Medical marijuana: A bottom-line issue

by Brian Clarey

Just how bad is it out there? Pretty bad, folks. In February we lost 651,000 jobs. And that’s the shortest month of the year. We only lost 570,000 in January, which is three days longer.

The upshot is that 8.1 percent of the workforce is unemployed, and many millions more underemployed. The situation feeds into the current economic climate, creating more foreclosures, less spending, increasing stagnation in the national cash flow. Move on down the food chain and it means less taxrevenue for states and municipalities. North Carolina, for example, islooking at a possible $3-billion shortfall for the 2009 budget, morethan 10 percent of the $22-billion total.

So what’s a moderately poor state with agricultural and manufacturing roots to do? Part of the problem is that great tracts of wealth have virtually disappeared from our economic system through mortgage defaults, stock losses, burst bubbles and whatnot. And right now our federal government has opened the vault to throw money at this escalating problem. Which is fine, for a start. But what needs to happen is the creation of wealth, the genesis of capitalism whereby, all of a sudden, a thing becomes valuable. A building is just a building, but fill it up with sewing machines and workers, create a product that people want to buy, and the building is now a business that generates income and distributes it through the creation of jobs. A plot of land is just a piece of the earth, until you turn it and work it — then in a few months you have some corn, which someone, somewhere, is willing to buy. That’s basically what put Greensboro on the map as a textile center. It happened in High Point with furniture. And Winston-Salem made its fortunes on tobacco. But these industries are gone, their status as powerful economic engines relegated to history books. Right now, however, things look favorable for us to create another empire of wealth using resources and assets we already possess. I think we should start growing pot. Sure, I’m probably out of my mind. But hear me out on this just one more time. I make this argument not so everyone can run around smoking blunts with their homies, though I understand marijuana is very popular among all strata of society. No, I’m coming from a strictly financial and intellectual perspective — I’m talking about the bottom line: cash money, and the best way to go about generating some. We already have everything we need to get started: available farmland and farmers who have been growing tobacco for generations, along with a climate suitable for a long growing season. Of course, marijuana is illegal in North Carolina… sort of. The weed has already been decriminalized to a degree — less than half an ounce carries a misdemeanor charge and a $200 fine, a bit more stiff than a speeding ticket. And our state has already studied the benefits of growing the plant in its noncannabinoid form for industrial use after the passage of the Beneficial Uses of Industrial Hemp Act in 2006. Though marijuana, which is a plant, is federally designated as a Schedule I drug along with PCP, heroin, Ecstasy, LSD and methamphetamines, 13 states have already seen fit to legalize pot for medical purposes, most of them after a voter referendum. And last week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Obama administration would honor states’ rights on this issue, ending DEA raids on medical marijuana facilities.

So we’re not going to get in any trouble if we do like Peter Tosh said. Plus all this these jobs are involved. Money, too. Some of it will come from decreased law enforcement spending — or, at least, our law enforcement officers will be able to fight crimes against people and property instead of the relatively victimless crime of jointsmoking. The rest of it comes from taxation in a scheme similar to that already in use for tobacco and alcohol. In 2007, North Carolina raised $212 million in alcohol tax revenues and another $241 million from taxes on cigarettes. A sin tax on marijuana could produce similar revenues, or perhaps even more since marijuana is worth so much more than tobacco by the pound and is more easily processsed. Also, the tobacco industry employed 255,000 people in North Carolina in 2007, people who were able to pay mortgages, buy groceries and put gas in their cars — and pay state sales and income taxes. The sheer fact of the matter is that we’ve been down this road before. Congress passed the Volstead Act, over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, in 1919, and Prohibition lasted until 1933, a time in which alcohol was only legally available for medicinal purposes and consumption actually went up. It was a boon for organized crime. And jazz music. Prohibition was only possible because of income tax, which began in 1913 with the 16 th Amendment and generated enough money that taxes on liquor became negligible. Serious talk of repeal didn’t come until after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and did not happen until 1933, when the country had settled into the Depression. Income tax revenue was substantially diminished when 25 percent of the country was out of work. Our national unemployment rate reached 8.1 percent last month, but in North Carolina we reached that number in December. We’re already ahead of the curve when it comes to job losses; we are uniquely poised to lead the charge when it comes to creation of industry, jobs and wealth in the coming year.