One change in federal law would probably reduce government spending, raise tax revenue and put millions of people to work. But political leaders are just as likely to block this move, since it involves legalizing cannabis.
The popular plant species has two distinct varieties, which are referred to as hemp and marijuana.
Cannabis hemp is widely known as a hardy agricultural crop. It offers unlimited quantities of seeds, oils and durable fibers that are used to manufacture key consumer items: clothing, paper, rope, construction materials, nutritious food, and more.
Hemp is not a drug, because it lacks the psychoactive ingredient THC. For decades, lawmakers have alleged that there’s a real public menace in marijuana, which is another variety of cannabis. Marijuana yields intoxicating buds that contain plenty of THC, and they are typically smoked for both recreational and medicinal purposes. No one can get high by smoking hemp, because it lacks THC.
While informative articles about cannabis appear often in The Daily Gazette, they tend to mention only the latter variety. On Jan. 1, for example, an opinion was expressed by syndicated columnist Froma Harrop. She discussed the idea of decriminalizing marijuana as a means to save money in the nation’s $50 billion drug war.
“Where are the foes of big government in this?” she asked. “States and municipalities bear most of the costs.” But reducing the penalties for pot possession is a relatively minor issue.
Defenders of the current laws claim that legalization would increase drug addiction and make crime rates soar. There’s no good reason, they say, to make life easier for “potheads.” Still, many advocates argue that legal hemp and marijuana could provide a welcome boost to the sluggish economy.
A prominent hemp supporter is Texas Rep. Ron Paul, a Republican and former candidate for president. Several years ago, Paul introduced a bill in Congress titled the Industrial Hemp Farming Act. Its actual language would amend federal anti-drug laws “to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana.”
If passed, the legislation could directly aid struggling farmers in New York and other states. In a time of persistent unemployment, legal hemp could revitalize the manufacturing sector and stimulate job creation.
“Industrial hemp is commercially grown in virtually every industrialized country in the world — except the United States,” says a fact sheet issued by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture. That state agency encourages farmers to apply for hemp licenses. Then the Drug Enforcement Administration rejects the applications, citing the federal Controlled Substances Act and its strict ban on both cannabis varieties. Many officials fear that allowing farmers to plant hemp crops would be like giving a green light to marijuana growers. But that becomes a moot issue if they just admitted the economic potential of both varieties of the species.
Ever since 1937, when Congress passed an initial prohibitive law, any moves toward legalization have been firmly opposed by most political leaders. Such opponents control New York state’s medical marijuana debate, as revealed in a Gazette article on Feb. 6.
The article referenced a study by the Cato Institute, and reported that — by adding the costs of police, courts and prisons in 2008 — New York “spent a staggering $654 million on enforcing marijuana prohibition.” The Cato Institute estimated that New York could raise $186 million yearly by taxing legal pot sales, the article noted.
Raid reveals profits
For more insight, I analyzed one recent marijuana bust in Saratoga County, which was detailed in a Gazette report on Jan. 18. Last year, two men had agreed to maintain grow rooms inside separate homes in Milton and Malta, according to the report. But federal agents were on to them, carrying out surveillance and then raiding the houses in August.
An official from the DEA said 450 plants, worth almost $600,000, were seized. Yet there’s more to the story. When proper cloning techniques are used, marijuana plants can be harvested roughly every three months. In other words, that small indoor operation had the potential to earn $2.4 million annually.
From there, I calculated what could happen if another county had a dozen legal greenhouses producing marijuana for profit. In theory, anyway, these 12 companies could be fully insured and protected by top-notch security systems. They could give people jobs and pay tens of thousands in property taxes every year, while selling nearly $30 million in natural products. In America, I wondered, do we really favor an illicit market over that legitimate one?
Maybe cannabis plants should no longer be condemned. Either variety may have an important role in the emerging green economy.
Industrial hemp would be kind to the environment, with a financial impact measured in billions. Marijuana already creates substantial wealth, due to strong demand; its consumption should be taxed heavily, like tobacco products, in order to generate revenue in cash-strapped states.
In addition, a repeal of the federal ban could save billions on law enforcement. The states can regulate hemp and marijuana, including the specific methods of cultivation, processing, distribution and sales. Perhaps no other policy reversal can so quickly expand employment opportunities, while providing fresh resources to state and local governments. All because lawmakers, and taxpayers, finally dared to see the value in the forsaken cannabis species.
Lawrence Goodwin lives in Amsterdam. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.