Out of work? Some people are trying pot. Not to smoke -- but to sell.
That's the route increasing numbers of people are taking amid the worst recession in decades, according to law enforcement officials based in ganja-rich regions around the country.
"If someone loses their job, they may very well seek an alternative source of income such as marijuana cultivation," Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML, the pro-pot legalization group, told DailyFinance. "It's just a massive market, whether it's legal or illegal," he said, pointing to studies that have suggested that the U.S. could boost revenue from $10 billion to $41 billion annually by legalizing cannabis.
Marijuana seizures -- and we're talking about large scale grow operation busts, not street-corner shakedowns -- have increased this year, according to the Associated Press, as laid-off workers seek alternative means of income and America's insatiable demand for illegal drugs continues unabated.
In particular, marijuana cultivation appears to have increased within the United States, due in part to tougher border patrol measures, especially in the verdant green valleys of the Pacific Northwest's "Emerald Triangle" -- Northern California's Humboldt County, Oregon's Willlamette Valley, and Washington state's forested coastal regions.
"There is an enormous 'Grow America' movement in this country, serving the 26 to 28 million who smoke marijuana every year." said Stroup, NORML's founder. "And as a long-time marijuana smoker, I'm glad it's there, or I wouldn't have anything to smoke."
Law enforcement officials working the biggest pot producing areas, which also include portions of Appalachia and New England, have destroyed cannabis plants with a combined street value of about $12 billion in the first eight months of this year, and while national numbers aren't yet available for 2009, officials increased their ganja haul from seven million plants in 2007 to eight million in 2008, according to the wire service.
"A lot of that, we theorize, is the economy," Ed Shemelya, head of marijuana eradication for the Office of Drug Control Policy's Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, told the AP. "Places in east Tennessee, eastern Kentucky and West Virginia are probably feeling the recession a lot more severely than the rest of the country and have probably been in that condition a lot longer than the rest of the country."
"The economy or lack of economy has always driven the marijuana trade," Shemelya added. "It still is the cash cow as far as illicit drugs. It offers the greatest return on investment."
Pro-marijuana groups like NORML, (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), have called for the legalization of the plant as a way to help stimulate the economy.
American demand for marijuana is at an all-time high, even as tests show that today's herb is up to six times as potent as the weed smoked by the Woodstock generation. New growing techniques, including advances in indoor hydroponic cultivation, as well as cross-bred hybrid strains have produced highly potent product available in every city in America, much to the chagrin of parents and anti-drug crusaders from coast to coast.
But as the potency of the pot has increased, so has the potential for damage, according to some researchers. Reports have indicated that the new, highly potent strains have ensnared people in addiction, leading to job losses, financial turmoil, and other personal and medical problems.
But neither the increased risks of more potent pot, nor the recession, has dampened the boom in bud growth and sales, especially as the national culture appears to be swinging toward a more permissive, relaxed attitude toward medicinal marijuana, if not outright legal personal consumption of small quantities, as is the case in much of Europe.
"I've never seen any decline in demand for marijuana in bad economic times," Shemelya said. "If anything, it's the opposite. People always seem to find money somewhere to buy drugs."
By Sam Gustin
September 10, 2009