SACRAMENTO — For years, activists in the marijuana legalization movement have claimed that cannabis is America's biggest cash crop. Now they're citing government statistics to prove it.
A report released today by a marijuana public policy analyst contends that the market value of pot produced in the U.S. exceeds $35 billion -- far more than the crop value of such heartland staples as corn, soybeans and hay, which are the top three legal cash crops.
California is responsible for more than a third of the cannabis harvest, with an estimated production of $13.8 billion that exceeds the value of the state's grapes, vegetables and hay combined -- and marijuana is the top cash crop in a dozen states, the report states.
The report estimates that marijuana production has increased tenfold in the past quarter century despite an exhaustive anti-drug effort by law enforcement.
Jon Gettman, the report's author, is a public policy consultant and leading proponent of the push to drop marijuana from the federal list of hard-core Schedule 1 drugs -- which are deemed to have no medicinal value and a high likelihood of abuse -- such as heroin and LSD.
He argues that the data support his push to begin treating cannabis like tobacco and alcohol by legalizing and reaping a tax windfall from it, while controlling production and distribution to better restrict use by teenagers.
"Despite years of effort by law enforcement, they're not getting rid of it," Gettman said. "Not only is the problem worse in terms of magnitude of cultivation, but production has spread all around the country. To say the genie is out of the bottle is a profound understatement."
While withholding judgment on the study's findings, federal anti-drug officials took exception to Gettman's conclusions.
Tom Riley, a spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, cited examples of foreign countries that have struggled with big crops used to produce cocaine and heroin. "Coca is Colombia's largest cash crop and that hasn't worked out for them, and opium poppies are Afghanistan's largest crop, and that has worked out disastrously for them," Riley said. "I don't know why we would venture down that road."
The contention that pot is America's biggest cash crop dates to the early 1980s, when marijuana legalization advocates began citing Drug Enforcement Administration estimates suggesting that about 1,000 metric tons of pot were being produced nationwide. Over the years, marijuana advocates have produced studies estimating the size and value of the U.S. crop, most recently in 1998.
Gettman's report cites figures in a 2005 State Department report estimating U.S. cannabis cultivation at 10,000 metric tons, or more than 22 million pounds -- 10 times the 1981 production.
Using data on the number of pounds eradicated by police around the U.S., Gettman produced estimates of the likely size and value of the cannabis crop in each state. His methodology used what he described as a conservative value of about $1,600 a pound compared to the $2,000- to $4,000-a-pound street value often cited by law enforcement agencies after busts.
In California, the state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting seized nearly 1.7 million plants this year -- triple the haul in 2005 -- with an estimated street value of more than $6.7 billion. Based on the seizure rate over the last three years, the study estimates that California grew more than 21 million marijuana plants in 2006 -- with a production value nearly triple the next closest state, Tennessee, which had an estimated $4.7-billion cannabis harvest.
California ranked as the report's top state for both outdoor and indoor marijuana production. The report estimates that the state had 4.2 million indoor plants valued at nearly $1.5 billion. The state of Washington was ranked next, with $438 million worth of indoor cannabis plants.
California also is among nine states that produce more cannabis than residents consumed, Gettman estimates. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the state's 3.3 million cannabis users represent about 13% of the nation's pot smokers. But California produces more than 38% of the cannabis grown in the country, the study contends.
Nationwide, the estimated cannabis production of $35.8 billion exceeds corn ($23 billion), soybeans ($17.6 billion) and hay ($12.2 billion), according to Gettman's findings.