Get Rich or High Trying: The Coming Age of Corporate Cannabis
“At this moment in history, you’ve got to choose between being in favor of legalization, or being against ‘the system.’”
Mason Tvert is leading a quick tour of what he irreverently describes as the Marijuana Manor—a genteel, three-story, historically-registered, 1880s-era brick and stained-glass building in downtown Denver that was recently converted into permanent office space for a consortium of do-gooders fighting to make legal cannabis work in America. The building houses four separate activist organizations, a trade association, and a law firm. Tvert is clad in a conservative suit jacket and tie worn above a pair of faded blue-jeans—an ensemble compiled in deference to a remote television appearance earlier in the day that shot him from the waist up. His clashing outfit offers an unintended statement on the split-personality of the pot world right now: Business in the front, party in the back.
Last November, Tvert certainly had plenty of reason to celebrate, after heading a historic campaign that saw voters in Colorado approve Amendment 64 by a wide margin, ushering in a new era of state-legal commercial cannabis cultivation and retail sales of up to an ounce for all adults 21 and over. A similar ballot initiative in Washington State also passed easily on the unforgettable night when pot outperformed the president, while making headlines around the world.
To date, lawmakers in both states continue to work out exactly how to implement the herb-friendly will of their citizenry, ever-mindful that a miraculous crop that can’t kill you, won’t hurt you, and just might heal you remains fully illegal under federal law, even if you’ve got terminal cancer and floor seats to see Phish. Despite the fact that smoking a joint remains a lot less dangerous than swilling booze. Not to mention that the same federales imposing cannabis prohibition ultimately answer to a guy best known in his youth for “roof hits,” “interceptions,” and sharing some righteous Maui Wowie with the Choom Gang.
Who’s Getting Rich Off the Prison-Industrial Complex?
You likely already know how overcrowded and abusive the US prison system is, and you probably are also aware that the US has more people in prison than even China or Russia. In this age of privatization, of course, it’s also not surprising that many of the detention centers are not actually operated by the government, but by for-profit companies. So clearly, some people are making lots and lots of money off the booming business of keeping human beings in cages.
But who are these people?
Using NASDAQ data, I looked through the long list of investors in Corrections Corporation of America andGEO Group, the two biggest corporations that operate detention centers in the US, to find out who was cashing in the most on prisons. When we say “prison-industrial complex,” this is who we’re talking about.
The individual who’s invested the most in private prisons is Henri Wedell, who started serving on CCA’s board of directors in 2000, when the company was struggling with scandals related to prisoner abuse and mismanagement. He now owns more than 650,000 shares in the company, which is far more successful these days. Those shares are worth more than $25 million.
I called Wedell to ask him what it was like to make a fortune from the incarceration of others, and whether it bothered him to profit off a system that puts more people in prison than any other country in the world.
“America is the freest country in the world,” he told me. “America allows more freedom than any other country in the world, much more than Russia and a whole lot more than Scandinavia, where they really aren’t free. So offering all this freedom to society, there’ll be a certain number of people, more in this country than elsewhere, who take advantage of that freedom, abuse it, and end up in prison. That happens because we are so free in this country.”
Presumably, when he’s referring to all the freedom Americans have, he’s not including the 80,000 inmates in 60 prisons operated by CCA.
Some Rich People, Including Jeff Bezos and Brian Eno, Are Building a Giant 10,000-Year Clock Inside a Mountain in Texas
Deep within a mountain somewhere in west Texas, The Long Now Foundation are hard at work building a 500-foot clock that’s been designed to run for 10,000 years. I know that sounds a bit like the folly of a Lone Star oil billionaire, but apparently this massive clock is going to adjust the manner in which we understand time itself, so I suppose that counts as having a purpose.
The team behind the construction—boasting names like Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine and, somewhat bizarrely, Brian Eno—want the clock to help destroy the short-term thinking they believe is plaguing society. Their aim is to engage the population so we all properly consider the ways we should be preparing for the future.
The giant clock might seem a slightly excessive way to do that, but when you’ve got Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos investing £27.5 million in your project, you don’t really need to worry about excess.
Executive director Alexander Rose talked me through the concept.
VICE: Hey. So what’s up with this gigantic clock?
Alexander Rose: The clock is an iconic project to inspire other people to get the conversation going about long-term thinking. I was once giving a tour to some IBM engineers and one gentleman said, “You know, this is never going to work. In 3,000 years, they’re going to be sacrificing virgins on this thing and all the blood is going to drip into it and it’s not going to work.” And I said, “That may be, but before you walked in the door here, you weren’t thinking 3,000 years in advance, so it’s already working.”
Well, what we hope to do is make something so mythic and crazy that people want to tell stories about it and it becomes a meme that can be called upon. When people tell you that you can’t do long term things, there will always be the 10,000 year clock.
I guess so—at least until the 10,001th year. What inspired the clock, Alexander?
“The Millennium Clock,” a clock that ticked once a year, bonged once a century, and the cuckoo would come out once a millennium. If you make it “forever” or of an astronomic time scale of millions and billions of years it dwarfs the human experience and it doesn’t feel like there’s anything you can do that’s important in that time scale. So we thought, What is the human civilizational moment? If you look back to the last ice age, when agriculture started, that’s when large parts of the planet started having what we now call civilization. So that was chosen. If we can look back 10,000 years, then we can look forward 10,000 years.
An American Who Defected to East Germany
Between World War II and the fall of Communism, many fled Soviet-controlled East Germany and headed westward. The stories of these dissidents, defectors, and hardworking citizens who were simply looking for a better life have been exhaustively documented. But much less is known about the histories of the few who headed against the tide, from west to east, repulsed by capitalism. Victor Grossman was one such person.
Born Steve Wechsler in New York City in 1928, Victor’s political ideology was shaped by his experiences living in America during the Great Depression and the events of the Spanish Civil War. After earning an economics degree from Harvard, his communist ideals led him to earn a simple living as a factory worker. In 1950, in the beginning stages of the Korean War, Victor was drafted and while stationed in Germany, his left-wing past was uncovered by the military. Fearing a court-martial for his beliefs, he sought refuge in the Soviet bloc, changing his name to Victor Grossman and settling among like-minded comrades in the German Democratic Republic.
For 30 years, Victor thrived in the GDR as a journalist and author. He published numerous books on US history and culture, lectured frequently, and hosted a popular radio show that introduced East Germans to the antiestablishment folk songs of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. Despite his criticisms of the GDR establishment, Victor still felt that he was seeing his ideal—“an antifascist state with economic security for everybody”—transformed into utopian reality. By the late 80s, however, it became apparent that the Soviet system could no longer sustain itself and would soon collapse under its own weight. Victor came to the bleak realization that he would have to “start over from zero.”
In 1994, he returned to the USA for the first time, where he was officially discharged from the army, 44 years after being enlisted. He remains today in Berlin and continues to write prolifically in German. In 2003 he published an English-language autobiography, Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany. Regardless of what you think about his political convictions, Victor’s ideological steadfastness is impressive. In a way he seems to be a man out of time, which made me think that speaking with him could provide not just a window to the past, but a different context for viewing the present.
VICE: When did you first become disillusioned with capitalism? Was it a gradual progression or was it one event?
Victor Grossman: The 1930s were a left-wing period. My first recollection from a newsreel was the big sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, which broke General Motors. I remember that and [what was happening in] Spain, the soup lines and college graduates selling apples on the corner to make a living. My father was an art dealer. Who buys art in depression times? It was often tight, but we never went hungry. We were never really down and out, especially because we had a bungalow in New Jersey in an experimental single-tax community called Free Acres. It was very simple; it had running cold water and no electricity. And it was wonderful, just wonderful. We ran around barefoot all day. It was like Huckleberry Finn. A lot of people living there were bohemians from New York and left-wingers. Some of the nicest people in that place were left-wingers who really determined my thinking.
You went to Harvard, but after graduation you started working in a factory. Why?
When I graduated Harvard, the Communist party secretary from Boston came to us and said, “You’ve got a Harvard diploma, but our party is supposed to be a workers’ party, and we don’t have enough workers. Have any of you considered becoming workers?” I was one of three people who said yes. I was provided with an address in Buffalo. I hitchhiked there and walked to this black neighborhood. I came to this rundown wooden house, and on the porch was a middle-aged black lady in a rocking chair. I said, “I’m looking for Hattie Lumpkin, do you know where I can find her?” She said, “That’s me.” She was the head of Buffalo’s Communist Party.
Hattie’s place was Buffalo’s left-wing hub. The family her daughter had worked for had been leftists; they had asked her to sit at the table with them to eat. This was absolutely unheard of. She became a Communist. At first, Hattie had told her to get the hell out with her atheist ideas, but they argued and Hattie was convinced. Hattie’s place became my home away from home when I worked the awful graveyard shift at the factory.
Big Money’s Obama
Last week, in an utterly unsurprising story, the president of the United States appointed a crew of rich friends with Wall Street ties to key government posts, some of them major fundraisers and donors to his campaigns. They hardly made major headline news—the payback game is an old, old DC tradition—but these nominations underscore again just how empty all of Barack Obama’s lofty promises to change the political culture were.
Obama’s populist shtick was more pronounced in the 2012 election than it was back in his first presidential campaign (even if he left the most gut-wrenching indictments of Mitt Romney’s business record to his nominally independent Super PAC, Priorities USA), so the speed with which he has reverted in the early months of the second term to shamelessly currying favor with entrenched financial interests is jarring. After opportunistically latching on to the rhetoric of anticapitalist movements worldwide, Obama’s 99 percent-loving campaign has given way to an administration that revolves around an all-too-familiar brand of capitalism—and capital-obsessed neoliberalism. Once upon a time, Obama was apparently devoted to reining in the influence of money in politics, but after a couple of elections and some time inside the machine, hedoesn’t seem to care about it at all. Instead of fighting against casual corruption, he’s been implicit in it.
Horse Racing: The Sport of America’s Lower Class
“If you wait until 4:08, you can get in for free,” the blatantly disinterested clerk at the entrance to Hollywood Park Racetrack and Casino informed me as I desperately tried to give her the $10 entry fee. It was 3:55 and I had already started to feel the effects of the weed chocolate I had eaten earlier, so I happily accepted her terms. I avoided making small talk with the clerk by feigning interest in my phone for 13 minutes. It’s surprising how little you can accomplish on a cell phone in 13 minutes. Finally, as the clock struck the “magic hour,” I sauntered through the gate with an extra $10 in my pocket, just ready to gamble it all away forever. There’s no such thing as a free ride, unless you’re high… or talking about the moribund sport of horse racing.
Much like the United States itself, horse racing culture can be divided into the camps of “have” and “have not.” The disparity between the gilded excesses of the Kentucky Derby and the barren wasteland of Hollywood Park is stark. Step-repeat lines, funny hats, and copious amounts of rich people materialize at Churchill Downs every year to see and be seen at what is an absurdly anachronistic, passé sport. The everyday reality of horse racing is that the stands are not even a third full, and instead of expensive suits and strange headgear, people wear varsity jackets with cougars embroidered on the back. Horse racing was and still is a pastime of our grandparents.
Meet Sohel Rana, the Most Hated Man in Bangladesh
Mayday in Bangladesh: “The serenity of Jurain graveyard seems more than other days on Wednesday as 32 workers whose bodies remained unclaimed made their final journey,” is how the local Daily Star described it.
And now begins the sideshow. It’s much more engaging than the main event, it must be said. Yesterday, theNew York Times’ Jim Yardley, who has been excellent on the subject of labor abuses in Bangladesh, delivered a short and amazing profile of Sohel Rana, the 35-year-old owner of Rana Plaza, the massive factory outside Dhaka which collapsed last week, killing at least 400 workers.
Rana appears to be typical of a certain type of Bangladeshi garment magnate: crass, vulgar, nouveau-riche, and involved in equal measure in organized crime and high politics. He rode with his entourage on motorcycles, he’s accused of dealing in guns and drugs, he seized the land where he and his father built Rana Plaza from small landowners by force and through illegal paperwork, and he was protected by corrupt officials.
He was involved in the youth league of the governing Awami League. Which, to put it mildly, is not quite the same thing as being involved in the Young Republicans. The youth wings of the national parties in Bangladesh often function as nothing more than massive gangs: the two main parties are crony organizations at the top and depend in large part on intimidation and politics-at-the-end-of-a-brickbat at the bottom. Every few months or so they call “general strikes” to protest this or that policy or as a pure show of force—the country largely shuts down and any unlucky auto-rickshaw driver caught violating the strike risks a beating or murder.
Barcelona’s Ideological Shoplifting Movement
The world’s economy is still fucked. And ever since the West went into an economic meltdown in 2008, anticonsumerist sentiment has been steadily on the rise—presumably because you kinda have to eschew materialism when you’ve got the spending power of a Dickensian chimney sweep. But while proletariats in the US have largely settled for memories of Zuccotti Park and organizing “buy-nothing days,” the Catalan civil disobedience movement Yomango has been getting out there, actively raging against consumerism since 2002. How? Through a campaign of ideological shoplifting.
Spawned in Barcelona by your usual black-bloc types and those hash-smoking crusties you see hanging around Thompkins Square with dogs on ropes, Yomango is Spanish slang for “I steal,” as well as a pun on local clothing company, MANGO. Falling somewhere between social experiment and sixth-form political statement, the movement’s members claim that what they’re doing is raging against the machine.
Yomango practitioners pillage multinational franchises for five-finger discounts and turn their stolen winnings into feasts. These feasts are kind of like countercultural Christmas dinners, with those taking part sharing shoplifting tactics (which, handily, are also now available as instructional YouTube videos), exchanging loot, and discussing ways of turning throwaway junk into DIY thieving accessories. If you’re not using an alarm-detector-resistant handbag, or a jacket with “magic” pockets that disappears swiped goods, you’re not shoplifting like these pros.
Is It Wrong to Celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s Death?
They say you can judge a person best from how their children turned out. Harry Truman wanted his son to be “just like Jimmy Stewart.” He ended up having a girl instead. And she ended up writing a novel that was eventually turned into a Wesley Snipes movie. Not bad, Harry. Not bad. As for Ronald Reagan, he tallied up human rights abuses during his administration, but managed to raise a nice liberal boy who spends his time fighting for stem cell research and gay marriage.
Margaret Thatcher always had a bit more of an edge to her. It shows in her seed—like her son, Mark Thatcher, a convicted loan shark who hired mercenaries to launch a coup in a war-torn African nation. Thatcher’s own record in the “dark continent” wasn’t too good either. She called Nelson Mandela a terrorist and lent her support to the apartheid regime. Nor was the whole “armed overthrow of a government” thing a problem. Thatcher embraced Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Salvador Allende in a particularly bloody coup in 1973, as a friend and ally.
That said, the outpouring of left-wing celebration over the death of the women who gave the British working-class a brutal spanking and wrecked her country’s social safety net strikes the wrong note. Not because Thatcher deserves more deference. And definitely not because the dead deserve the respect we so often deny the living. But because all the personalized anger gives her too much credit for riding social forces that were beyond her control. Thatcher wasn’t a mastermind, she was a second-rate politician who came into the scene at just the right time. “Global neoliberalism” is only synonymous with “global Thatcherism,” because she seemed to enjoy its destructive success more than everyone else.