When I read the news, I shrug at the pundits who always make the same polar arguments. Take the recent passage of the $787 billion


Learning From the Cannabis Cooperatives

When I read the news, I shrug at the pundits who always make the same polar arguments. Take the recent passage of the $787 billion stimulus deal: Many are hopeful the state will throw the lifeline to our sinking economy. Others decry the massive program as socialist. It's the same old dichotomy, with the usual forces on the left and right pushing back and forth. But there's a third way of doing things that needs a closer look.

Cooperatives and collective action have a long and successful history in our nation and world, and are radically changing our political and legal cultures, not to mention artistic. Punk's do-it-yourself ethic wasn't so much about yourself as about youth collectively meeting shared needs. Cooperative structures are also very mainstream. Co-ops are a mix of collective action and capitalism. They're democratically-run private entities where participation is voluntary.

Back in the 1970's, before you could buy organic produce and other health foods at the supermarket, people banded together and started buyer co-op markets. Many of these funky little health-food stores, founded by people who needed alternatives to mainstream groceries, have survived. These nonprofit businesses are owned by dues-paying members who pay a reduced rate on locally grown organic produce among other items, and have the privilege of electing the organization's board of directors. And if the co-op makes a profit, members can even get a dividend payment.

The recent explosion of cooperatives in California is radically challenging our economic, political, and legal structures. In 1996, California voters passed an initiative that legalized the distribution of marijuana for medical purposes. The state is allowing people seeking treatment to join cannabis buyer co-ops or collectives. All you need is a prescription from a doctor and you can pick from hundreds of co-ops to join. There are state guidelines for the co-ops, and sales tax is paid on each transaction. The guidelines suggest the co-op should be a closed circuit of patients growing medicinal marijuana for themselves and other members.

This is a truly radical phenomenon, considering the dominant big-money lobbyist culture in Washington D.C., the colossal pharmaceutical industry, and the myriad federal regulations regarding drugs both legal and illegal. It's obvious the cannabis co-ops are a step toward the broader legalization of this drug. But I'm not interested in buying or smoking pot. I am only looking at the situation as a small-scale health collective: These places, after all, are set up as medicine dispensaries.

Conservatives rail against state involvement in health care as socialized medicine or deride it as European-style government. If a big state program is so bad, why not start encouraging and supporting voluntary, independent, comprehensive local health cooperatives? Wisconsin has a rural health cooperative. Group Health in Seattle is a large hospital and longtime co-op.

President Obama hasn't gotten to health care--yet. If there is to be a state program, it should concentrate on fostering more local cooperative health-care efforts. Conservatives should be proposing this, instead of complaining with tired clich├ęs from the back benches. In the course of promoting cooperative structures, perhaps we'll actually meet the real needs of people.

Krist Novoselic's column runs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly.

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