A study released Monday finds that marijuana is now the nation's biggest cash crop, with the value of the annual harvest exceeding that of corn, soybeans or hay -- the country's top three legal cash crops. The study, conducted by public policy analyst and former National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws head Jon Gettman, used official government figures to arrive at an estimate that the annual pot crop is worth $35 billion.
Between 1981 and 2006, US marijuana production increased ten-fold, from 1,000 metric tons (2.2 million pounds) to 10,000 metric tons (22 million pounds), according to government figures cited by Gettman. The massive expansion of pot production in the face of increased eradication efforts suggests that "marijuana has become a pervasive and ineradicable part of our national economy" that should be put under a system of legal regulation, Gettman wrote.
And it is everywhere. While California, Tennessee, Kentucky, Hawaii, and Washington are the top producing states, pot is the top cash crop in 12 states and among the top three in 30 states. "There is a lot of demand for marijuana in the US, and it's only natural that production would increase here," Gettman told Drug War Chronicle.
But the increase is also a function of government enforcement efforts, Gettman argued. "In response to the government spraying Mexican marijuana with paraquat in the 1970s, people began to grow in California and Hawaii. Then the government starting flying helicopters and airplanes around looking for marijuana from the sky, so cultivation spread out," he explained. "By 1982, it was in 32 states. Now, it's in all 50 states. Growers also moved to smaller plots and to maximize production with the use of fertilizers, better genetic stock, and the production of sinsemilla, and they moved inside. Everything the government has done to stop marijuana production has caused growers to respond, and now we are at a point where we have diffused cultivation and small-scale production all over the country," the analyst argued.
"This report tells us our marijuana policy is not working very well, and that's an understatement," Gettman summarized. "These are the government's numbers, not mine, and they show there is absolutely no evidence their program is successful in any way, shape, or form."
"The fact that marijuana is America's number one cash crop after more than three decades of governmental eradication efforts is the clearest illustration that our present marijuana laws are a complete failure," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which spearheaded the media outreach following the report's publication. "America's marijuana crop is worth more than our nation's annual production of corn and wheat combined. And our nation's laws guarantee that 100% of the proceeds from marijuana sales go to unregulated criminals rather than to legitimate businesses that pay taxes to support schools, police and roads."
While Gettman did not estimate possible tax revenues from the regulated sale of marijuana, he suggested they would be substantial. "Legal production would bring down the prices, but the fact that people are buying marijuana at black market prices demonstrates that people value marijuana and will pay for it," said Gettman. "Marijuana can be heavily taxed and still provide lower prices than now while providing revenues to the government," he argued.
In California, the state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) seized nearly 1.7 million plants this year, but based on seizure rates over the last three years, Gettman puts California's pot production at 21 million plants, worth about $13 billion and responsible for a whopping 38% of total US production.
The country should focus on regulating the lucrative trade instead of vainly trying to suppress it, Gettman concluded. "Like all profitable agricultural crops marijuana adds resources and value to the economy," he writes in the report. "The focus for public policy should be how to effectively control this market through regulation and taxation in order to achieve immediate and realistic goals, such as reducing teenage access."
Neither CAMP nor the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) returned Chronicle calls for comment on the study, but ONDCP's Tom Riley told the Los Angeles Times that while he wouldn’t argue Gettman's numbers, he disagreed with his conclusions. "Coca is Colombia's largest cash crop and that hasn't worked out for them, and opium poppies are Afghanistan's largest crop, and that has worked out disastrously for them," Riley said. "I don't know why we would venture down that road."