cannabis

The Cannabis Conundrum: Is California a Pseudo-Green State?

[Note: This final post in the GeoCurrents series on cannabis legalization strays from the blog’s stated guidelines, which emphasize factual reporting and seek to minimize political interpretations and ideological stances. It also leaves its own arguments hanging, providing no solid answers to the two central questions: why does California’s government favor high-carbon corporate cannabis over low-carbon artisanal production, and why does it allow criminal organizations to undermine the legal regime that it has so arduously created? Such matters will be explored later in a separate forum devoted to opinion-based essays.]

According to conventional thinking, California is a deep-green state, its leadership unwaveringly committed to environmental protection. No state is going to greater lengths to reduce carbon emissions, regardless of the short-term sacrifices that they entail. Although many doubt that California will be able to fulfill its ambitious energy mandates, few question the sincerity of its agenda. Even those who are skeptical about climate change are convinced that California is doing everything it can to guard against it, unwisely in their opinion. By the same token, California is widely regarded as highly progressive, leftwing state, its leadership devoted to helping marginalized communities and willing to take on the corporate establishment to improve the lot of the common person. In the rightwing press, California is sometimes portrayed as leaning so far to the left as to verge on socialism if not communism.

But when one examines California’s cannabis industry, a different picture emerges. Here official policy is not merely indifferent to carbon emissions, but rather acts as if it wants to increase them. Indoor growing facilities with massive carbon footprints are favored, while full-sun cultivators who seek carbon neutrality are hounded out of business. By the same token, the monied corporate sector is rewarded, while smallholdings are seemingly slated for liquidation. In the process, entire communities are being systematically devastated, Humboldt’s County’s Garberville being the prime example. What little rural prosperity was found in the backwoods of the Emerald Triangle is withering away. Only the elite-focused winery districts and coastal tourist towns will emerge unscathed. When it comes to cannabis, California follows a policy agenda that in other domains would be regarded as rightwing if not reactionary.

The resulting ironies run an ocean deep. Poor and middle-class Californians are asked to make major sacrifices to reduce their carbon emissions, with rising fuel and electricity costs burdening millions and sending many into energy poverty. Yet in cannabis we find an economic sector that could realize a massive carbon reduction at virtually no cost to consumers. Low-carbon artisanal cultivators could easily supply the market with high-quality and reasonably priced goods, as indeed they did for years under the medical-marijuana program. For some unspecified reason, this is not the path that the state has taken under full legalization. But California’s preferred course is heading quickly into its own dead end. As its political logic plays out, even the favored corporate sector is floundering, unable to compete with tolerated illegal operations. These well-funded growers  flout all the state’s carefully crafted regulations, often trashing the environment, exploiting their workers, stockpiling guns and biocides, and delivering to the public untested and sometimes highly contaminated products.

Why should cannabis form an exception to the supposed goals of the Californian political model? Why would the state’s government turn a blind eye to such blatant assaults on everything that it supposedly holds dear? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. When I ask my friends and relatives in Silicon Valley, all of whom are loyal supporters of the Democratic establishment, I get feeble responses that focus on incompetence and unintended consequences. The root problem, I have been told, is a simple a lack coordination, with cannabis regulators not receiving adequate guidance from the state’s environmentally devoted leadership.

I remain skeptical, to say the least. The conviction that climate change is an immediate existential threat that demands unwavering action on all fronts is ubiquitous in the Democratic Party. As a result, the idea that those in charge of cannabis would have somehow forgotten about carbon emissions when crafting their regulations is ludicrous. If we are to resist special pleading, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that California’s political establishment does not prioritize climate change when it is inconvenient to do so, and thus does not really regard it as an existential threat. Its environmental policies, in other words, seem to be designed instrumentally to satisfy allies and make electoral gains, not out of conviction or principle. Put differently, California appears to be a pseudo-green state.

Why would California’s political establishment pursue a pseudo-green political agenda? Perhaps I am being unduly harsh, and it is all merely an unfortunate error, due mainly to the lack of coordination between state agencies. But if this is indeed the case, then California must rectify this mistake by prohibiting indoor cannabis cultivation. If it does not do so, one can only conclude that its environmental rhetoric is mostly posturing, and that its decarbonization campaign is deeply dishonest.

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The Carbon Footprint of Artisanal Cannabis Cultivation in California

[Note: This post is mostly based on discussions with small-scale, legal cannabis growers in Mendocino County, California. I have spent a lot of time in Mendocino since the early 1960s, when my parents bought a very small share of a very large ranch near the town of Covelo – my boyhood paradise. Since 2001, I have co-owned a piece of property near Anderson Valley, which I use as a rural retreat. Most of my neighbors and friends in the area are cannabis cultivators, and they have been eager to talk about their farms and tribulations.]

Every economic activity comes at some carbon cost, and artisanal cannabis is no exception. Most organic growers use large amounts of commercial compost, which has its own modest production footprint and must be trucked to their farms. More significant, irrigation water is almost always pumped from deep wells, an energy intensive procedure. The cannabis itself must be transported to testing and packaging facilities, and ultimately driven to the dispensaries in which it is sold. The big energy draw, however, comes just after harvest. From early-October to mid-November, the flowers are hung in drying sheds, one of the trickiest aspects of the production cycle. The proper humidity levels must be maintained; if the air is too damp, Aspergillus mold can easily spread, contaminating everything. If the weather is moist, dehumidifiers must run constantly, and even in dry conditions, dehumidification is necessary at night.

A few growers go to great pains to reduce their energy expenditures. Some make their own compost and compost tea from plants found on their own farms. I know one who gathers winter rainwater from his rooftops and stores it for summer irrigation. There are no alternatives, however, to dehumidifying the drying sheds. For those whose properties are tied to the electrical grid, the carbon footprint here is relatively modest. It is more substantial on off-grid sites, although still minuscule in comparison to indoor facilities. Although most off-grid growers have a few solar cells, few have enough to power dehumidification. Generators must therefore be used, powered by diesel, gasoline, or propane. Here, no surprise, is where the government suddenly finds its environmental concern. Generator-using off-grid growers find themselves falling out of compliance, putting their cultivation licenses at risk. When it comes to artisanal cultivation, regulation tends to be unforgiving.

Although carbon dioxide emissions are inevitable, they can be offset by sequestering carbon in the soil. This is done by heating organic matter in the absence of oxygen, converting most of it to charcoal. Once infused with nutrients, the charcoal is transformed into biochar. Buried in the earth, biochar remains stable for thousands of years, greatly enhancing soil texture and fertility. Geographers and anthropologists have known decades that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon used charcoal to create large expanses of extremely productive terra preta soil in what is otherwise an area of impoverished soil. In California, small-scale cannabis cultivators can use biochar to become carbon neutral and potentially even carbon negative. Doing so is regarded by some as the ultimate investment, one that improves their land for millennia. Yet they get no credit for such eco-conscientious behavior, as carbon sequestration is not factored into California’s cannabis regulations.

[Illustration: biochar, in buckets, ready to be sequestered in an artisanal cannabis farm]

 

If off-grid cultivators are to come into compliance and retain their cultivation licenses, they will have to install full solar arrays, at a cost of some $50,000 to $100,000 per farm. Few can afford such expenditures, adding to their woes. But those lucky enough to have been unlucky enough to have been harmed by the anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1970s and 80s, a potential lifeline is offered through California’s “Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions.” As the program’s website explains:

The purpose of the Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions is to advance economic justice for populations and communities impacted by cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs by providing support to local jurisdictions as they promote equity in California and eliminate barriers to enter the newly regulated cannabis industry for equity program applicants and licensees.

In the Emerald Triangle, many artisanal growers are eligible for such equity grants, and have been advised by local officials to use any funds that they might receive to install full solar arrays. Getting the money, however, is no easy matter. The necessary paperwork is so involved and extensive that some growers have been forced to hire consultants. Even so, their applications might linger for months are often rejected on technical grounds, forcing them to reapply. Some have reached the point of exasperation, suspecting that the program is little more than a cruel jest. As one grower told me, “It doesn’t matter what we do, as the government is determined to drive the hippies out of the hills.”

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The Gargantuan Carbon Footprint of Corporate Cannabis

The huge carbon output of modern cannabis production is no secret. According to Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, 1.3 percent of the state’s total annual carbon emissions stem solely from cannabis. A rigorously researched and widely publicized 2021 article in Nature Sustainability found that indoor production, the dominant form in many areas, generates “2,283 to 5,184 kg CO2-equivalent per kg of dried flower.” This staggering carbon output comes mostly from the voracious energy demands of indoor cultivation. Rather than relying on the sun for photosynthesis, artificial illumination is necessary; rather than relying on the wind for ventilation, industrial-scale fans must be used. Dehumidification is also needed, as is cooling during warm periods. In Southern California’s scorching Coachella Valley, the state’s emerging center of corporate cultivation, air-conditioning expenditures can be astronomical. Here even the local water supply requires energy-intensive purification. And, as if to add insult to injury, carbon dioxide is intentionally released into growing facilities to enhance production, some of which inevitably escapes into the atmosphere.

Bizarrely, large cannabis corporations and their cheerleaders sometimes brag about their energy use. Consider, for example, this 2016 article from the Coachella Valley Weekly entitled, “Canndescent: Setting the Bar for Cannabis Cultivation in Desert Hot Springs”:

Impressive at every turn, Sedlin gave a tour describing how the Canndescent facility intends to grow, clone and package premium weed.

He proudly, and probably with more detailed information than necessary, showed how the plants require the perfect temperature, water and light for maximum growth.

The facility is equipped with a 160-ton air conditioner. DHS [Desert Hot Springs] water, known for its award-winning minerals and taste, is not however good for cannabis, so Canndesecent has to use a reverse osmosis system with a 5,000 gallon water backup supply. Plant fertilization is electronically distributed. A shiny outdoor tank containing 1,000 gallons of liquid CO2 pumps the right mixture into sealed rooms producing the ideal growing environment. …

Canndescents’ grow rooms look like something on a Mars’ space station. Everything appears sterile, bright, well-organized and utilizes every inch of space with custom, stainless steel, movable grow beds. Hi-tech monitors are taking constant readings of the air quality. Fans insure the air is moving evenly.

When confronted with this outsized carbon footprint, indoor cannabis apologists typically point to their solar cells, arguing that they are doing their part to reduce their impact. This is simple greenwashing. Solar cells provide “clean” energy only in a relative sense, insofar as they substitute for fossil fuels. If they are used instead to replace sunlight, they are anything but green. Few indoor facilities, moreover, have enough solar cells and battery banks to provide all their energy needs.

In California, indoor cultivation accounts for only around thirty percent of cannabis production, less than in most states with a legal market. But outdoor growing, known in the business as “full sun,” accounts for an even lower share (see the graph posted below). Most California cannabis is grown in greenhouses under “mixed light” conditions. Here most of the energy needed for photosynthesis does come from the sun, but supplementary artificial lighting is used as well. Power-hungry ventilation is also necessary, as are other energy expenditures unknown in outdoor growing. In the final tally, mixed light is far less carbon intensive than indoor cultivation – but far more carbon intensive than outdoor growing.

There are several reasons why indoor and greenhouse production predominate. Outside of California and a few neighboring areas that have a Mediterranean climate, high-quality cannabis cannot be easily grown in the open air. Low humidity is necessary during the crucial late summer and early fall flowering period; otherwise, the flowers will be attacked by mold. Dry weather through September and October, however, is uncommon over most of the country. As federal anti-cannabis laws prevent interstate commerce, each state must produce its own crop, requiring in most cases enclosed growing environments and extensive dehumidification. Under a rational, environmentally sound cannabis regime, most production would take place in California and neighboring states; a state like New York would no more use massive, artificially illuminated buildings for cannabis production than it would for lemons or artichokes.

The triumph of high-carbon cannabis in California stems from both market pressure and government policies. When large-scale corporate cannabis began to flood the market a few years ago, artisanal cultivators came under increasing stress. To remain competitive, many took up mixed-light production themselves, as it allows multiple harvests per year and thus helped maintain profits as the wholesale price started to drop. More insidious are the pressures imposed by consumers in the retail marketplace. Most self-styled connoisseurs prefer indoor flowers, as they tend to be more uniform, visually appealing, and potent than those grown in the sun. As a result, indoor growers enjoy a pronounced price advantage, easily making up for their additional energy costs. The root problem here is the adolescent nature of the core cannabis market, where raw potency reigns supreme, while social, environmental, and cultural considerations, as well as flavor, are usually ignored. If alcohol operated under the same market constraints, fine wine and artisanal beer would be marginalized long ago by 190-proof Everclear.

But the more fundamental reason for the collapse of low-carbon cannabis in California is government policies that discourage and sometimes even prevent full-sun cultivation, while favoring indoor and mixed-light production. Many of these policies are covert, as they are ostensibly aimed at other issues. Some, however, are straightforward. As a recent MJBizDaily article notes:

Onerous regulations or outright bans on outdoor cultivation sites by many California counties also have made it harder for outdoor grow operations to expand their footprints.

Of the 26 counties in the state that have issued cultivation licenses to date, 14 haven’t awarded any to outdoor growers.

To say that California’s  cannabis policies are hypocritical is an understatement of the first order, as will be explored in the final post in this series. But first we need to consider one more issue: the carbon footprint of full-sun cultivation. Although very low by comparative measures, it is not negligible. Some growers, however, do everything they can to minimize their emissions, and a few might even achieve carbon neutrality and perhaps even negativity. Yet for all their efforts, they receive little if any credit, whether in the market, from regulators, or from environmental organizations.

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Why Is Desert Hot Springs California’s Emerging Center of Corporate Cannabis?

When most people think of cannabis cultivation in California, they imagine a bucolic setting in the northwestern hills, with back-to-the-land cultivators tending tiny plots deep in the woods. That is indeed where the business originated, but, as noted and the previous GeoCurrents post, such artisanal growing is rapidly disappearing. The emerging center of the industry is as different as could be imagined. It is found in the scorching Coachella Valley of Southern California, where cultivation is carried out in nondescript industrial facilities scattered across a suburbanizing desert landscape. Although other parts of California, particularly Santa Barbara County, produce more cannabis, the Coachella Valley is becoming the focus of corporate cannabis — and corporate production is overwhelming the family-farming sector.

Like the tiny farms of the Emerald Triangle, these operations are suffering from the collapse in the wholesale price and are likewise finding it difficult to compete with large-scale illegal cultivation. But they also bear much of the blame for the oversupply that has undermined the legal cannabis market. As will be explained in a later post, they are also anything but green, coming as they do with a gargantuan carbon footprint. The current post takes on a much more straightforward topic: why has the little city of Desert Hot Springs emerged as such an important center of marijuana production?

The answer appears to be straightforward. The leaders of Desert Hot Springs made an explicit decision roughly a decade ago to make their city the most cannabis-friendly jurisdiction in California. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the town, “Desert Hot Springs was the first city in Southern California to legalize medical marijuana cultivation and has since been overwhelmed by marijuana developers and growers.” Desert Hot Springs has an entire business park devoted to industrial-scale cannabis production, and advertises it widely. A real-estate website focusing on this kind of development outlines the situation nicely:

Morongo Business Park is a master planned cannabis business park located in the light industrial district of the city of Desert Hot Springs, CA. At full build-out, it will feature over 200,000 SF of cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, processing, distribution, and non-storefront delivery. Phase Three has an approved conditional use permit (CU21-17) for 136,173 square foot building, which meets all requirements for CA state cannabis business licensing. Being the first city in the state of California to allow recreational cannabis operations, Desert Hot Springs is one of the most cannabis business friendly environments in California. The city has recently reduced their cultivation tax and have also eliminated city manufacturing tax. Call listing office for complete due diligence package.

 

Desert Hot Springs turned to cannabis after everything else had failed. In the mid 20th century, it was a thriving little town, noted for its boutique hotels, modernist architecture, and sulfur-free hot springs. But it failed to keep pace with the nearby resort community of Palm Springs, and subsequently experienced pronounced decay. In 2001, Desert Hot Springs filed for municipal bankruptcy. It simultaneously earned a reputation for crime, violence, and prostitution. Widely circulated rumors claim that the city intentionally opened its doors to convicted sex offenders who were being hounded out of other communities. I have found no evidence of this allegation, but Desert Hot Springs does have an inordinate number of sex offenders living within its boundaries. By 2009, the situation had become so worrisome that the city adopted a tool that would allow its residents to locate the homes of such individuals. According to a news report from that year:

There are currently 69 sex offenders living in Desert Hot Springs, according to KESQ Channel 3. The station reported that Desert Hot Springs is the first city in the Coachella to invest in the OffenderWatch, which has been around for about 10 years. Parents can conduct a computer search around schools, gyms, parks, day cares and homes to see if a sex offender lives nearby. Residents can also register addresses within the city, and the Web site will automatically monitor the address and send an e-mail alert if an offender moves to the area.

Not surprisingly, Desert Hot Springs developed an unwholesome reputation, which is readily evident in on-line discussion forums. In 2009, City-Data published the following conversation:

Question: I want to move from Connecticut to Riverside County to be near family. Is it safe living is Desert Hot Springs? The house prices are very appealing to me. Also, how are the school ratings?
Answer 1: NO, no and no. DHS is notorious for high crime, paroled felons, sex offenders and general blight. Home prices reflect the state of the city, which is just terrible. Recent budget cuts are taking police officers off the streets when there already aren’t enough to go around. Not a place for families trying to raise good, educated kids.

Answer 2: No. The houses are cheap for a reason. The area has the highest concentration of paroled offenders. Horrible City government. Terrible schools

To emerge from the hole in which it found itself, Desert Hot Springs turned to corporate cannabis. This experiment has been relatively successful, although more than twenty-five percent of its population remains below the poverty level. As the city’s official website notes, crime has declined significantly since 2015. Desert Hot Springs is currently experiencing substantial growth, its population expanding from 25,938 in 2010 to 32,512 in 2020.

Industrial-scale cannabis has undoubtedly brought benefits to the city. Its effects on the environment, however, are another matter altogether, as will be explored in the next GeoCurrents post

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The Triumph of Illicit Cannabis Cultivation and Retailing In California and the Liquidation of the Artisanal Growers

Across much of the United States, legal cannabis firms are failing, and large sums of money are being lost. As noted in a recent Investopedia article, “Retail investors who once looked to cannabis to make them rich would now in many cases settle for getting their money back.” The collapse is most severe in the agricultural sector. Plummeting wholesale prices are driving most small-scale cannabis farms into bankruptcy. According to the same Investopedia article:

In California, … the wholesale price has wilted to less than $700 per pound. Some 60% of the pot farms in the Emerald Triangle, the traditional heartland of cannabis cultivation in northern California, have reportedly gone out of business since California legalized recreational use six years ago.

If anything, this article underplays the dire situation in the Emerald Triangle, a region usually defined as encompassing Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties in northwestern California. I know several artisanal cannabis farmers in the region who would be happy to receive $500 a pound, which is near their break-even point. Some cannot get more than $300, resulting in a substantial loss with each sale. A few years ago, they were receiving around $1200 a pound.

 

As might be expected, the wholesale price collapse is the result of oversupply, which stems from two main reasons. First, the state has awarded a sizeable number of cultivation permits to large, well-capitalized corporate farms, which have flooded the legal market. Second, illegal cultivation continues unabated in many areas. Illicit growers do not pay fees or taxes, nor do they fulfill the many onerous obligations faced by legal growers to remain in compliance. As a result, illegal operations often outcompete above-board farms, driving them out of business.

A downward spiral has thus emerged, with both county governments and the state losing the licensing fees and other revenues that they have been counting on. California now faces a lose-lose-lose situation, one in which scofflaws succeed while those who have gone to herculean efforts to become legal find that it has all been for naught. (I know retirement-age growers who had no computer experience whatsoever, as they had moved to the woods in part to get away from modern technological society. But to gain legal status they have had to master the intricacies of California’s online track-and-trace Metrc system, in which even leaves destined for the compost heap must be weighed and reported to the state. It has not been easy.)

The burdens placed on legal growers can be overwhelming, as will be explored in later posst. For now, a quote from an article by Kevin Rector, originally published in the Los Angeles Times, will suffice:

In place of handcuffs and prison sentences to deter cannabis cultivation, the state has established a vast system of taxes, fees and regulations to control it. The taxes are steeper and the rules more onerous than those in other agricultural sectors. … “Are all the small farmers destined to fail? That’s our biggest fear,” Casali said one recent morning at his farm. “It’s the War on Drugs Part II.”

But this a very different “War on Drugs” from the one that preceded it, as it focuses on those inside the law, while largely ignoring those outside of it. California’s political leadership feels guilty, for good reason, about the harms imposed on marginal members of society by the anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. As a result, illegal growers are now largely tolerated. Small-business owners, however, are regarded differently, and are given much less consideration.

A recent Fox News article outlines many of the problems generated by illicit cultivation. It begins by describing a massive illegal grow in  Riverside County, which is also California’s new center of corporate cultivation. As the author writes:

“The illegal industry is competing with the legal industry and essentially putting them out of business,” says Sgt. James Roy, head of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s 12-person marijuana eradication team. “This place is no different than thousands of others we hit this year confiscating about a half-million plants in Riverside County alone,” Roy said…. Along with these growers, these illegal growers, comes a fair amount of violence and a lot of weaponry,” says Roy. “We serve warrants on operations like this every day. And in 80% of the locations, we are finding weapons, high-powered weapons, assault rifles, things like that.”

The same article tersely explains why legal growers cannot compete: “By requiring licenses to grow and transport pot, permits to sell it retail, and taxes to buy it, the state effectively imposed a 70% tax on legally purchased marijuana.”

One might expect the legal risks incurred by illegal cultivation to impose a stiff penalty of its own, thereby leveling the playing field. But that’s not how it works in California, where large-scale illicit growers, despite the violence, uncertain product quality, and environmental degradation associated with their operations, have little to worry about. No one in California is facing prison or even county jail for illegal cannabis operations, and the modest fines that are occasionally levied are just considered a part of doing business, if not just ignored.

It is not just cannabis farmers who are facing devastating competition from illegal operations, but also dispensaries. Particularly in the Los Angeles area, unlicensed and unregulated “trap shop” dispensaries have become widespread, and now significantly outnumber above-board operations. These illegal businesses are typically set up in conventional retail space and have the appearance of legitimate dispensaries. As a result, customers often have no idea that they are engaging in an illicit transaction. A recent article in cannabis.net outlines the problem:

Recently, an audit revealed that California’s 900 licensed cannabis operators have about 2,800 illegal competitors, more than three times the number of total legal sellers, which could be higher today. These unregulated stores, most of the time, have untested stock products that are not up to state-issued production standards, nor do they follow the state’s regulations for cannabis operations. Patronizing an unlicensed store is more or less the same as buying from a dealer around the block. You only get promises that you’re purchasing the best product in the area, whereas it’s basically junk.

Unlicensed dispensaries are so widely tolerated that Yelp has a page listing the “best illegal cannabis dispensaries near me.” (I cannot say, however, whether the dispensaries listed here are truly illegal.) For several years, the important cannabis website Weedmaps also listed unlicensed dispensaries, although that is no longer the case. If one wants to avoid patronizing illicit operations, the maps provided by Weedmaps are a good place to turn.

With these stories in mind, it seems that the root problem of the California cannabis crisis is a perverse set of attitudes on the part of the state’s political leadership. To put it simply,  California, and particularly its large cities, are tough on small legal businesses and lax on illegal ones. Under such a regime, it becomes extremely difficult – and often simply impossible – for the legitimate sector to compete with the underground one. As a result, the entire legalization experiment in California is failing. The expected revenues are not filling state and local coffers, and the myriad pathologies of the illicit market remain firmly ensconced.

The “soft-on-crime, hard-on-small-business” attitude is on its surface rooted in a left-wing political philosophy, one based on compassion for those who have supposedly been forced by circumstances beyond their control to engage in illegal activities. But, as will be explored later, what is actually encountered here is a form of pseudo-leftism, a perverse political philosophy that favors the corporate sector and is hostile to minuscule family farms and tiny retail firms.

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Cannabis Legalization in the U.S. Elections of 2022

The 2022 midterm elections in the United States had mixed results for cannabis legalization. Voters in Maryland and Missouri approved legalization measures, easily in the first case and by a relatively narrow margin in the second (see the charts below). Missouri thus became the third solidly “red state” to allow cannabis consumption without a medical recommendation, following Alaska and Montana. Voters in Arkansas and South Dakota, however, rejected legalization, with a 56% “no” vote in the former state and a 55% “no” vote in the latter. The South Dakota vote took many by surprise, as just two years earlier a legalization referendum passed, which was later invalidated in court. South Dakota voters will again take on the issue in the fall of 2023, but indications for legalization are not positive. As reported by Benzinga.com, “a statewide poll conducted this summer revealed that South Dakotans’ general sentiment toward legalizing recreational marijuana has shifted over the past two years, signaling that a referendum on the issue this fall could fail.” At the federal level, meanwhile, congressional efforts to eliminate the de jure cannabis prohibition stalled out, yet again.

The failure of federal cannabis legalization, and in some states as well, seems to defy the general public will. Opinion polls conducted by a variety of organizations show overwhelming support. An October 2021 Gallup poll found that even 50% of Republicans favor full legalization, with Democrats and independents offering overwhelming approval (83% and 71%). Similar results have been obtained by other polling agencies. A 2022 CBS/YouGov poll found a 66% level of support for legalization at both the federal and state levels. According to this poll, Republicans overall narrowly oppose legalization (51% to 49%), but those below the age of 45 solidly support it (59%). A 2022 Pew survey found that only 10 percent of Americans think that cannabis should be illegal for all purposes. According to the same poll, Americans in every age bracket except that of the elderly (75+) favor full legalization.

Given these numbers, along with the fact that American voters are roughly evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents, the persistence of federal anti-cannabis laws is difficult to explain. In this arena, seems that Congress is defying the public will. Quandaries also emerge at the state level. Even in deep blue Hawaii and Delaware, cannabis remains legal only for medical uses, and in several purplish states it remains fully illegal (Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia). How can these results be squared with public opinion polls that shows overwhelming support for legalization?

A variety of factors are probably at play. Simple inertia probably plays a role, and as a result it seems likely that Hawaii and Delaware will opt for legalization before too long. More important, however, is the concerted opposition of anti-cannabis forces. A sizable minority of Americans is vehemently opposed, with many regarding marijuana as nothing less than the “devil’s weed.”* As is often the case, the desires a vehement minority can override the less passionate concerns of a substantial majority. It is significant that legalization has often occurred through popular referenda rather than through legislation, as legislators can be more easily swayed by interest groups than the voters at large.

But another factor may be involved as well. Legalization, it turns out, has often yielded discouraging or even disastrous results. With revenues much lower than expected, chaotic business environments, and a thriving black market, states like California demonstrate the potential hazards of a poorly formulated legal regime. As a result, some legislators, and many voters, may ultimately favor legalization, yet still reject whatever proposal is put before them, skeptical that it gets it right. These issues will be examined in much greater detail in later posts

*The term “devil’s weed” is used most often for Datura, or jimsonweed, which contains several powerful and poisonous psychoactive substances. For a religiously informed discussion of cannabis as the “devil’s weed,” see Marijuana – The Devil’s Weed?, by Dr. Joe Fawcett.

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