Unfairly or not, most people think of marijuana as an illegal drug that thrives on the black market. They don’t view it as a highly regulated commodity packaged in one of the most high-tech surveillance systems on the market. But that’s exactly what it is — at least, in four states where it is legal, primarily in Colorado.
There, each recreational and medicinal strain of marijuana bears a barcode and a Radio Frequency ID (RFID). The facilities that house and sell the herb brandish state of the art 24/7 security that tracks the movements of every employee. This “cannabis surveillance state” is in place ostensibly to ensure that states can control the drug from being on the black market; surveillance data allows regulators to know there is a “closed loop” of marijuana and that it is not crossing state lines.
For David Dinenberg, CEO of Kind Financial, the operative term is ‘seed-to-sale tracking,’ which ensures every second of a plant’s life is accounted for as a commodity, from its first seedlings to the hands of the person who purchases it at the dispensary.
This was made possible in 2011 when Colorado passed the first state law mandating marijuana surveillance. Subsequently, this birthed the Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting and Compliance (METRC), a government-referenced system owned by software company Franwell, which also operates in Alaska, Maryland, and Oregon.
What is left unsaid — and is probably unanswerable — is how far the surveillance extends. Are state agents literally watching patients and customers as they leave the dispensaries and go about their days?
Regardless, though this surveillance architecture is mandatory from the state’s perspective, others view it differently.
In an interview with the Anti-Media, Expect Resistance owner and activist, Sara Killbride-Johnson, expressed skepticism with regard to the use of mass surveillance with the implementation of cannabis sales:
“Surveillance measures are always implemented because of people’s fear. You give up a freedom you feel you don’t need in exchange for protection, which you do. Even when it doesn’t help us personally, it’s true. Like convenience stores.”
“The idea for surveillance here is two sided: 1) the general public is scared of the ‘violent underbelly, black market ‘drug dealers’ are scary and, as far as most of us know from TV and movies, violent and a parasite on society. Nobody wants that. So the general public is trading the surveillance of others (most people are not in the industry and think they won’t probably be buying marijuana soon so this will never include them), in exchange for protection from feeding this scary black market. It’s the kind of bullshit trade people live to make, like Patriot Act stuff; they don’t really care because they are ‘certain’ one of their freedoms is being curtailed [for the purpose of] keeping the bad guys away.
“2) the people in the industry itself are scared of public perception but believe in industry enough and are willing to sacrifice not only personal privacy but also submit to all but debilitating minutia in order to not lose what they see is a precarious and hard fought victory. It’s kind of sick; there must be a manipulation tactic named after this hoop jumping, but it is so present in our lives that it kind of gets accepted. We want to participate in society (as we should be allowed to), and we are willing to allow our lives to be dictated by ever-increasing choreography in order to do so. The ‘black market’ is mostly comprised of outcasts, and yes, there is violence, but that’s not the majority, and there are lots of critiques that the biggest reason there is violence in the black market is specifically BECAUSE it’s criminalized, which forces sellers to evade imprisonment.”
Zeroing in on this particularly atrocious aspect of the Drug War, Sara said:
“Imprisonment is so terrible not only because of the society in there but because being caged is so utterly depressing and terrible that humans will act in harsh ways to avoid it. So these things are a loop that create themselves and consume themselves at the same time . The idea that it’s going to be this way for a long time is such a ‘dog that’s been shocked so many times that it doesn’t even bother escaping from an open door’ mentality. It’s pretty sad, and it’s bullshit. At literally ANY time there could be a public awareness campaign that could change the perception of weed, and it would be almost instantaneous if it was done sincerely and came from the government that currently demonizes it. This is kind of cowering to your captors. It is what it is, but the weed industry itself could put money into education and change public perception; but now they are trapped financially in these expensive, time-consuming, constantly-changing legal pedants that they are too busy staying afloat to do proactive stuff at that scale. Great control tactic, but still arbitrary at its core.”
Will the “cannabis surveillance state” implode under federal and state regulations in Colorado, Alaska, Maryland, Oregon, and, soon, California? This will be a grand experiment in gray or parallel markets, but until humans aren’t wasting away in prison cells because of medicinal trade, the issue strikes a sour note.