A Trip to the Barter Fair

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Everyone
in the smart set is talking about Eric Schlosser’s new book, which
argues that 10% of the US economy is “underground,” beholden to
pot, porn, and prostitution. I would say that number is a conservative
estimate. Out in Eastern Washington and northern Idaho, for example,
it's easier to find a cheap prostitute than good barbecue. The same
could be said for the local herb.

The
kids say it’s “dank,” and Diet Pepsi commercials have taught us
never to argue with those more toned and less encumbered by history
than we are. So enamored with their homegrown marijuana are certain
of these locals that they participate in something called a “barter
fair” periodically.

Barter
fairs are the Inland Pacific Northwest’s cousins to flea markets
and swap meets, where country people get together and sell or trade
various items to those who want them. Untrammelled capitalism, in
its purest form, liberated from even a need for currency; typical
of vendors’ booths are cardboard signs saying “will accept trade”
or “no reasonable offer refused.”

There
are significant differences between barter fairs and similar public
marketplaces. Unlike the contemporary flea market, which often is
a clearinghouse for shoddy, mass-produced goods imported from Asia,
the barter fair has little in the way of mass-produced, new merchandise.
These folks are businesspeople almost incidentally, with subsistence
their only goal. No effort is made to sell items with which the
seller has no personal connection.

So
if someone is buying some old hippie’s cassette tapes at a dollar
apiece, the tapes are likely something the seller decided he simply
couldn’t use anymore. As for hemp pastries and glass pipes sold
at a barter fair, these were likely made by the seller. Again, evidence
of unfettered capitalism unimaginable from a legal American business.
Grow it, make it, sell it – an economic logic that defies NAFTA,
the WTO, and doughty drug warriors like William Bennett and Barry
McCaffrey. Consumption and production as acts of insurrection.

But
even if all that’s true, does it really matter? The price of participating
in this economic market, for many, seems to be effective alienation
from the larger culture. Not buying a pipe from a vendor one particular
week? The vendor will be at another barter fair next week, somewhere
in Idaho.

These
fairs are invariably on the outskirts of nowhere, with the directions
to them vague. Outside of Northport. 61 miles from Metaline Falls.
Toward the Canadian border, but not that far up. In these obscure
locations, law enforcement is stretched so thin that even emergency
response takes close to 90 minutes routinely. There simply aren’t
resources to enforce what ultimately are meaningless laws against
possession of organic drugs, and so the law enforcement efforts
sensibly concentrate on large-scale traffickers.

It
is possible to escape the War on Drugs in America, for the most
part, if one is willing to make certain sacrifices. Like living
thirty miles from a stoplight, or congregating with people on the
weekend who lack pride to such a degree that they let their filthy
toddlers wallow in mud, just before they grab a basket full of medicinal
brownies to hawk, two for five dollars.

Is
marijuana incompatible with American civilization? Yes, it is, but
not for the reasons pushed by the National Drug Intelligence Center,
reduced to tepidly maintaining that "marijuana is a leading
drug threat to the country. It is the most readily available and
widely used illicit drug in the United States, and its prevalence
has contributed to both an acceptance of marijuana use among some
adults and adolescents and a perception that the drug is not harmful."

Focus
on the word "harmful" for a moment. If marijuana were
legal, it would harm all sorts of interests. Pharmaceutical companies
would have less opportunity to turn profits from ineffective, addictive
medicines, competing as they would with something anyone with a
green thumb can grow. Indeed, with something that can grow on its
own in the wild.

The
people at the barter fair are not the kind of people one would hope
their daughter would marry. They're not especially clean, especially
if they've been camping on the grounds the entire weekend. They
effectively have been driven from American civilization because
they recognized that this government would rather lock them up than
let them be. The unvoiceable realization that Washington sees them
as chattel amounts, in their eyes, to a breach of the social contract.
And so they drop out, lost to the system.

God
help them if they're found.

May
7, 2003

Anthony
Gancarski [send him mail]
has written for CounterPunch
and other publications; Utne Reader dubbed his Internet work
“Best of the Web.” A writer for the local Folio Weekly, he lives
in Jacksonville, Florida.


     

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