According to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, agricultural price supports cost American consumers about $27 billion a year by making food more expensive. But that figure omits the government's biggest price support program: the war on drugs.
In the December Bulletin of Cannabis Reform, drug policy researcher Jon Gettman uses government data to estimate that marijuana produced in the United States is worth nearly $36 billion a year to growers, making it the country's biggest cash crop by far. Almost all of that value can be attributed to the "risk premium" associated with prohibition, the bounty people earn by dealing in contraband. To get a sense of the disparity in price between legal and illegal drugs, compare the production value of marijuana—about $1,600 per pound, by Gettman's estimate—to the production value of tobacco, a legal psychoactive weed that U.S. farmers sell for less than $2 per pound.
The lure of huge black-market profits assures a plentiful supply of pot. Despite dramatic increases in eradication efforts and marijuana arrests, Gettman notes, the estimated size of the U.S. cannabis crop rose tenfold between 1981 and 2006, from 2.2 million to 22 million pounds.
Graph (not available online): Top Cash Crops in the U.S.
(average 2003–05 production values, in billions)
Source: Jon Gettman, "Marijuana Production in the United States (2006)," The Bulletin of Cannabis Reform, December 2006