowledge. This ethical and political stance was attractive to me. I have been very lucky to become an anthropologist as a graduate student and teacher at City University of New York, a school with a rich political history, and, now, at American University in a fantastic department oriented toward public anthropology.

The project on marijuana started as a project on low wage, informal, and illegal work in a gay resort town. Every time I went back, though, my notes were filled up with people involved with marijuana—growing, trimming, transporting, storing, selling, and so on. And things were changing so rapidly in California. Understanding what happened with marijuana provided an important window onto the conditions of poor and working people but also onto much more—medicine, politics, livelihood, social networks, lifestyle, crime. As a student of social change, what really grabbed me was the rapidity that the social field around marijuana was shifting. Other than gay marriage, it’s hard to think of another realm of US society that has shifted as rapidly and totally as marijuana in the last decade. I wanted to know why. Why do some political and social changes take hold and ostensibly succeed? Why now, marijuana? I am thankful for Wenner-Gren support to answer these questions.


What sort of sites did your research take you to? What were some of the day-to-day challenges of negotiating the field, and how did you adapt?

I volunteered at a medical dispensary, lived with the coordinator of a patients rights group, stayed at underground farms, observed at a quality assurance laboratory, took a two month class on entering the marijuana business, and attended trade shows, land use hearings, tribal meetings, business conferences, activist gatherings, among other activities. For any door that opened, I walked through if I could. The strategy of “Yes. When and where?” Researching on both sides of the law, though, was a tough balance. I remember being at a courthouse doing archival research on land use patterns when I ran into an informant who was out on bail after a devastating drug bust. As I tried to explain my presence in a building that adjoined the county jail, I could see in his face that our trust was gone—I was now a cop to him. Another time, on a ride-along with a deputy, I remember keeping mum as we did a parole check next door to a house I knew was chock full of marijuana. Perhaps the deputy did, too—such is the work of policing in marijuana country. The crossing between legal and illegal realms contributed to a constant anxiety about confidentiality. I had done everything to protect my data I could imagine but it seemed as if there was a daily beat of new revelations about government spying during my fieldwork. Even if my data was officially protected (I got a Certificate of Confidentiality from the National Institutes of Health), I didn’t want to create a traceable web to be followed by another branch of government. It did not help that during my fieldwork the federal government initiated a multi-year offensive against the medical marijuana industry that instilled a lot of fear and anxiety—not just over governmental action but action by the media. I knew several people from both illegalized and medical worlds that got ensnared in that offensive. I was lucky to have built trusting ties in the years before because there was a shortage of trust after the government began its crackdown. The showed me firsthand how prohibition—and the fear of punishment—really shuts down informational circuits and stymies open intellectual exploration.


Your project is somewhat unusual for anthropological fieldwork in that it brought you consistently to the border of legality and illegality. How did this dynamic affect your work, and the ways in which your collaborators interacted with you?

I’ve mentioned some of the more anxious effects this had on my relations but, on the other hand, the border between the legal and illegal is not as stark as many believe. For instance, while one might imagine finding informants might be difficult, particularly in the illegalized economy, all I had to do was to scratch the surface in most places. This might be particular to marijuana—the stakes are not always as high as other illegal activities and it has become a deeply embedded part of the Northern California region. But to actually grasp the pervasiveness of marijuana I had to let go of some basic presumptions about the nature of law—namely that it is the core element of social order and that it applies universally and evenly across space. Perhaps I had that presumption having grown up inside the DC Beltway, where laws are made and then applied to the nation. But there are so many spaces and dimensions of reality where the law never reaches—realms that are hard to see without paying careful attention. Carolyn Nordstrom does a great job in her work of illustrating how illegality and crime shadows legal society in significant and often unrecognized ways. Once I started to see these dimensions, I started to challenge other basic assumptions, particularly about how we produce knowledge of the world—belief in statistics and figures, descriptions of how systems and institutions work, the reliability of cursory data from informants, what the map reveals, and so on. Hanging over all of these things is a shadow, imposed by the law, of what is able to be revealed and what is hidden, what is punishable and what is licit. Without seeing what lies in the shadow of legality we only get part of the story.

The reason these shadows hold sway, of course, is because there are real stakes involved in living against the law. This constantly affected my work. Anthropologists ask questions. When answers threaten a person’s livelihood and freedom, asking becomes fraught. That is how and why I developed a deep respect for the people who answered me. Many of them were compelled (politically, ethically, morally) and sometimes relieved to answer questions—they each had a stake in providing answers. Especially at that moment in time when what had lain in the shadows was coming to light, in the words of one activist I spoke with. That was an exciting thing to share with people. Prohibition imposes silences and breaking that silence was a powerful moment for many.


You connect marijuana legalization/medicalization to a much older anthropological discourse revolving around crime and illness. Could you briefly sketch the literature that influenced your thinking?

Thinking of Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Bohannon, Turner, Douglas, Lindenbaum, anthropologists have developed symmetrical theories about crime and illness—namely that they threaten social pollution and their ritual resolution is critical for the maintenance of social equilibrium. Merrill Singer, Ida Susser, Patty Kelly, Phillippe Bourgois and many others have argued criminalization and medicalization, as two modes of stigmatizing certain bodies and establishing social control, often work in tandem. Even within medicalization itself, work by Vincanne Adams, Jongyoung Kim, Cori Hayden, and Mary Cameron has shown how plant-based and alternative medicines can be a source of pollution for (supposedly) pure, scientific biomedicine. But, within and beyond this literature, anthropologists are careful to note the types of agency that medicalized and criminalized people hold. This is especially the case with marijuana prohibition and medicalization. My work focuses on the kinds of socio-political subjectivities people developed amidst processes of criminalization and medicalization. It’s these subjectivities and the political economies they are acting on and within that are guiding the development of and struggle over marijuana’s future.


Finally, what does ethnography potentially bring to an examination of drug policy? What “blind spots” do you think your research has identified? 

Ethnography is indispensable in understanding people and knowledges in illicit realms. You will not get the same information in the historical record, the laboratory, the questionnaire, economic indices, law enforcement statistics, or the map. These knowledge forms are so heavily mediated by the state—particularly in the case of prohibited substances—that it is necessary to go to illegalized people themselves. For instance, with marijuana, one cannot do research on the plant without getting permission and samples from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As the name suggests (and as NIDA officials have said), the agency is not concerned with the medical attributes or social value of the plant but with its negative, harmful effects. This limits what we can ask and know. As anthropologists, we know that psychoactive plants have been associated with social liminality and anxiety but this relationship doesn’t have to be punitive or stigmatizing. Rather than seeing marijuana as a vice or a source of harm and moral corrosion, recent research has been finding pretty stunning medical applications for marijuana and thrown serious doubt on its status as a harmful substance. In fact, the complexity and efficacy of marijuana as a whole-plant medicine poses a challenge to pharmaceutical models of medicine and points to a different paradigm for relations between humans and plants. We can’t explore these things under prohibition. Prohibition is the “blind spot”—the blinding spot, the blinders—of drug policy.

That said, let me point to two other blind spots. First, to craft future policy we need to know what came before. Otherwise we have no idea what kinds of social systems and processes new policy interrupts. Under prohibition, for instance, marijuana commerce became incredibly important to deindustrialized regions. Changing its legal status will have a significant impact. My work is a kind of neo-salvage anthropology of the illegal realms that are now threatened with extinction. Before this history is memorialized for a post-legalization public, it is imperative to raise up the voices of the many criminalized people that existed under prohibition.

Second, I am concerned about what I call marijuana exceptionalism—the belief that marijuana, the good drug, was wrongly prohibited and should be extracted from the War on Drugs, which should otherwise remain untouched. Making marijuana exceptional severs marijuana’s reform from broader discussions about the deep problems with the War on Drugs and our criminal justice system. Regardless of what we think about any particular drug, the political debate should not be over what drug is moral or immoral or has good or bad effects. It should be over what kinds of social policies are least harmful and most beneficial, broadly defined. The War on Drugs, no matter what its target, is a socially destructive policy. Marijuana reform is a very important opportunity for ending the government’s broader war on its own people, not to mention peoples around the world.

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