R. Rose
May 15, 2009
Ganja seen as economic alternative in USA

Concern is growing throughout the Caribbean about the failure of the political leadership in the region (the business ones as well, in my opinion) to craft a comprehensive regional approach to the global financial and economic crisis. For that reason, the announcement that CARICOM Heads of Government are to meet in late May (very belatedly) to discuss the crisis is welcomed in most quarters. Even though the region has yet to suffer the worst effects of the crisis, the signs of downturn in the vital tourism industry and the lay-offs in that sector and others in the services sector as well, plus public sector pay disputes in St. Lucia and Antigua serve notice that the wolf is already at the door.{{more}}

On an individual basis, there have been differing responses to the crisis. They range from cutbacks in government spending, revision of budget proposals, tightening up so-called “illegal” immigration (even though we are all, officially, “CARICOM citizens”), and seeking new economic and trading partners, as in the ALBA initiative. At the more extreme level, some governments are even turning to the dread International Monetary Fund (IMF) as is the case in Jamaica, and from press reports, some Windward Islands.

The situation clearly calls for bold, decisive, but not adventurist leadership, and above all, for creative thinking. There is not enough evidence of much of this, but it would be a mistake to think that we could just sit out the crisis, tighten up on government spending, and wait for the storm to blow over. Any such approach is bound to leave us worse off than at present and to lead to social unrest and discord. We must be prepared to venture into areas and fields of endeavour not hitherto considered when times were better.

In so doing, we would not be the only ones. There are nations, far larger, vastly more wealthy and many times more powerful than those in the Caribbean, where debates are raging about unconventional methods of tackling the economic crisis. Take the United States of America, for instance. There, even a subject area long considered taboo in legal terms, marijuana, is being put under the economic microscope.

We in the Caribbean and St. Vincent and the Grenadines in particular will be all too familiar with the ganja scenario-the debates about legalizing or decriminalization and the continued legal persecution, not only for trafficking in big amounts, but even for personal possession of insignificant quantities. The state coffers in all the islands are boosted by marijuana fines, whilst, to our utter shame, young offenders are still imprisoned for possession of small quantities of marijuana.

The big contradiction is that some of those countries which keep up the ‘no ganja’ pressure on us are internally moving in a different direction. Britain has moved ganja possession down to Class ‘B’. What of the USA, the country which prods us into eradication of marijuana fields? A 2007 study by one Jon Gettman, a senior fellow at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, valued the US marijuana trade at US$113 billion annually. Gettman had also calculated that marijuana was one of the biggest cash crops in the USA, with 56 million plants worth almost US$36 billion.

Given such a scenario and with the American economy in trouble, is it any wonder then that some are looking to this drug as a possible solution to the nation’s economic woes? An article in MSN MONEY quotes a California-based ganja retailer, David Stein, as advocating that the US “could begin to balance its books now if politicians would take a serious look at this industry.” Stein, who claims that his two retail outlets generate US$1 million in revenue annually, of which he pays $80,000 a year in sales taxes to the state of California, says that the federal government is losing revenue by trying to close his and other clubs which sell medical marijuana. He joins a number of lawmakers and policy analysts in promoting the economic benefits of regulating and taxing weed.

“Cannabis is good for the economy,” says Stein. That statement is sure to find favour with a significant number of Vincentians and other Caribbean citizens.

On the downside, to be sure, there are the negative social issues, primarily in health effects on young users, the connection with the more dangerous cocaine trade, guns and crime. But there is no doubt that internationally, some rethinking is taking place as regards attitudes towards marijuana. And it is not just, as is made out, towards marijuana smoking. There is now incontestable evidence of the medical value of ganja and in the city of Sacramento in California, over US$200 million a year of medical marijuana is legally sold, bringing in sales taxes of US$18 million. There is now a proposal to legalize marijuana throughout California. Taxing it would bring in state revenue of USD$1.3 billion annually. Pharmaceutical companies, too, are quickly moving to develop marijuana-based drugs.

It gives us food for thought, even behind the ganja smokescreen. Are we mature enough to weigh up the pro and cons, conduct intelligent debate or bold enough to seek to use the crop for medicinal and hence economic proposes? Or will we obey others and pursue eradication only to see them turn around and develop industries while we are steeped in the “glamorous”, illegal, smoking culture, ignoring the wider benefits to our economies?

(Stats and references drawn from A Budget Cure: Marijuana taxes, by John Dyer, MSN MONEY)

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.