In our monthly appraisal of the ways current and past events can “rhyme” with each other, we often begin by presenting the meanings of a word or two that set a tone for those events. This month, the term most appropriate to our discussions is “rush” – both because it conveys the emotional and enthusiastic aspects of our rhyming events and because it is in the generally accepted title applied to those events. According to Merriam-Webster, the term “rush” has several meanings. For our discussions, we will focus on the action aspect of the term where “rush” can mean “to do something too quickly and often with little thought, attention, or care” (merriam-webster.com). The reason for devoting an essay to this word is its growing prominence in the popular lexicon in connection to the recent legalization of recreational marijuana usage in Colorado – the so called “green rush” – which is launching American history, politics, laws, and societal views on the Reaganesque “war on drugs” in new and possibly unexpected directions. Of course, the use of such a phrase is a tip of the hat and a cultural shorthand of sorts to the “rush” that comes to mind for most Americans – the California “gold rush” of the mid nineteenth century – which dramatically thrust a remote far western part of North America to national prominence in the still growing United States of America. Our mission this month will be to determine if society’s attempt at creating its own History Rhyme is merited and what we might be able to predict of our future by looking at this part of our past. As with the case of many of our previous rhymes, we shall begin with the events of today and then use the events of the past to help us to have a wider context and possible outcomes for our present times.
On the first day of 2014, a remarkable change occurred in the social and legal history of the United States. It was on that date that the sale, possession and consumption of set amounts of marijuana became legal in the state of Colorado (see note 1). Back in November 2012, Coloradans had voted on whether to amend their state constitution to include a series of statements that are summarized in the following words: “In the interest of the efficient use of law enforcement resources, enhancing revenue for public purposes, and individual freedom, the people of the State of Colorado find and declare that the use of marijuana should be legal for persons twenty-one years of age or older and taxed in a manner similar to alcohol” (see note 2). Of the over 2.5 million Coloradans who voted on the amendment, just over 55% accepted the amendment. This victory for the proponents of legalizing recreational marijuana was not totally unexpected. The sale of medicinal marijuana has been allowed in Colorado since 2000 so by 2014 the sight of shops with a green cross (the sign for medicinal marijuana dispensaries) was not new or shocking. Yet, no-one could be certain of what would happen when 2013 became 2014. After all, it was still a Federal crime to possess marijuana. It was also a crime in all the states surrounding Colorado.
Prior to the beginning of 2014, national attention started to actively shift towards Colorado and the great social drama that was about to begin. At this early stage, the best way to try to anticipate how the legalization of recreational marijuana would look was to examine how the medicinal use industry had developed since 2000. An example of this was on December 22, 2013, when Steve Kroft of the iconic television news program 60 Minutes presented “Rocky Mountain High.” In that report, Kroft presented many of the themes we will examine – the tremendous enthusiasm that some had for the legal use of pot, the vast impact that the pot industry had directly and indirectly on the Colorado economy, and the continued uneasiness felt in Colorado about how the Federal government might decide to respond to such a flagrant disregard of the marijuana front of the “war on drugs.” However, a hint of what the local media thought might come and how much interest there would be was included with a little detail about a new position had been added to the Denver Post staff – marijuana critic. Yet, all of this was still speculation while the calendar read 2013 (cbsnews.com).
When the calendar changed to 2014, a phenomenon began that has had a remarkable impact on how Americans are looking at the issue of legalization of marijuana, how the various states are considering possible legalization and how the Federal government is considering such an undermining of its authority on drug legality issues. The first concrete evidence that the “green rush” was going to be strong and might be lasting could be seen from the videos and images broadcast across the country on January showing of long lines of enthusiastic men and women who endured hours in the cold for the chance to legally purchase marijuana for the first time. A January 3rd report by NBC’s Denver affiliate (KUSA) noted that first day sales in Colorado had been over $1 million dollars and that demand had been so high that inflation in the cost of pot was already apparent with high-quality marijuana that sold for $25 in the last days of 2013 now selling for $75 (rawstory.com). By the end of the month, other sources would report that the state of Colorado had experienced $14 million worth of pot-related sales and that the state took in $3.5 million in tax revenue(denver.cbslocal.com).
From that first day in 2014 to the time of this post (late April 2014), the American public has been barraged with a large number and variety of stories on all aspects of what is happening in the Centennial state. The impact that the “green rush” was having on the Colorado economy outside the points of sale was chronicled in a January 22nd article on Slate entitled “Need Room To Grow?” (which was part of a larger series of articles collectively called “Altered State: Inside Colorado’s Marijuana Economy”). In that report, Sam Kamin and Joel Warner looked at the significant but less sexy aspects of the booming pot economy – commercial real estate sales, investments in garden product stories by risk-adverse investors, and all the other items and services that are needed by those who were actually growing and selling marijuana. Of special interest for us is a comment by Ean Seeb, co-founder of a marijuana consulting company, when he compared the events in Colorado to the California gold rush. “For every chunk of gold, you needed picks and shovels, a pan and a sifter, and the same thing applies to cannabis. For every gram of marijuana, you need a bag, labels, receipts, exit packaging, point-of-sale, a way to pay for it, staff, uniforms, a payroll company, insurance, and so on” (slate.com).
The impact that the “green rush” has had on the employment rate was demonstrated in a March 14 report on CBS’s Denver affiliate (KCNC) on the “OpenVAPE Cannabis Job Fare” where we see hundreds of applicants (including a man they interviewed who had recently moved to Colorado for the new employment opportunities) who waited for hours in lines that stretched for several blocks to get in on what was referred as the state’s “budding” industry. While many of these jobs were retail in nature (“budtenders”), there were also openings for varied positions as graphic designer, accountant, and IT director. The high-tech aspect of selling marijuana is profiled in an April 14th article in the Slate entitled “Biometric Marijuana Vending Machine Unveiled In Colorado” (slate.com). The growing and lucrative field of pot-friendly vacations was examined in an April 20th report in the Denver Post. In that article, which also talks about the pot-focused “420 Festival” in Denver, a telling quote on the scope of the economic boon in Colorado comes from J. J. Walker who owns “My 420 Tours.” “Besides the DNC [Democratic National Convention in 2008], I can’t picture anything bigger that people have really all come together for… It’s going to be massive… The amount of money coming into town this weekend is astronomical” (denver.cbslocal.com).
In addition to all the positive reports on enthusiastic sellers and partakers of the newly legalized commodity, there were also some stories that cast a shadow over the party going on in Colorado. In a February 9th posting on the Washington Post blog “The Volokh Conspiracy,” by Ilya Somin noted that in Gonzales v. Raich (2005) “the [United States] Supreme Court ruled that Congress’ power to regulate interstate commerce allows it to ban the possession of marijuana even in cases where the marijuana in question has never crossed state lines or been sold in a market anywhere.” Pressure to use this power does not seem likely at the moment but the future may change that. The pressures may come from the international community (washingtonpost.com).An example of this is a March 4 report from BBC News entitled “UN Body Criticizes US States’ Cannabis Legislation” where the president of the International Narcotics Control Board notes that the events we are chronicling in Colorado “contravene the provisions of the drug control conventions, which limit the use of cannabis to medial and scientific use only” and “urges the government of the United States to ensure that the treaties are fully implemented on the entirely of its territory” (bbc.com). A final concern is what will happen after the 2016 election when a Republican may once again inhabit the White House. Although a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press does show increasing support in all areas for legalization, those numbers are far lower for conservative Republicans than any other group (people-press.org). The worries over this unknown future and the impact it might have on issues such as the $40 million in pot tax revenue Colorado is allocating to school building projects can be seen in a comment from Mary Wickersham, a former board member of the state-run Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program the director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver, who says “Obama is going to be out of office in a couple of years… What is going to happen with this revenue?” (denverpost.com).
While all of the articles and reports convey the excitement, dramatic changes and anxiety that have characterized the developments surrounding the legalization of recreational marijuana, they do not really help us to understand the possible long-term picture of the “green rush.” If we simply look at these first four months in 2014, it would be easy to assume all will go as smoothly for Coloradans as it has so far and that the excitement and opportunities will continue to multiply. While this may end up being the story we tell years from now, it is also possible that it may just be a passing craze. What is needed is a wider historical perspective and some comparisons to past events. There are probably no past events that are sufficiently close to the events in Colorado. It is tempting to look at the end of prohibition in America in the 1930s but that concerns a social act (the drinking of alcohol) which has been generally permitted since the dawn of recorded history. No, we need something that was rapid in development (in decades instead of millennia) and radical in its changes to society. Fortunately, American popular culture has already decided that the California “gold rush” will be our framework on which to base our analysis. So, without further ado, we will move to our rhyming event of the month – the California gold rush of the middle and late 19th century – to determine how prescient American popular culture might be. Anyone care to place any bets on that one?
The tale of the California gold rush is one of the few event that every summary of highlights of American history that every school child learns at an early age (see note 3 for a list of sources used for general information and totals in this section). It commonly begins with a rustic image of men building a mill for Captain John Sutter on the American River (Hollywood could not have picked a better river name for this story) when someone notices something very shiny in the water. There is great excitement as they run off to tell everyone “there’s gold in them thar hills” (or something quaint like that). Soon people from all over the world are coming to make their fortune panning for gold. In essence, this generalized and sanitized version of the gold rush is not too far from the basic elements of what happened. On January 24, 1848, James Marshall found a piece of gold glistening in the river and he showed it to John Sutter who was not excited about the news since he wanted to create an agricultural empire in the region. Unsurprisingly, the news did spread quickly. By March 12th, news had reached Sacramento. By March 15th, a notice of the discovery was printed in a San Francisco newspaper, The Californian. By July, rumors of a huge gold find were making their way to the east. By August 8th, a newspaper in St. Louis was reporting that gold was “being collected at random and without any trouble” and by August 19th, the most prominent newspaper in the United States, The New York Herald, reported that there was a gold rush in California. Finally all skepticism was removed when President James K. Polk included in his final address to Congress on December 5th that “the accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service” (full text of speech at dmwv.org). This was especially good news for the United States since it has just acquired California (unaware of the events along the American River) a short time after gold was discovered through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgowith vanquished Mexico on February 2nd, 1848. With this confirmation and the news of a gold rush, reports started appearing about people abandoning homes, jobs and family in a desperate rush to get to California to get their share of the “mother lode.” The first of these would arrive in the rapidly expanding port of San Francisco in 1849 and many of the crews of the ships bringing them there abandoned their vessels and headed for the hills.
The events of the first few years of the gold rush tell the tale of that that kind of enthusiasm can do to a country (both good and bad). In terms of population, the non-Native American total swelled from under 20,000 in 1848 to over 560,000 by 1870. In terms of wealth creation, gold production went from $10 million in 1848 to $80 million worth of gold in 1852 (the peak year). In terms of infrastructure, cities like San Francisco were quickly developed (parts of which was formed of wood from the abandoned ships), a transportation network to the east coast of the United States was developed though new steam ship lines and a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama, and a large scale agricultural industry developed in the non-mining areas to support the growing population. In part because of these listed reasons, California was allowed quick entry into the United States as the 31st state in 1850. However, all was not completely rosy. An especially interesting description of the ills of the time period can be found in the recollections of Luzena Stanley Wilson, a gold rush entrepreneur, and the annotations that accompany her remembrances. From this source, we learn that: the Native American population was decimated by disease and mistreatment; non-white immigrants suffered great discrimination; many recent immigrants died from disease along the way or within months of arrival; there were over one thousand murders in San Francisco during the early 1850s but only one conviction; the military government was incapable to keeping order so local merchants formed vigilante committees and “popular courts”; there were approximately 500 bars in San Francisco and 1000 gambling houses; San Francisco burned down six times during a period of 18 months during the early days of the gold rush; price gouging on commodities were rampant and real estate values skyrocketed; and that by the mid-1850s the lone miner panning for gold had been replaced by corporate operations that dammed rivers, dug deep mine shafts and used strong hydraulic pumps to blast mountainsides in the hope of exposing the last ounces of gold. A modern reader would not be surprised to read that a high price was paid by the environment price to pay from the way mining evolved over time (digitalhistory.uh.edu). According to a report first published in 1997 by Pratap Chatterjee in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, it is estimated that over 12 billion tons of debris from mining operations ended up in the local rivers and that elevated acidity and mercury levels can still be found in those same rivers over well over a century after the gold rush ended (foundsf.org). It was not until 1884 with the case of Woodruff vs. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company that widespread hydraulic techniques were discontinues in the area.
Now that we have a quick summary of the events of the two rushes, can we see these two as rhyming events? In some ways, these two events do fit our model for a rhyme – a dramatic increase in interest in a region, enthusiastic people flocking to the area to participate in the “rush” (albeit in different ways now than then), and an influx of money for the ancillary and supportive industries for the main aspects of these rushes. However, there are fundamental difference that make the gold and green rushes inadequate rhyming events. Most significantly, the gold rush dealt with a finite commodity and eventually either ran out in areas or became excessively costly (both in terms of money and ecological damage) for the rush to continue. Also, a significant difference is that the extraction of gold was not an illegal act in the rest of the United States and thus did not face the danger that it could come to a crashing halt at any moment. These differences prevent the gold rush from being used as a possible predictor of the eventual fate of the green rush. So much for popular culture and media being good creators of history rhymes. Instead, another event – the legalization of gambling in the United States and Canada – is a better potential predictor for what might happen with the green rush. Just like legalization of recreational marijuana, the legalization of gambling has been one of gradual acceptance that has taken gambling from a social evil to a miracle cure that economically challenged communities like little Jefferson, Iowa (population 4,345 as of 2010) covet in the hope of revitalizing their towns. In Jefferson, the argument presented was that the proposed casino will have 572,000 annual visitors and will create 275 jobs in the depressed region (carrollspaper.com). If legalized pot could gain a foothold, it is possible that it could see rapid expansion like Canada found with gambling which went from one casino in 1989 to 76 in 2003 (problemgambling.ca).Will this kind of growth and acceptance be the fate of legalized marijuana? If acceptance of marijuana continues to rise as it has in the last few years (as shown in a 2013 Pew study mentioned earlier), people continue to find ways to make significant amounts of money in the industry, and the Federal government continues look the other way or legalizes its use as suggested by retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in a late-April interview with National Public Radio (npr.org), then it is possible that someday all Americans might be experiencing their own versions of a mini “green rush.” Time will tell and people like you and me will be there to analyze and attempt to understand what happens so that we can help others do the same.
NOTE 1: It also became legal in Washington but sales in that state, which were not set to begin until later in 2014, are not discussed in this essay.
NOTE 2: The complete text of Colorado Amendment 64 is available at fcgov.com.
NOTE 3: Below are the list of sources used for general information and statistics on the California Gold Rush
– “The California Gold Rush and the Controversy over the State Constitution” (users.humboldt.edu)
– “The California Gold Country: Highway 49 Revisited” (malakoff.com)
– “California Gold Rush – A detailed history of the California gold rush” (bilaras.hubpages.com)
– “The California Gold Rush: Luzena Stanley Wilson’s Memoirs” (digitalhistory.uh.edu)
The History Rhyme posts and additional information about the author are also available at TheHistoryRhyme.com.