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Pot of Gold

As the sad tales of economic hardship mount, a nice daydream keeps recurring in my mind. It supposes that new life has been granted to an outlawed plant.

In this reverie, I walk into a convenience store to get a newspaper and fill my coffee mug, as usual. The cool part is that the store sells a new type of cigarette; they’re behind the counter with the rest, but they contain potent varieties of both imported and locally grown marijuana.

The state of New York levies a $5 tax on every purchase, for a total cost of $20 or $30 a pack, depending on the flavor. Despite obvious health hazards, these smokes are tremendously popular, yielding almost $1 billion in taxes annually for the state budget.

I ask politely for two packs of the joints on the top shelf, in the bright green box, intent on sharing them with friends in safe places.

At this point I typically snap out of it, and reality sets back in. But this vivid image about the illicit cannabis plant species always returns.

I am convinced that our sagging economy would see rapid improvements if we legalized, and taxed, all sorts of products derived from cannabis. Marijuana cigarettes, in particular, could be widely sold and consumed in America.

“That’s ridiculous!” shout the naysayers. “It’ll never happen.”

Yet it seems more and more apparent that the expensive, failed prohibition of cannabis is what’s truly ridiculous here. For starters, no democratic government should prohibit the cultivation of a plant species that’s virtually worth its weight in gold.

Political attitudes toward cannabis are slowly starting to change, as small but growing numbers of public officials also advocate for legalization. One such group is Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, based near Boston, which claims a national membership of 10,000 police officers, prosecutors, and judges.

A report that LEAP released in December compares the last days of alcohol prohibition to our modern war on drugs, and concludes that full legalization of narcotics should be promptly instituted by federal, state, and local governments.

“We are in the early but unmistakable phase of an historic moment in which prohibition will be put on the defensive and revealed as unworkable, inexcusable, and expendable,” the group argues. “At a moment that is as economically threatening to millions of Americans as the Great Depression, we would do well to learn the lessons that history so clearly and compellingly provides and repeal prohibition.”

Ratification of the 21st Amendment, which reversed the 13-year-long constitutional ban on alcohol, was completed in December 1933, according to a LEAP chronology of those tumultuous times. The federal law that squelched cannabis production appeared only a few years later.

Before passage of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, cannabis was firmly rooted in our nation’s agricultural economy. There are numerous ways in which this resilient plant can be used for economic gain, including in the production of paper, rope, clothing, fuel, medicine, soaps, lotions, and nutritional food items.

In March 2007, the Congressional Research Service issued a report titled “Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity,” which reviewed the status of the hemp industry and revealed exactly what our farmers are missing. “Although total industrial hemp acreage is small, farmers in more than 30 countries grow the crop commercially for fiber, seed, and oil for use in a variety of industrial and consumer products,” the CRS report says.

Unfortunately, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration still inhibits the expansion of industrial hemp production, fearing that large-scale planting of cannabis seeds will open the floodgates for clandestine marijuana operations.

Indeed, for more than 70 years, unreasonable fears have been spread far and wide about one distinct aspect of cannabis: the fact that its plump buds, profuse on well-maintained female plants, can be dried and smoked by people who enjoy the mellow high.

But the majority of stoners are decent and otherwise law-abiding citizens, who moderate their pot habit so that it does not affect jobs, relationships, or public safety. Potheads are not crazed drug addicts or dealers who prey upon children in schoolyards. They should be able to buy legal joints.

Instead, the federal government spends more than $19 billion every year to fight drugs, according to LEAP. State and local governments spend hundreds of millions more.

Right here in the Capital Region, many individuals are arrested for nonviolent marijuana offenses year after year. Those who avoid arrest face the threat of invasive, random drug tests by employers.

Still, the bags of marijuana buds are just as plentiful and pungent as ever. For most reefer smokers, they’re just a phone call away.

In other words, it appears to be an impossible task, and an utter waste of tax dollars, to enforce the laws against cannabis. The popular demand for these buds, much like our collective thirst for booze, simply cannot be stopped.

I would even argue that the prohibition of marijuana seems wholly unpatriotic. Have we forgotten that this is the land of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? Huge numbers of Americans are being forced to suffer—arbitrarily deprived of a better life—without access to the medicinal qualities of cannabis. Thousands of people who grow, distribute, possess, or smoke marijuana are hunted down like terrorists and robbed of their liberty, at taxpayer expense. And responsible adults are unable to seek out and purchase those $20 packs of happiness in stores.

In a recession that deepens on a daily basis, the best public policy would be to get rid of the Marijuana Tax Act and all related laws, and to restore cannabis to its legitimate place as a well-regulated crop. Now is the time, as another growing season approaches, to take action on this amazing species.

A new life for cannabis in America could mean billions in taxes made available to governments, countless job opportunities for the unemployed, a sustainable industry to redevelop in every state. Talk about green jobs!

For these and other valid reasons, this horticultural dream will never die.

—Lawrence Goodwin

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