Char Miller (Where There’s Smoke) Q & A

Later this month we will publish Char Miller’s new book Where There’s Smoke; The Environmental Science, Public Policy, and Politics of Marijuana. This first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary anthology draws on the insights of scientists, researchers, and activists and ranges across the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences to explore the troubling environmental consequences of illegal marijuana production on public, private, and tribal lands.

We spoke to Char about his timely work.

1. When did you first have the idea to write Where There’s Smoke?

Like all book projects, Where There’s Smoke has been collaborative in all its stages. I had been writing about marijuana’s impact on the national forests, as a result of talking to Forest Service employees frustrated by the environmental despoliation illegal trespass grows caused; and by threats to their lives as they tried to manage the beautiful California forests. As luck would have it, UPK editor Kim Hogeland spotted my columns, we arranged to meet at a conference, and then had a fabulous conversation about some of the dimensions such an anthology might contain. Although the book morphed in the subsequent months while I was commissioning its chapters, Kim remained a guiding force throughout the process as were the many contributors to Where There’s Smoke.

 2. Can you describe your process of writing? How long did you spend working on the publication?

This was such a fun project precisely because its contributors were experts in their varied fields—ecology, sociology, history, grassroots organizing, public policy, politics, and law enforcement—and thus brought a wealth of knowledge, experience, and insight to their work. I learned so much from reading their chapters and then working with the authors to clarify and strengthen their arguments. For me, Where There’s Smoke was like an intense and rigorous seminar that lasted for roughly 18 months. I loved every moment of it.

 3. What is one thing you were most surprised to learn while working on the book?

I had started out with a pretty simple notion: that if marijuana was legalized, the damage that illegal grows were having on tribal and public lands might decrease. Many of the book’s contributors challenged that assumption and so Where There’s Smoke comes with its own internal debate—a very healthy thing. I was also surprised by the striking differences between the various legalization campaigns reported in the book—Colorado’s successful initiative was different from Oregon’s, which was different from the District of Columbia’s, which was quite different from California’s. Put another way, local politics shape local policy in particular and peculiar ways, yet each was a reflection of democracy in action.

4. How did you identify the major impacts marijuana has had on the physical and political landscape?

Identifying these issues depended on a lot of reading across an interdisciplinary array of scholarship and popular writing; tracking the legalization campaigns from one jurisdiction to another; and asking a lot of questions. It was exciting to reach out to potential contributors and tap into their networks to determine some of the key concepts and those who might best discuss them in Where There’s Smoke. My hope is that readers will discover, as I did, that there are some really sharp folks thinking about the complicated contexts in which we talk about marijuana, and now in several states, how we are regulating its presence in the public arena.

5. How do you anticipate the recent legalization of recreational marijuana will have on the challenged water tables in California?

Illegal marijuana growing has actually dewatered streams in northern California, and the hope is that legalization—and the related environmental regulations—that will now govern the legitimate producers will have a beneficial outcome on currently strapped watersheds. But it will take a couple of years before we’ll know if that hope has turned into a reality. Another aspiration is that those species, like the Pacific fisher, that have suffered from the wickedly toxic brew of chemicals that illegal growers routinely deploy to protect their grows, may rebound as a result of legalization. But again, it is too early to know.

6. What do you view as the biggest issue facing the legalization of marijuana on a federal and state level in 2018?

Because marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug—akin to heroin, according to the federal government—that means that state legalization is remains iffy. Legitimate growers cannot place their money in federally insured banks; the threat that the Department of Justice might crackdown on those states that have already legalized recreational and medical marijuana, makes for an uneasy marketplace. But states are willing to gamble because so much money is in play: every state that has legalized has found that the economic kickback—tax revenues—has grown much more rapidly than estimated, a boon to local coffers. California—the Golden State—expects to reap one billion dollars annually. So it is no wonder that neighboring Nevada legalized it recently. Or that Massachusetts did, too. Or that the rest of New England, not wanting the Bay State to “steal” their potential revenue, is seriously considering legalization. If this state-by-state pattern continues unabated, the federal government will have little-to-no leverage. Legalization is becoming mainstream; the Nixon Era War on (this) Drug is over.

7. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Where There’s Smoke will give him a much-needed refresher course on civics and a much-better understanding of the science, policy, and politics of marijuana in the 21st Century. The irony of AG Sessions’ assertion of federal power to regulate the sale and recreational use of marijuana is not lost on anyone who recalls Session’s states-rights rhetoric about civil rights, voter suppression, and segregation. The federal courts, and Congress, not the DOJ, will be the final arbiter.

8. What are you reading now?

Lots! My wife and I hiked in Ireland recently and we have been reading a number of Irish mystery writers, including Adrian McKinty, Tana French, and Caimh McDonnell. Given my interest in all things environmental—and because I’m on sabbatical!—just  completed Peter Wolleben, The Hidden Lives of Trees and Robert Moor’s On Trails.


Char Miller is the W. M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and the author and editor of many books on environmental history and public lands, including, as author, Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream; America’s Great National Forests, Wildernesses, and Grasslands (with photographer Tim Palmer); and Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot. He also edited American Forests: Nature, Culture, and Politics, published by Kansas.