OPED: Make Marijuana a Legal Cash Crop
Once a small part of Alabama's farm economy, marijuana is now the state's top money crop. Nationally, with an annual market value of $35.8 billion, marijuana ranks ahead of corn and wheat crops combined.
As Alabama's congressional delegation helps piece together a new federal farm bill in Washington, it should consider how marijuana, long an agricultural outcast, would better serve the folks back home as a legal, regulated crop — like tobacco.
A good starting point for this policy review is, "Marijuana Production in the United States (2006)," a study by Jon Gettman, a regional economics expert and adjunct instructor at Shepard University.
"Despite intensive eradication efforts," says Gettman, "domestic marijuana production has increased tenfold over the last 25 years, from 2.2 million pounds in 1981 to 22 million pounds in 2006 ... and its proliferation to every part of the country demonstrates that marijuana has become a pervasive and ineradicable part of the national economy."
Currently, marijuana use is discouraged through Draconian law enforcement policies. Using crop-eradication tactics, federal and state agents attempt to wipe out the annual marijuana crop, but they only reach about 8 percent of it, leaving the rest to enter a thriving underground marketplace. What is needed is a new policy capable of controlling not just a fraction of the marijuana crop, but one that effectively deals with the 92 percent now reaching marijuana buyers.
In 2006, Alabama's marijuana crop was valued at more than $569 million and topped the state's next two leading cash crops: cotton at $198 million and hay at $120 million. Alabama is not unique. In 11 other states, marijuana is the top cash crop and, in 18 more, it ranks second or third.
While marijuana is generally consumed in the state in which it is grown, Gettman calculates that production in nine states, including Alabama, exceeds local needs and allows these states to become marijuana exporters. Other marijuana exporters are California, Tennessee, Kentucky, Hawaii, Washington, West Virginia, Arkansas and Alaska.
Past studies suggest new federal and state policies regulating rather than outlawing marijuana could benefit Alabama three ways:
- Cut costs. Taxpayers could save up to $69 million a year by no longer enforcing anti-marijuana laws.
- Add revenues. Tax revenues on marijuana sales could bring in millions of dollars per year.
- Reduce sales to minors. High-school students claim that marijuana is easier for them to get than liquor because it isn't regulated. Using tax revenues on marijuana sales, public officials could do a better job keeping marijuana out of the hands of minors and fund anti-drug education programs aimed at kids.
Comparing marijuana to other widely used drugs, Gettman writes, "Effective control over the production of tobacco and alcohol are prerequisites to both controlling access to those drugs by teenagers and the implementation of successful educational and discouragement campaigns."
Lobbyists for the big agri-businesses growing most of the nation's corn, cotton, rice and wheat will, as usual, use the new farm bill to hit up taxpayers for more than $11 billion in farm welfare payments each year. Marijuana growers, on the other hand, are prospering without handouts of any kind from Montgomery or Washington. That could be good news for our debt-riddled federal government and probably a welcome prospect in Montgomery as well.
The president's draft farm bill sent to Capitol Hill earlier this year includes, in a section titled "Specialty Crop Support," a request that Congress help the nation's potato farmers compete in the marketplace. If members of Congress declare the potato a "specialty" crop deserving help, they will surely agree that marijuana farmers also raise a specialty crop with marketplace hardships.
Here is an opportunity for Congress to begin easing marijuana into the agricultural mainstream by replacing a failed federal policy with one that actually controls the use of marijuana. This, in turn, will give state lawmakers in Montgomery and elsewhere the green light to do likewise.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.