NEW YORK (MainStreet) Will legalizing marijuana help or hinder some of the poorest of Americans? Appalachia has long been known for intractable poverty, coal and moonshine. But what many do not know is that marijuana is an Appalachian cash crop.
Some say it will only help; after all, Appalachians make quite a bit of dough from grass. "Outdoor cannabis cultivation is common throughout the Appalachia...region," reads a June 2007 report by the Department of Justice (DOJ). "The number of outdoor plants eradicated from grow operations in Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia increased from 1,004,329 in 2005 to 1,252,524 in 2006. Cannabis cultivators deliberately locate outdoor grow sites in remote areas of public and private lands to reduce the chance of discovery by passersby or law enforcement and, more commonly, to protect their crops from theft. Cannabis is cultivated in Kentucky on broad areas of privately owned land, in the Daniel Boone National Forest, and on the Cumberland Plateau."
What coca leaves are to the mountain people of Peru, marijuana is to the mountain people of America. These growers take their their marijuana cultivation seriously, too. They are not shy about using lethal force to protect it. The DOJ describes some of the efforts to protect crops, "Cannabis cultivators frequently use camouflage, counter surveillance techniques, and booby traps to protect their outdoor grow sites. ...These sites are often protected by armed guards who conduct counter surveillance. Moreover, the use of booby traps significantly increased in 2006....some cannabis cultivators used punji sticks, which may be camouflaged by leaves and brush or incorporated into pits and explosive devices, to reduce the risk of crop theft."
It is no wonder why these pot growers are so zealous. The estimates of the value of Appalachia's marijuana crop run into more than $1 billion dollars each year.
So how will legalization affect them?
If the ending of Prohibition is any indication, the growers will take a hit as firms will begin producing marijuana legally. It is unknown, at this time, if marijuana cultivation in Appalachia can and will be converted to legitimate production.
Conversely, if the introduction of legalized lotteries is any indication, the growers may increase their sales as more people will use the product and demand increases.
Indeed, many studies have already indicated that usage of marijuana will increase after legalization.
Some law enforcement officials say that all you need to look at is the legal, taxed, and regulated drug trade already in place - i.e. prescription drugs. Despite this legal business, an illicit trade in these substances thrives.
So models exist that would indicate that the Appalachian marijuana trade will thrive. Indeed, either by transitioning to legal production or maintaining illegal production, which will not be taxed or regulated, there are possibilities for a continuing marijuana trade in Appalachia. Criminology professor, Ron Hunter, of Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Georgia concurs with this.
"I think you have examples that have been set," he said. "Moonshine is one. Despite the repeal of Prohibition decades ago there is still demand for illegal whiskey. Legalizing marijuana will not put the illegal growers out of business, because there are always people who will want to avoid the taxes."
Hunter then furnished another example of a legalized product still traded illegally. He pointed out that there is a big business in cigarette smuggling from the South to places like New England, New York and New Jersey where the untaxed cigarettes are sold to small convenience store chains.
"We had a big case in North Carolina," he recounted. "A front group for Hamas or Hezbollah would buy thousands and thousands of packages of cigarettes in North Carolina and haul them up North and sell them. The profits were sent to terrorists."
It seems that those who call for legalization of marijuana because it will generate revenue for the state need to take a second look.
--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet