can’t see the forest

#1 US Cash Crop: Sweet Mary Jane

Leaves and Stripes
While US policymakers keep toking on the cashed-out rhetoric of Reagan’s War on Drugs, Andrew Gumbel of The Independent writes that marijuana has become the nation’s premier cash crop:

Marijuana is the most valuable cash crop in the United States, worth more to its growers than corn and wheat combined, according to a new report by a leading American drug reform lobbyist that cites the US government’s own figures.

Decades of government efforts to crack down on both the cultivation and consumption of pot have had a counter-productive effect, since even the most conservative government estimates suggest domestic marijuana production has increased tenfold in the past 25 years. It is the leading cash crop in 12 states, and one of the top five crops in 39 states.

The report’s author, Jon Gettman, says it is “larger than cotton in Alabama, larger than grapes, vegetables and hay in California, larger than peanuts in Georgia, and larger than tobacco in South and North Carolina”.

California accounts for almost a third of all US production. It is a major economic force in the state, especially in the redwood forests in the north, where the smell of weed wafts unmistakably down the streets of several towns.

In 1937, the US Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act. A jewel of Orwellian legislation, the MTA was introduced by FBI narcotics chief Harry Anslinger as a means of exacting through tax stamps stiff financial penalties for dealing in marijuana. The American Medical Association, among others, advised against the criminalization of marijuana at the time. Much of the evidence considered by Congress was sourced from the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, a publishing tycoon with large investments in timber (the cannabis plant produces a fine paper) and in DuPont Chemical (the cannabis plant has a high cellulose content, making it a viable competitor to plastics). It was claimed that smoking marijuana led to “murder, insanity, and death,” and propagandists of the era were kept busy associating marijuana with Mexican immigrants and black jazz musicians in the minds of upstanding white taxpayers.

In 1969, Timothy Leary successfully argued in the Supreme Court that the MTA was unconstitutional, since seeking the tax stamp required by the law was effectively an act of self-incrimination and therefore contrary to the Fifth Amendment. Congress subsequently passed the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, creating “schedules” in which different drugs are classified as illicit, therein bypassing the AMA recommendation of thirty years prior in regards to cannabis. THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, is classified under Schedule I because it “has no currently accepted medicinal use,” “has a high potential for abuse,” and because “there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.” Other Schedule I drugs include such luminaries as heroin, GHB (the “date rape drug”) and LSD (“acid.”) Note that grain alcohol should be placed on Schedule I according to the above three criteria, and particularly since it is responsible annually for thousands of fatalities both on and off the road, but alcohol remains unscheduled and completely legal under federal law.

Laws and penalties for the possession and trafficking of marijuana vary widely among US states. In Oregon, for instance, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized and there is a viable medical marijuana program in place, since many physicians consider THC an effective treatment for pain and discomfort associated with a variety of chronic illnesses (directly contradicting the first criterion of Schedule I). But in Alabama, a third offense for possession of any amount of marijuana whatsoever can lead to jail terms in excess of twenty years. The penal systems of many US states are jam-packed with marijuana offenders with no criminal records outside of pot-related offenses, straining the ability to accommodate violent offenders and creating extraordinary costs for taxpayers.

Scientific research has proven that the effects of long-term, frequent cannabis consumption pose certain physiological hazards (mostly in relation to inhaling smoke, as with cigarettes). But the compounds in the plant have analgesic properties and may combat the development of certain cancers. The intoxicating effects of THC, while varying among individuals, are generally less pronounced and far less conducive of locomotor inhibition than alcohol. No compound in cannabis is physiologically addictive in the way that nicotine, alcohol or cocaine is addictive. And while anti-pot propaganda regularly trumpets the tendency of “potheads” to be amotivated basement dwellers, academic studies and polling have shown that many of the most “productive” members of society are, in fact, one toke over the line. The notion that frequent cannabis use leads to mental dullness has been brought into question by a number of studies in the U.S. and Mexico, suggesting that such phenomena are user-end problems not specifically associated with the properties of the substance.

Hemp Field Furthermore, the cannabis plant has a wide variety of industrial and nutritional uses when it is grown as hemp (with only a nominal presence of psychoactive compounds). By design, US drug laws drastically inhibit the production of hemp for non-medicinal use. Useful hemp products include composite materials (ecologically sound alternatives to plastics), plaster, paper (four times as much per volume as trees), cordage, cloth, nutritional seeds, and oils for cooking and for fuel. China currently controls about 60% of the global hemp market, and Canada is also a major producer. Cannabis has been grown for such purposes throughout much of human history, first in Asia and later throughout the world. Colonial America was a major hemp producer, since hemp was used to make the cordage and sails of the ever-expanding European naval fleets.

It is clear that contemporary US laws against the production of psychoactive and agro-industrial marijuana are primarily artifacts of industrial lobbyism and protectionism. Cannabis is quite literally a weed in that the plant thrives virtually anywhere with minimal maintenance. As such, it presents an economic challenge to pharmaceutical companies, some of whose best-selling products are engineered chemicals with many of the same pharmacological effects as THC. It is also a potential competitor to existing plastics, timber, and textile industries—while elaborate and expensive industrial infrastructures for the processing of cotton, flax, and petroleum products had been developed by the 1930s, no such systems existed in the US for hemp processing, meaning that a hemp industry could have meant a negation of investment returns for some of the industrial giants of the age.

While archaic attitudes derived from propaganda and arcane laws descended from good-ol’-boy protectionism continue to perpetuate silly and ineffectual marijuana policy in the United States, much of the rest of the world has moved on to greener pastures. The figures referenced in the above article only render this discrepancy in US policy all the more absurd.

The message being sent is simple: in the United States of America, economic interests must supercede ecological interests, and the forces of wealth must necessarily dominate the means to good health.

Happiness grows at our own firesides, and is not to be picked in strangers’ gardens. —Douglas Jerrold

Hemp License


6 Responses

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  1. peoplesgeography said, on 12/20/06 at 2:16 am

    Interesting and erudite look at this amazingly versatile multi-use crop of the future (textiles/ fabrics, paper, food, fuel, ship and building materials). Hemp paper ages better (if it was good for Thomas Jefferson to draft the US Declaration of Independence on hemp paper …) and hemp clothing uses far less pesticides than are used on cotton — half of all the world’s pesticides are sprayed on cotton so hemp is far more eco-friendly.

    With the EU subsidizing industrial hemp production and Canada now allowing it, the pressure is mounting for these non-sensical laws to be repealed. How long can the US remain the only industrialized country where hemp is illegal to grow?

    But in Alabama, a third offense for possession of any amount of marijuana whatsoever can lead to jail terms in excess of twenty years. The penal systems of many US states are jam-packed with marijuana offenders with no criminal records outside of pot-related offenses, straining the ability to accommodate violent offenders and creating extraordinary costs for taxpayers.

    Crazy. As you point out, here’s hoping these absurd legal protectionist vestiges give way to common sense. A campaign invoking Thomas Jefferson, perhaps?

  2. Curtis said, on 12/20/06 at 4:59 am

    Thanks very much. As a psychoactive drug, there is no logical reason for marijuana to be scheduled by government any differently than alcohol. And as a material with unbelievably diverse applications in manufacturing and even in nutrition, well…frankly, one has to ask just what they’ve been smokin’ up on Capitol Hill.

  3. james dupont said, on 2/16/07 at 10:00 pm

    Marijuana will never be legalized within the United States. My family has maintained its stranglehold on our subordinates since long before this nation was even founded. We control everything. Just be grateful that we have agreed, in the shadowy back rooms of our secret-society meetings, to make relatively soft the penalties for possessing small amounts of gonja. Do not attempt to defy us. We will hunt you down and make you wear nylons.

  4. Curtis said, on 2/20/07 at 6:42 am

    LOL. But I already wear nylons. :-)

  5. Bluebear2 said, on 2/21/07 at 9:59 am

    Excellent article Curtis.

    The only thing the government’s attempts at eradication have done is to raise the price from under $100/lb in the ’60s to over $3,000/lb today. Now it is a viable trade for organized crime. While walking in the forest one needs to beware of stumbling onto one of their growing operations.

    I’ve been remiss at checking in here lately – I see it’s gotten a little green in my absence.

  6. Curtis said, on 2/22/07 at 8:30 pm


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