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Beyond the Balloon: Reconsidering spatial imaginaries for the political economy of cannabis in a more-than-prohibition context

Authors: Noah Silber-Coats*, University of Arizona - Geography & Development
Topics: Agricultural Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Agriculture, political economy, drug policy, cannabis
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The “balloon effect,” referring to the spatial displacement of drug crops in response to bans and eradication policies, is an enduring metaphor for conceptualizing drug geographies. This concept has already come under scrutiny for its simplistic view of the causes and consequences of drug policies, as well as for its tendency to privilege a macro-spatial view while overlooking more intimate re-working of production spaces to escape enforcement.

In the context of twenty-first century U.S. cannabis systems – in which booming domestic production has displaced imports in an increasingly variegated landscape of both prohibited and legalized markets – the short-comings of the balloon concept are ever more apparent. Following the metaphor, there are now multiple balloons not only being squeezed by the state, but also simultaneously inflated and popped.

Drawing on the case of Oregon’s cannabis markets immediately preceding and following the legalization of recreational “marijuana” at the state level and “hemp” through the 2018 Farm Bill, this paper calls for a re-imagining of the spatialities of the plant against the background of efforts to both prohibit and promote its cultivation and commerce. Key moments in this recent history include a squeeze on the medical marijuana, a bursting bubble in recreational marijuana, accompanied by “diversion” to black markets, and a subsequent boom in high-CBD medicinal hemp production that sidesteps many of the socio-legal questions surrounding “marijuana.” Considering these examples, this paper aims to spark a conversation about how to conceptualize these and other dynamics in the political economy of cannabis.

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