Sunday, May 16, 2010

Marijuana--Becoming Like Every Other Product

I've been both fascinated and amused to read so many stories of how California's move toward legalizing marijuana has undermined the illegal economy of the northwestern part of the state. This NPR piece is a good example.

It's hard to feel sorry for the growers. People have this image of a bunch of hippies playing in the forest. That might be a fitting description of Humboldt County in 1976, but it's not in 2010. There are a large number of problems with clandestine grow sites. First, they cause pretty significant damage to the region's fragile forests, including redwood forests. Growers tear out the forest understory to clear land, they dam and divert rivers and streams to their operations, and without regulation, they are free to use whatever pesticides they want on the plants.

Moreover, violence is a significant problem in these operations. Growers are understandably defensive of their plots. Hikers can run across these operations accidentally, causing problems. More scary, the Mexican drug cartels have established operations in western forests. One of the biggest security issues in many national parks are unknown drug operations guarded by people with guns. While these are usually in isolated areas of the parks, backcountry hikers can and have run across these operations.

One of legalization's benefits will be to undermine the illegal economy and place marijuana growing under government regulation. First, legalization will destroy the Mexican gangs' presence in the forests. They'll have no reason to be there. It'll hardly destroy the Mexican gang problem, but legalization will severely undermine a major income source for the cartels. If Americans can get reasonably priced drugs from the U.S., the market for imported marijuana will fall apart. Of course, this still leaves cocaine, heroin, and increasingly crystal meth, but it makes a difference.

The environmental benefits of legal and inexpensive marijuana are a bit more complex. Certainly getting the growing out of the redwood forests and national parks is very important. Forcing growers to abide by pesticide regulations is extremely important as well. But what this all means is that marijuana is turning into tomatoes or corn or lettuce. People are developing a standardized expectation of what marijuana will look like and what it will do to them. From the NPR piece:

Indoor-grown marijuana is increasingly favored by dispensaries and consumers for its looks, consistence and potency. It costs more to produce than pot grown under the sun, but commands as much as double the price. That's one reason retail prices haven't hit the skids.
The consumer market is now shaping the marijuana industry. Whereas for years, producers ruled the roost because consumers would take what they could get, this is changing. Like consumers don't like tomatoes with black spots on them or corn with worms in the silk or spinach with small insect bites in the leaves, they now have a mental expectation of what they want. This could well mean a brief period of decentralized production followed by capitalists buying up production and working in enormous greenhouses, maximizing profits and providing drugs to consumers at prices that undercut individual operators.

The potential for industrialized marijuana production will mean the environmental and labor problems that come with any other agricultural product. It may be organic, but these giant greenhouses will have enormous energy requirements and will rely on cheap labor to keep prices down. Is that worth getting the pot out of the forests? Probably, but it's complicated.