Pot Economics

Investigative journalist Douglas Fine has traveled from Guatemala to Rwanda to Burma, covering everything from international politics to outdoor adventures for outlets such as NPR, Outside, and Salon. In his latest book, Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Economic Revolution (Gotham), he considers how a single illicit crop worth $35 billion annually could jump-start our sagging economy. In August, Reason TV Associate Producer Tracy Oppenheimer talked to Fine about the state of the new green economy and how the bustling pot industry of Mendocino, California, might translate to the rest of the country. Check out the full interview at reason.com.

Q: Could you give a sense of the size and scope of the marijuana industry?

A: Any time there’s a prohibition, crime tends to be the profit maker, so we have these super-rich cartels. Most estimates put 70 percent of cartel profits coming from cannabis. What I did was follow the one place at the time in the U.S. where the local government said, “This is what our economy is here.” It was in Mendocino County, California. Within that one county, [during] the year, 2011, that the federal government fully allowed it to operate, the program [to tax legit sales of marijuana generated] $600,000 worth of revenue for the county and saved seven deputy jobs. Map that onto the entire U.S., and it would be billions for the legitimate economy while crippling the cartels.

Q: Talk about how Mendocino should serve as a model for the rest of the country.

A: I picked Mendocino because politically and culturally it was ready. The sheriff had this revelation. In his own words, he doesn’t like to be thought of as the Cheech and Chong sheriff. It’s not like he’s out there just saying, “Do whatever you want.” He is a law-and-order guy. And he woke up one day after [California legalized medical cannabis in 1996] and said guess what? There’s still an America, and everything is fine. And I think maybe people who need to fight the drug war need to retire. And I need to generate this revenue because we have budget cuts here. The government there, the Board of Supervisors said, “Let’s do this.” And it worked, but nobody told the feds. 

Q: In Mendocino, you say, the farmers are willing to submit to taxation and regulation. But it seems like the black market provides a more profitable option.

A: There’s an organization called the Emerald Growers Association in Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties where they’re setting their own rules for certification—what we would call organic standards, fair trade standards—because they believe that’s a marketing tool and that one day they’ll be on the shelves at Whole Foods.

Q: What can the rest of the country learn from Mendocino?

A: Middle America seems really ready to end the drug war. We’re getting 80 to 90 percent of Americans polling in support of medical cannabis and over 50—pushing 56 percent and increasing and accelerating—supporting just flat-out regulating cannabis like alcohol. It’s not a Northern California issue; it’s not a Democrat or Republican issue.

Q: What are other barriers to legalization?

A: How can you have 56 percent of Americans in support of fully ending [marijuana prohibition] and zero senators in support of it? There’s some screwy thing that has to do with bureaucratic inertia. You’ve got billions [of dollars used to fight drug trafficking], and a lot of people’s jobs depend on it. We’ve got to shift those billions into a different place and get the Senate on board. The tipping point is going to be when Americans get on the horn with their politicians and say, “This is actually a real issue. You need to deal. End the drug war now.”

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