Thursday, March 11, 2010

'Cannabis North': A fictional piece with a political message

Political activism and fiction come together in Douglas resident Dick Callahan's new book, "Cannabis North." Centering on the cannabis trade in Alaska, the book took Callahan three years to write and was begun after the author had an inspired moment in 2006.

While listening to then-Gov. Frank Murkowski attempts to increase penalties in arrests involving cannabis, and hearing testimony from lawmakers in Washington, Callahan realized he hadn't been paying enough attention. He started digging through the layers of information and, after learning about the changes in policy over the last 40 years, found himself pro-legalization.

Callahan will discuss and sign copies of "Cannabis North" tonight at Hearthside Books' in the Nugget Mall at 7 p.m. and then have a signing during the First Friday Art Walk from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at the downtown store.

The author came up for an Alaskan adventure in 1981 from New Hampshire with a friend, a backpack and $400. When asked if the main character Dan Turpin, a cannabis smuggler, represents his own views, he said, "I've got a great crowd of people that live in my head. I've spent a lot of time with them and the characters in the book are composites of these people, including myself."

Turpin and a second character, Finn Wentworth, also appeared in his first book, "Alaska Titan in a Cruise Ship Theme Park," which focused on the cruise ship industry and its effect on Southeast communities.

Callahan said he views his new book as the solution to raising awareness without making people apathetic.

Callahan himself went through shock, disbelief, anger and apathy after reading about the arrests, prison terms and financial numbers involved in the war on drugs.

"I graduated from high school in 1973 and since I graduated there have been almost 20 million cannabis arrests," he said. "That's a staggering number of people, and it has compromised so many people's lives."

He noted that young people in their 20s make up the majority of those arrests.

"What young people face today is a lot more serious than what many people in parts of the country faced 40 years ago - things like losing their student loans - and the number of opportunities that can be lost with a simple pot bust has grown so much and for what?"

He also noted that these arrests lead to an abundance of prisoners.

"There are more prisoners per capita today in the United States than any other country."

Callahan said Harvard economist Jeffrey Meyer estimated the war on drugs costs $12.9 billion a year.

"For all those arrests and with all that money, we have more people than ever that are using it, it's more potent than ever and more available than ever."

Callahan believes prescription drugs are a much bigger problem, pointing out that while the government was putting a huge emphasis on marijuana, the number of people using serious drugs continued to rise.

Callahan has degrees in biology and education but was an activities coordinator at a drug and alcohol rehab center and used this information for his book.

"It was a great job because people there wouldn't front for me and they would just tell me stories, things that they wouldn't say to their counselors," he said.

Callahan lays out his views through character Turpin, who risks smuggling because it's his civic duty.

"I don't like them putting my friends and neighbors in prison for what we all smoked back in my day, and I don't like paying for the damn prison either," Turpin says in the book. "They can't build schools, they can't build hospitals, they can't feed the poor, but they can build prisons, pah!"

He noted that there are also many positive developments in the drug war.

"I think the most important thing a person can do in a democracy is pay attention and not be distracted by hysteria on either side but become educated on issues," he said. "If you feel things need to be changed, then people have to stand up and be counted. Change has to be from the bottom up."

• Courtney Nelson can be reached at nelsonfamily@acsalaska.net">nelsonfamily@acsalaska.net.

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