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How Times Have Changed: When a Marijuana Farmer Cried Out, 'Thank God, the Police!'

An excerpt from "Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution" takes us to the USA's center of weed agriculture.

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Carl being a New Mexico friend, I knew his long medical story before I embarked on my research for this book. The most recent chapter concerned his difficult, yearlong saga getting access to reliable cannabis in the Land of Enchantment even after his Veterans Administration doctor acknowledged it was a wise course.

A 63-year-old Vietnam veteran with a titanium pin in his back, Carl is not faking his pain. I was introduced to him by a mutual friend in 2009, when we went for a hike. About a mile in, I heard a heart-rending groan and saw on Carl’s face a harrowing scrunched-like-a-dried-apple expression. He was just trying to stand up following a water break under the shade of some yuccas. I guess I kind of leapt skyward in surprise.

“Sorry ’bout that,” he apologized. “Gotta keep movin’ or things start cramping up in the ol’ spine.”

Ours was a short, flat hike that day, and Carl’s gait was best described as “hobbled.” Though he didn’t complain a bit about the pace or the heat or the rattlesnakes, he did later tell me he was “on his ass” for a week afterward. This is a guy who spent much of his working life after the military as a railroad engineer, and who didn’t consider a day started until he was outside.

Carl hurts. A lot. Always. For three excruciating decades now. He remembers the 110-pound pack “in the jungle” that did it— the first “click” that progressed by stages and finally caused his back to “give out” during an ice-cream-churning incident several years after he left Vietnam. This started a series of taxpayer-funded surgeries, each designed, Carl says, “to remedy the damage caused by the previous one.”

Later that same day after our hike, I praised one of Carl’s truly incredible turned wooden bowls that I saw in a display case at our mutual friend’s house. He managed to make the grain almost a narrative part of the piece.

“You take commissions?” I asked.

“Afraid those days’re behind me, my friend,” Carl said. “I can’t stand up long enough anymore to work at my lathe.”

Having maxed out on the quite legal Vicodin, to which he considered himself dependent even though “it wasn’t helping anymore,” Carl spent much of 2010 trying to do something he never imagined he would: become a part of New Mexico’s fledgling medicinal cannabis program. He’d heard about its anti-inflammatory benefits for injuries such as his, and he’d been informally experimenting on a black market supply of the plant. He’d heard the clinical benefits, in fact, from his doctor.

One problem was, he said, that “my VA doc knew cannabis could help, but she couldn’t sanction it. She’s federal.” (In December 2010, the biotech company Cannabis Science, Inc., announced that it had formed a Military Advisory Board, which, according to the company press release, “will help identify and develop actionable policies to help ease the burden on veterans serving with debilitating injuries and illnesses. The board will provide an institutionalized conduit for the evolving concerns of military veterans to be brought to the attention of senior policymakers and the public.”)

Fast-forward through a year of bureaucratic-labyrinth wandering and $200 in out-of-pocket doctors’ fees from multiple “nonfederal” caregivers— when it started, New Mexico’s was not one of the easier programs to join. I called Carl in mid-2011 to assess his progress. He’d been accepted in the New Mexico program, and was using a home-delivered oral tincture of cannabis-infused olive oil, which he administered sublabially (under his tongue) in a 30-milligram dose twice a day.

Actually, I had to wait a week to speak with him, because when I first called he was away on a week-long backcountry horseback trip.

“I was on a horse for the first time in a dozen years— and it’s monsoon wildflower season,” he told me in a tone that sounded like a much younger man than the fellow I remembered hearing groan more than a year earlier. “It was phenomenal. It was a dream I didn’t dare to have.”