The American Dream in Action: Zonker and the Business of Legal Weed

(This is the third of a three-part series on marijuana in Doonesbury. Part One, which includes a review of Box Brown’s Cannabis: The Illegalization of Weed in America focuses mostly on marijuana prohibition; Part Two looks at medical marijuana in the era of the AIDS epidemic.)

Zonker Harris pointed out a huge irony on the eve of Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana – a change that allowed him to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional cannabis cultivator. It wouldn’t be long, he mused, before marijuana growers would receive the same kind of government subsidies that corn farmers get. “Pretty great, huh?” he tells his nephew Zipper. “The same government that once imprisoned me for possessing dope could end up paying me a fortune to grow it.” The ironies swirling around the legalization of pot are not only unfolding on the funny pages. In Toronto, Canada’s largest city, former chief of police Julian Fantino – a man who locked up thousands of people for marijuana crimes, many of whom are still serving time for something that is no longer illegal – is now executive chair of a cannabis company.

Marijuana has become big business where the law has allowed for its legal production, sale and consumption, and as the CBC’s Geoff Turner points out in his two-part documentary on Colorado’s experience with legal pot, this has led to conflict between those who subscribe to a corporate model for marijuana sales and those who would prefer to see a market built on the values of independent producers who have a community-oriented, activist approach to growing and selling cannabis. In this final post about marijuana in Doonesbury, I’m going look at how Garry Trudeau used Zonker’s experiences as a legit cannabis grower to examine the intersection between legal pot and corporate culture.

Zonker wanted to grow pot to help people. In 1998 California Proposition 215 legalized medicinal marijuana in that state. The law was an important step in Zonker’s journey to becoming a professional cannabis grower whose work might benefit sick people. Twelve years later, California introduced Proposition 19, which would have legalized the possession of marijuana for recreational use. Shortly before the vote, Zonker takes his nephew Zipper out to a clearing in the woods to show him how he has been “practicing to be a commercial pot grower” in the hopes of “becoming a small family farmer … openly growing hemp in the California backcountry.” Zonker’s stated motivations reveal that he is no old hippie looking for an easy high: “no longer in it for the buzz,” his goal is now “harm reduction,” helping to “bring pot in from the cold, so it can be regulated and taxed and treated as a public health matter, not criminal.”

Proposition 19 failed at the polls (in part because of opposition by then-Attorney General and current presidential candidate Kamala Harris), but Zonker would soon have another chance to become a commercial marijuana grower. In 2013, Zonker was fired from his server’s position at McFriendly’s, opening a new door for him: heading to Colorado to grow pot following the passage of Amendment 64, making the state one of the first jurisdictions to legalize cannabis for recreational use. There was, however, a shift in Zonker’s rationale for growing cannabis when he set off for Colorado with Zipper in tow. Zipper sees their endeavour as“the American Dream in action,” but that dream would ultimately be less about freedom from arbitrary authority and more about commerce.

It wasn’t long before Zonker exhibited a talent for maximizing potential profit alongside his knack for growing primo bud. After a wildfire destroyed their first grow and an epic snowfall forced them to move into Duke’s old compound, Zonker and Zipper harnessed adversity into economic advantage. Given that most of their stock was destroyed by the fire, Zonker decides to “leverage that scarcity” and brand what they were able to save as a “limited-edition artisanal grow.” Soon afterwards, a case of mistaken identity – a weed shop owner asks if Zonk and Zip are “that nice new gay couple” in the neighbourhood, which inspires another stroke of commercial genius: Zonker decides to start “niche marketing to gays” with a product “grown by buds for buds” as a way to “stand out in a crowded field.” When Zipper raises his doubts about the plan, Zonker reminds him that they would simply be following the lead of big tobacco, which has long marketed different brands to, for example, women and Blacks: “there’s no reason,” Zonker argues,” that they “can’t create a ‘gay’ brand of bud and own the category.

The fire that destroyed Z&Z’s first grow. Doonesbury, 8 September 2013

As Z&Z Bud – Zonker and Zipper’s gay-branded weed – began to take off, the question of where the boundaries between naked commerce and craft lie created some tension in their partnership. While Zipper sees opportunity in turning their farm into a tourist destination, like a Napa Valley winery, Zonker opposes the plan as an insult to his self-image as “an elite cultivator of high-end artisanal cannabis.” But while Zonker is “overcome” when he reads a positive review of Z&Z Bud that represents his “life’s work” being “vindicated,” he is ultimately no less interested than Zipper in maximizing the commercial potential of his work. He stresses out when Amazon pre-orders create demand they can’t meet: after all, “you can keep a product on back order just so long before you lose all credibility.”Meanwhile, the marijuana business quickly begins to follow the dog-eat-dog rules of corporate capitalism, forcing Z&Z to adapt to that ethos. How, for example, should Z&Z address the threat posed by a celebrity brand like Marley Natural, an attempt by Bob Marley’s estate to cash in on the reggae legend’s appeal to hippie nostalgia?

As was the case in many Doonesbury arcs about weed, GBT left room for some old-fashioned underground-comix-influenced stoner humour as he explored the commercialization of ganja. Part of the reason that Zonker and Zipper lost their crop in the fire was because the firefighters got high off of the smoke from the burning weed patch (“Oh, sick! Look at all the sparks, man!”). The story of Z&Z Bud is replete with episodes of poor decisions that are made because one, or both, of our heroes is stoned. When Zipper goes to a town council meeting to protest a local ordinance that would ban weed sales, he’s so high that he ends up arguing in favour of the resolution and musing aloud about his fingers. When Zonker sends Zipper to bring their cash to the storage locker while armed – something made necessary by the fact that many banks will not deal with cannabis companies – Zipper has to ask his uncle what he’s smoking to come up with such a harebrained scheme. Zonker looks down, puzzled, at the joint in his mouth and admits, “I’m not sure.”

Some things don’t change … Doonesbury, 23 November 2014.

Zonker’s transition into the world of commercial ganja production also allowed Trudeau to revive a trope that was instrumental in Zonker’s portrayal as someone who existed on somewhat different plane from his companions – his ability to converse and form personal relationships with plants (…a skill that rubbed off onto Mike, at least for a while). In 1974, GBT brought readers into the “secret lives” of Zonker’s houseplants, including his trip to a houseplant convention with Patty the Potted Palm. Zonker’s close relationship with our botanical friends played a key role in his career as a cultivator: his pot plants supported him in debates with B.D. after the passage of California’s medical marijuana law and convinced him that the time had come for him to start growing weed professionally. Zonker also drew on his relationships with plants for help when facing adversity: after the wildfire decimated Z&Z’s crop, he used his powers to try “coax the plants into an early bloom,” leading to tense negotiations between him and the marijuana plants’ Council of Elders.

Tense negotiations. Doonesbury, 4 January 2014.

Yet even as GBT refers back to the stoner humour of the underground comix that influenced his early work and the sense of whimsy that defined Zonker’s character, there is a critical irony at the heart of the story of Zonker becoming a weed farmer: the responsibilities of running a business with the potential for great success forces him do something he’d been trying to avoid since his first appearance in the strip: grow up. Zonker’s role in his relationship with Zipper is to be the responsible adult, telling him that “operating a t-shirt cannon” at sporting events or burying a barrel of oil in the backyard as an investment – plans that might have appealed to Zonker’s younger self – are not really great ways of ensuring one’s future. By the time Z&Z Bud is established as a viable business, Zonker is so wrapped up in the responsibilities of entrepreneurship that he, like a grown-up Peter Pan, can no longer see Mr. Jay. Seeing Zonker absorbed in mundane paperwork, Mr. Jay laments that as “a young stoner, Zonker believed in me … but then he grew up and became Sammy McSerious, ‘responsible’ small businessman.

… some things do. “Sammy McSerious” and Mr. Jay. Doonesbury, 15 April 2018

When Garry Trudeau began writing about marijuana as a political issue he saw the question of legalizing grass as fundamentally humanitarian in nature: when Cornell began supplying HIV-AIDS patients with medicinal cannabis, he argued that while marijuana was illegal, “not to help suffering people would be immoral. Sometimes you have to answer to a higher law.” Zonker may have become a commercial marijuana grower because he, too wanted to answer to a higher law, but it was not long before the laws of the market – supply and demand, competition, customer satisfaction – dictated his approach to fulfilling his life’s calling.

Marijuana has been legal in Canada for a year now, and in that time government monopolies have pushed many independent suppliers out of the market, making it difficult for many people to access legal weed while men like Julian Fantino get rich selling a product they used to arrest people for having. Whether it’s through a free-market model like the one that Zonker is working in or a government-controlled one like I deal with, the legalization of marijuana has intersected with political and economic dynamics that don’t necessarily match up with some of the ideals that fuelled the drive behind that legalization.

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