Regular People in Dark Markets
Here’s a (hopefully) uncontroversial statement: the Australian Government and its laws prohibiting the production and consumption of cannabis are long dead relics from a bygone era of wars against substances. The hardened fossils of these ancient relics belong in a museum of their own, dedicated to the extreme harms of paternalistic policymaking. But, as of now, the dead carcass of drug prohibition continues to rot in plain sight, still stinking out the national living room after over fifty years. It’s a miracle that nobody has managed to contact the morgue.
What’s more, our drug laws are about as effective as a rotting corpse *would be*, if it were hypothetically tasked with preventing anyone from experiencing certain prohibited (yet naturally occurring) states of consciousness. This authoritarian management of the population via the state machinery initiates a variety of extremely negative consequences (intended and unintended, over both the short and long term). One of these consequences is that demand doesn’t really *go* anywhere once a drug is made illegal, forcing those who inevitably seek the experience out to dabble in illegal markets.
There’s a popular conception circling around that the main players in this ‘black market’ of cannabis are generally bikies and Vietnamese gangs, who are bound to sell some shitty PGR weed to you at an exorbitant price. That’s without mentioning the people we politely refer to as ‘scammers’ and ‘thieves’, from which the black market offers little-to-no protection. This perception isn’t exactly wrong, although it would be uncouth of us to say it’s true, across the board.
It’s not just bikies flipping weed. It’s teachers, students, nurses, doctors, academics, construction workers, business people, and your neighbours. A significant portion of those growing and/or selling cannabis in Australia are simply regular people like you and me, trying to pay the bills and get by – like everyone else. Most of them would be employed full-time.
In many ways, these people are unsung Aussie heroes. Day in, day out, they take massive risks to facilitate what is ultimately a public service – providing good quality bud to their friends and family. While they are obviously rewarded in kind for their efforts, the returns they see are usually pretty modest; particularly if they don’t cut any corners. Today, these people represent the backbone of the Australian cannabis community, and in this article, we are here to show them the respect they deserve. May God bless them, and their ziplock bags.
‘Double Life’: Growing, Dealing and Distributing
It may come as a surprise to you that a sizeable portion of these unsung heroes are single mums and dads; although, perhaps that isn’t very surprising at all. After all, cannabis is pretty popular. We almost all know a few stoners in need… and their addiction basically amounts to a captive consumer base.
Also: suppose you have been left with the responsibility of caring for multiple children, without any assistance from a partner. You work full-time, yet you’re still materially insecure, in that your wage hardly keeps both you and your dependents afloat. Perhaps you’ve spent significant years of your life embedded in abusive relationships, or in poverty-stricken, working class environments, where drug use tends to be more prevalent and widely accepted. All of a sudden, you’re short on money for basic groceries, and growing/flipping buds to your close contacts doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
For some, growing and selling cannabis provides them with more support than any social welfare system possibly could. For others, cannabis consists of a hobby, or an otherwise non-essential form of supplementary income. For the vast majority, however, the fact they deal with cannabis is a matter detached from home or family life. It is a harsh reality which has been thrust upon them, even as they continue to hold a set of ‘socially acceptable’ appearances which they are expected by others to maintain. Often, this leads people to live ‘double lives’, performing different roles and guises depending on the presence of who is in the room.
This situation inevitably causes severe fragmentation within the person’s identity, producing an underlying insecurity, anxiety and distress which permeates their entire lives. In the end, the personal and social costs of ‘dealing’ cannabis – which are most often placed within the lower socio-economic strata – can be quite expensive. Depending on who you ask, the drawbacks can outweigh any discernible benefits. This is especially true in a society which still criminalises its use, stigmatising all who decide to walk such a path.
Scare Tactics and Psychological Warfare
If I told you to envision a drug dealer, what sort of image comes to your mind?
Perhaps you’re seeing a methed-out deadbeat with several teeth missing. Or through your third eye, a useless, good-for-nothing hippie. Or maybe it’s a bunch of feral teenagers who don’t know the second thing about the world beyond their cul-de-sac. Or it could even be a big, tough looking guy wearing a leather jacket, with tattoos from head to toe and steel studs on his boots. At any rate, you can tell that whoever they are, they do not contribute meaningfully to society. Thus, it’s obvious: they deserve what’s coming to them.
Without hyperbole, this is the common understanding of the black market; of all drugs, and of all drug dealers. It encourages us to lump all illegal substances into the ‘evil, wrong and bad’ category, leading us to be uncritically accepting subjects of the parental proclamations of the state. Such antiquated structures of power have propagated this understanding throughout our world – supported by a complicit media and press – and impressed these ideas into us from birth, through our family members and our peers. The societally dominant projection of a ‘drug dealer’ unambiguously reflects an ‘undesirable’ member of society. This projection only serves to reinforce and justify the fundamentally unjust policies which have been long upheld by the status quo. It seeks to extend (and apologise for) intergenerational cycles of poverty and destitution, which only further contribute to the extreme levels of class stratification we are presently experiencing.
These perceptions are certainly understandable, given where we have been and where we are now. They certainly aren’t baseless; but they very much are to the detriment of people who are not that unlike ourselves. That single mums and dads are assumed to be of the same calibre as weathered criminals is just ridiculous. That these people are often faced with similar sentences just goes to show how detached our political, social and legal systems are from the everyday experiences of common folk.
‘The War on Drugs’ is psychological warfare. It is a war a government wages against its own people. It is a game played by and for elitists. Don’t believe me? Well then, why do we lock people away for the act of growing, selling and distributing cannabis, a plant that is essentially harmless to anyone who consumes it? We are talking about a victimless crime, here. Especially considering the toxicity profiles of cannabis, tobacco, alcohol, methamphetamine and heroin, respectively.
Here’s a question: Is it illegal to open a bottle-o? Why not?
Potential Positives of Prohibition?
Ironically, the small-scale entrepreneurship of mums and dads across the nation has only become possible with thanks to prohibition and the ‘black market’. To be sure, the criminalisation of cannabis had unspeakably destructive impacts on our local communities… but one of its few lasting benefits was the way in which corporate monopolies were prevented from subsuming and commodifying the market for the plant in Australia, as it existed beyond legal limits. This was a blessing for cannabis within contemporary neoliberal capitalism; which, in the past half-century, has seen literally anything and everything assimilated into the language of commodities, transactions, exchanges and buyer-seller relationships. It’s sad to admit, but this world is gradually being drained of all colour by the abstraction of ‘Capital’; a vampiric, exploitative imperative, which compels humans to mindlessly consume, and to forever expand upon their own productive powers, as we tear an egotistical path of devastation in our wake. Not because this activity is inherently useful or anything, but just for the sake of its own self-valorisation and perpetuation.
Mind you, the gangs that participate in the black market are certainly capitalistic. They can still resemble typical for-profit corporations in their scale and ubiquity, as well as in their structure and operations – not to mention their ethics. This is especially true for the comparatively well-organised crime syndicates out there. Still, it could be argued that the smaller-scale vendors perform better in an underground market, populated with gangs, than in a full-fledged legal oligopoly. Although this hypothesis seems to ring true, whether it actually stands up to evidence is another matter, which is altogether yet to be seen.
In places where cannabis has been practically legalised (such as in the United States), we see the rapid development of a fledgling ‘cannabinoid industry’, complete with licenses, permits, regulations and more. This is also true of the medicinal cannabis vendors who are busy establishing themselves in Australia. Unfortunately, these new industries are not very friendly to the small businesses and individual growers that came before ‘legalisation’. In the USA, ‘legalising weed’ has functioned as a pseudonym for the massive expansion of open, but regulated, cannabis access; simultaneously, it has signalled the flooding of this new market with capital investment (of money both ‘new’ and ‘old’), ultimately leading to the near-exclusion of the ‘little guy’ from the booming industry. Friendly neighbourhood growers and dealers have become a rarity, as they are increasingly endangered by industrial-size growing operations and attractive shopfronts. Safe to say, if you’re in a legal state, you probably won’t be finding your neighbour’s bud in a dispensary.
Will Legalisation Hurt Working People?
Does the situation in the United States imply that we somehow shouldn’t legalise weed? Considering the way in which illicit drug markets are disproportionately over-represented by working Australians, could recreational legalisation of the plant initiate a sequence of unintended negative consequences for the very same people who have kept our community together all these years?
Usually, we portray the eradication of the black market as a ‘good’ thing, as it significantly cuts down the market share handed over to organised crime. However, as we flip the script here, it’s important to note that it’s very possible to shoot ourselves in the foot. Legalisation does not come in ‘one size fits all’. When it comes to establishing a legal cannabis market, there are myriad configurations, all lending to different contexts. There are free and open markets without any consumer protections, such as the model put forth by the Liberal Democrats. Similarly, there are tightly regulated markets where public health and safety is made a priority, like in the Greens’ proposal to legalise. There are systems which allow you to grow multiple plants at home, and other systems which do not legalise cultivation without a (very expensive) license. The nuances are endless.
Crucially, the model decided upon will define the status quo as we move ahead. A lack of consultation from the public on what should occur could potentially incite collateral damage in our own communities and neighbourhoods. Seeing as most of these models have the potential to unintentionally devolve into corporate hegemony, we ought to be cautiously observant. If the people who once made an honest living from selling cannabis are living in abject poverty once it’s legalised, what does that say about this whole ‘movement’?
It raises the question of whether it’s even *possible* to form ideal conditions within a capitalist market, where small growing operations are favoured over large industrial operations. This is especially so in our contemporary political and economic climate. I’m not sure how to answer that, but it certainly raises another question: could decriminalisation be the answer for these people? It certainly doesn’t come with all of the ‘shiny bits’ that a full-blown marketisation of the plant promises… but this could well be what saves cannabis from being subsumed as a stale, industrially produced, chemically-treated, and genetically modified commodity – like everything else. If cannabis were rescheduled to exist within a ‘grey’ semi-legality, and small fines were handed out for distribution and trafficking, there would still exist a space that regular people could continue to claim as their own – theoretically, at least. What’s more, the decriminalisation of cannabis would go a long way in reducing the impacts of lower-class folk being fed into the prison system, ultimately alleviating the pressures placed upon their communities by police.
We at Friendly Aussie Buds are advocates of legalisation, insofar as the proposal is conscious of the many social and economic impacts it could have, and that it does all it can to facilitate relations beyond the marketplace. At any rate, an opening up of the market to include cannabis should simultaneously seek to regulate that ‘new’ market with the awareness that this plant has served the margins of society for decades, in many complicated ways. The proposal should try its best not to commodify cannabis for a quick buck, or marginalise those who have made cannabis the powerful companion we know it to be. If legalisation cannot fulfil upon these outcomes thanks to the molasses of entrenched power in parliamentary politics, Australians should advocate for a broader decriminalisation of cannabis, instead.