This is a series in which I get to learn about America from you.
Justin is a 21 year-old Libertarian living in the Detroit suburbs. When he’s not working as a substitute teacher, he participates in the Occupy Detroit movement and grows medicinal marijuana. I was thrilled to hear from him, and his interview shattered my assumptions in many ways. (I don’t want to spoil anything, but I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!)
What’s it like living in Detroit?
I don’t actually live in Detroit. I’ve lived in the suburbs, about 10 minutes outside of the D, most of my life. I hate to admit it, but I’ve noticed a huge decline in the area since the depression began. And when you go into the city of Detroit, it hits you like a brick. Some parts look like they belong in Somalia or Afghanistan, not the United States. Entire strips of what were once thriving businesses are burnt out, and look like they’re on the ugly end of a Tomahawk missile. It’s depressing.
You’ve been involved with the Occupy Detroit movement. Can you tell me more about that?
It’s done a great job of focusing on local issues that matter to the citizens of Detroit. For example, Occupy Detroit has been very involved in fighting foreclosures. Sometimes, hundreds of people physically occupied the home of someone who was being evicted.
Within hours of this, the banks called off the foreclosure, and the homeowner got to keep their house. It’s an interesting and helpful form of protest. I don’t see the people of Detroit complaining about it.
But I also have my critiques. In terms of demographics, about 80% of the city is African-American. So you’d think a movement called “Occupy Detroit” would reflect these demographics. But not even close.
Don’t get me wrong—there are certainly persons of color who participate. But the majority of Occupy Detroit is young, white college students like myself. And most of us don’t even live in Detroit. Many of us are from the suburbs.
White, unemployed students with nothing better to do but protest on behalf of people we think are incapable of speaking out for themselves. Can you say “White Savior Complex” much?! In that sense, I don’t think it’s representative of the city.
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from getting involved. I’d just like to see the movement populated by the people it claims to defend.
Are you still very involved?
Lately, no. When it started here, back in early October, I was very active, mostly on weekends. I attended meetings and General Assemblies, I camped out in Grand Circus Park. I marched in protests and participated in actions. I felt like I was contributing. But then I got a little disillusioned.
I’m a pretty ardent libertarian, and about as pro-capitalism as they come. And at these protests, there was a really strong anti-capitalist tone, which turned me off. I tried to suggest other actions, such as protesting the Federal Reserve (which conveniently has a branch office in Detroit). Whenever I’d suggest an alternative idea, I’d get laughed at and ignored.
I genuinely believe that the Fed causes most of the income inequality that the Occupy movement protests. Occupy really dislikes the banks, and what I think they need to understand is that the Fed is the banks.
So for a not-anti-capitalist like myself, I just felt really out of place with the Occupy movement. I drifted off and stopped participating.
Nowadays, my participation is pretty much contained to a Marxist book discussion group. It’s a small group of people from the Occupy movement who meet up every week in the Occupy Detroit building on Michigan Avenue.
Everyone suggests a short article or excerpt, and each week we read one and discuss how it relates to current events and the Occupy movement. Many Marxists are there, but I try to spice things up and offer an alternate view. The article I suggested recently was called “Markets not Capitalism” by Gary Chartier.
I enjoy this, because it’s nice to have civil debates in person instead of via computer screen. And some people are actually quite knowledgeable and intelligent. But I guess in terms of actual activism, the whole thing is a little too Left-Wing/Socialist for my tastes. And I’m not going to change that direction, so why even bother?
What drew you to the movement in the first place?
I first heard of it back in September, when Occupy Wall Street became a big national headline. I heard that other cities around the country were organizing similar protests, did some research and found that there was an Occupy Detroit, so I was sold.
I knew the thing had an anti-capitalist bent, but being the little idealist I was, I thought maybe I could change that. Maybe I could get the group to see that it was the state, and not the market, that was their enemy? So partially out of desire to participate in a historic movement, and partially out of hubris and inflated ego, I decided to get involved.
That’s very self-reflective of you. You mentioned that you’re against the auto bailout. Why? It seems like a good idea from everything I’ve read about Detroit.
I think the auto bailout is a desperate attempt to cling to an outdated industry that’s not relevant to the 21st century economy. Sure, it saved some jobs: but at what expense?
One of the fundamental laws of economics is scarcity: there are finite resources, and each resource we put towards one purpose means that that resource isn’t being put towards another purpose.
The future of the American economy isn’t in outdated forms of car manufacturing. That might have been good for the country in the 1950s, but in the 2010s, it’s outdated. And the Big Three auto companies take up a lot of resources: the labor, the raw materials, the space they occupy, the machines they use… all those resources could have been repurposed and put toward helping Detroit create something new.
But since we bailed out the auto companies, all those scarce resources are put toward the same old mode of production. They already bankrupted themselves once doing the same old thing; it’s only a matter of time until they bankrupt themselves again and need yet another bailout.
It’s a sensitive and difficult issue to discuss, especially since I live in the Detroit area. People take it really personally, like if you’re against the auto bailouts then you’re against them personally. That’s not at all the case. I’m looking at things from a long-term point of view.
Imagine what happened when computer word processors were invented. Scribes lost their jobs. The typewriter industry was basically tossed into the trashcan.
But in the long run, was this really a bad thing? No, because word processors are just so much more efficient and better than typewriters and scribes!
I know that’s a far-fetched example, but hopefully it illustrates the point I’m trying to make about automotive manufacturing being an outdated form of production and job.
I get your point, but it seems like there’s a contradiction. You protest foreclosures (and thus interfere with pure capitalism), but don’t like the bailout because it interferes with pure capitalism. What am I missing?
Well that’s the thing. Many of these foreclosures aren’t even legitimate! There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that a sizable number of banks committed outright mortgage fraud.
Sometimes they even foreclosed on a house where the tenants never even took out a mortgage or already paid it off! And in other cases, banks lost the paperwork and thus legally were not entitled to foreclose.
So I don’t think there’s any contradiction in protesting banks that use fraudulent and illegal means to foreclose on innocent people—that’s criminal.
I get your point that if an industry is going to fail, it will eventually fail, but isn’t there something great about saving a million jobs? Otherwise, all those people would have been unemployed—how do you reconcile that?
Yes, people will be unemployed, but that’s not always a bad thing. What if we outlawed computers and mandated that every document be hand-written by professional scribes? That would create a lot of jobs, but would it be best for the economy? Same deal.
Businesses that are destined to fail are a capital drain and a waste of resources. The sooner they fall, the sooner their resources can be put to use in a more effective way.
Switching gears a bit, how did you get into growing medicinal marijuana?
Well, to be honest, it all boils down to the green: money. My family was heavily invested in real estate: my dad owned a house remodeling company and when real estate started to tank hard, you can guess what happened to the family business—it also tanked.
We were broke as a joke, my mom and dad lost their business, and didn’t have anywhere to turn. We’d stopped paying our tax bills, put off paying our mortgage (to the point where our house was almost foreclosed upon), lived off credit cards—a pretty standard story for many Americans.
Things were really bad. That is, until the state of Michigan legalized marijuana. Out of desperation, my family invested all our savings into growing pot. And, four years later, it’s worked out pretty darn good, thank God.
How did you hear about it as an option?
It was all over the local news. It was a very controversial ballot initiative, and when we heard it had passed, we hopped on the opportunity.
My dad is a businessman and knows that the best time to get into a market is when it begins, before you get crowded out. So we took a gamble.
Make no mistake, marijuana is a cash crop. There’s a huge demand out there, and that’s just on the legal side of things. When you factor in the black market, it’s even bigger.
People love their smoke, whether it’s for intoxication or medication. Since we don’t particularly enjoy the threat of prison time and SWAT raids, we do everything 100% by the books (grow in accordance with the regulations, sell only to licensed patients, etc.).
Although it can be a hassle, Michigan law is quite generous. For example, a caregiver can have up to six patients (including himself). For each patient, a caregiver is legally permitted to grow up to 12 plants and also possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.
So if you’re a caregiver with six patients, you’re legally allowed to grow up to 72 plants and also legally carry on your person up to 15 ounces (which is just one ounce shy of a pound). Not sure if you’ve ever seen a pound of pot before, but it’s a *lot* of weed. And I don’t even own 72 plants! That’s a LOT.
I can’t complain. And really, although we’re businessmen, we’re also humans who understand many people legitimately need this medication. We like to help out.
For example, one patient of mine has Crohn’s Disease. It’s a really ugly disease from what I understand: your liver is basically a giant ulcer that flares up occasionally. When it does, the swelling becomes extremely painful, and you can’t eat food for days.
Marijuana is the one medicine, according to my patient, that actually relieves his pain, restores his appetite, and has the fewest side effects. For him, it’s a miracle drug. And unfortunately, this patient doesn’t exactly have a lot of money, so every month I’ll give him a small bit of medication, free-of-charge. I do this with many of my patients, because I know they have legitimate medical issues and it helps them out. The rest of it gets sold to local dispensaries.
So, not only is marijuana a good way to make money, but you also get to know that you’re helping people function day to day.
How did you learn to grow it? Were there classes?
Mostly trial and error. My dad grew up on a farm, so he knew generally how to grow plants. But growing pot is a delicate science, and in some ways, even an art. Its a science in that you have to be very precise with your nutrients and maintaining a good environment, but also an art in that your environment needs a sort of “Feng Shui” feel to it. You learn as you go.
I also read the book “Marihuana Horticulture: The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower’s Bible” by Jorge Cervantes. I recommend it to anyone curious about the process.
The internet is also helpful for diagnostic stuff. For example, one of my plants was wilting and turning yellow, so I went online to see if people had similar problems and learned that it was just a simple nitrogen deficiency.
You’re a substitute teacher hoping to become a full-time teacher. What’s surprised you about the Detroit Public School system?
I don’t teach for Detroit Public Schools (DPS). I work through an agency, which services schools in the surrounding areas, but DPS isn’t one of them. However, they do service some of the rougher school districts, and, oh lord, do you learn to respect teachers a lot more after working with some of these kids!
One of the classes I subbed, a first grade class, resembled a WWF wrestling match more than a classroom because they fought so much while I was subbing. There were bruised eyes, sore ribcages, and cuts and scrapes galore.
Kids like to take advantage of having a substitute in the room. They like to test their limits and see what they can get away with. It can be really, really difficult to control the classroom.
I don’t mean to sound disrespectful, but the sad reality is that many schools are used more like a day care service than an educational environment.
In one of the districts where I worked, when I asked a teacher for help, she straight up told me, “Your job is really to watch the kids and make sure they behave. Don’t worry about academics as much as keeping them under control.”
How did you react to that?
I didn’t say anything, but I just thought, “What a sad state of affairs, when the educators themselves admit that you’re more of a babysitter than a teacher.”
Given all you’ve experienced, I’m surprised you’d want to teach full-time.
Well, it’s partly because I don’t want to be a pot farmer for the rest of my life. I kind of want to do something more fulfilling and purposeful than farming, and I think teaching kids would be very rewarding on a personal level. Plus, I enjoy being around kids and teaching them and stuff.
Also, I think it’s a way I can help improve my community and also the country at large. Let me be extremely blunt: people (not just kids) in the United States really have no clue what math is. I don’t think everyone has to be on the level of Einstein, but it’s really depressing when you see how many people have to solve 5x4 on a calculator.
Plus, I think the way math is taught in our country—completely geared toward passing the ACT and devoid of critical thinking or creativity—is wrong.
If the purpose of high school is to prepare students for college, then, as someone who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in math, I can attest to the fact that what you learn in high school prepares you in no way, shape or form for the kind of math you will experience in college.
Maybe by being a teacher I can solve that problem and not only help kids understand math, but also motivate them to get excited about it and actually want to learn it?