In “Weed the People,” Bainbridge Island author Bruce Barcott delivers a thorough and entertaining survey of the burgeoning legalization of marijuana in the U.S. Barcott appears April 15 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

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‘Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America’

by Bruce Barcott

Time, Inc., 400 pp., $22.95

Every year between 2005 and 2010, nearly 800,000 Americans were arrested on marijuana charges, most of them for possessing small amounts of marijuana. That was a threefold increase since the early 1990s. Those arrested and incarcerated were overwhelmingly black or Hispanic, and poor. By 2012, the United States imprisoned a greater percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. Louisiana’s rate of incarceration is five times as large as Iran’s.

Whatever else one might think of the virtues, or dangers, of marijuana, the rate and scale at which we have imprisoned young black and Hispanic men for its possession is nothing short of an outrage.

In “Weed the People,” Bainbridge Island author Bruce Barcott (“The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw,” “The Measure of a Mountain”), surveys the remarkable transformation of marijuana from an outlawed illegal drug to a legalized adult intoxicant in several states. It’s an outstanding review of the history of marijuana regulation, the remarkable political history of its decriminalization, and its rapidly unfolding impact on modern life.

Author appearance

Bruce Barcott

The author of “Weed the People” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com), and and at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 21, at Seattle’s Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave.; $5 (townhallseattle.org).

The regulation of marijuana has a long and tortured history. Marijuana was treated as a relatively minor nuisance until it was banned in 1937 and later scheduled as a dangerous drug under the Controlled Substances Act. With the proliferation of tough mandatory sentencing schemes, marijuana became the gateway drug to long-term prison sentences and the imprisonment of a generation of young men and women.

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Barcott traces the roots of the medical marijuana movement from the ravaged gay communities suffering from AIDS to widespread acceptance of the benefits of marijuana for those suffering from cancer, AIDS and a variety of other illnesses. But it took serious political organizing efforts to move marijuana from a fringe alternative therapy to open legalization. Alison Holcomb, a lawyer working with the ACLU of Washington, provided that push.

Barcott is no cheerleader for legalized pot. He takes a hard look at serious questions about the link between marijuana and schizophrenia, the hazards of ingesting THC, the active ingredient in pot, by smoking it, and its rather dramatic demotivating effect. But the statistics on public health are compelling: 440,000 Americans die each year from cigarettes; 46,000 die from alcohol-related causes; 17,000 die from prescription drug overdoses. There are no reported deaths from marijuana overdose. Zero.

Barcott spends the bulk of the book interviewing and profiling the curious business community that has exploded in Washington and Colorado, rushing to fill the demand and seeing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to establish leading brands in an emerging and highly lucrative trade. The contrast between Harvard-trained private equity business operatives and their more rustic Grateful Dead-listening predecessors is hilarious.

Marijuana is now “legal” in Washington and Colorado. Voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have similarly voted to legalize marijuana. California appears poised for similar reform. But pot remains illegal under federal law everywhere, and it’s only through the forbearance of federal law enforcement officers that these state-level experiments have been allowed to proceed.

As its playful title suggests, Barcott’s writing is casual and breezy, perhaps befitting his subject, but jarring at times. But it’s a study long overdue, and Barcott thoughtfully examines the coming social revolution. Marijuana stores now openly operate in Washington and Colorado. Skiers visiting Colorado’s resorts routinely stop along the way to stock up. Professionals used to send bottles of wine to clients as a thank you for their patronage. Will little vials of high quality pot be next?