McFeatters: Legal marijuana can save American agriculture

Matthew Huron, owner of two medical marijuana dispensaries

Matthew Huron, owner of two medical marijuana dispensaries and an edible marijuana company in Denver, examines a marijuana plant he's growing. Medical marijuana is legal in 17 states. (Feb. 10, 2012) (Credit: AP)

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The legal and quasi-legal growing of marijuana is big business, and don't just take my word for it. The Wall Street Journal says so on the front page of its weekend edition in a prominent place right below its play story on the Boston manhunt.

"The Pot Business Suffers Growing Pains," says the headline, a cry for capital -- seed capital, so to speak -- for startup businesses that are a lot better bet, and a lot more fun, than packaging toxic mortgages for sale to municipal pension funds.

The Journal introduces us to pot farmer Elliott Klug, and if any member of Congress praised him in the Congressional Record as a job creator, I missed it. He employs 70 people to raise marijuana for sale to people who have a prescription for it.


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Eighteen states and the District of Columbia allow the production and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, of which there are surprisingly many. Who knew that a couple of joints were a universal specific for existential angst?

Two of those states, Washington and Colorado, allow marijuana for what is euphemistically called "recreational use," meaning "getting stoned." Clearly, marijuana is on its way to becoming a mainstream business, but, as always, government lethargy and red tape are hindering its growth.

Marijuana cultivation is surprisingly labor-intensive, and as the prices inevitably come down -- in Denver, for example, from $3,900 a pound in 2011 to $2,000 this year -- so, too, will wages, only around $10 an hour plus, I guess, whatever you can smoke. And the working conditions are brutal: Klug's plants listen nonstop to the Grateful Dead.

But nowhere in the compromise immigration bill do we see an exception for skilled Mexican marijuana workers, who have been growing most of our weed for years. In addition to providing much-needed work and decreasing the need for Mexican pot dealers to shoot each other, it will improve our current accounts deficit.

The entry costs to commercial marijuana cultivation are high. Klug estimated that he invested $3 million before the business became profitable and the operating costs are high -- a $14,000 monthly light bill since the plants are grown indoors.

Farm-state lawmakers, fighting for corn and soybean subsidies, become lachrymose when talking about the "small family farm," even though such a thing no longer exists. The pot cultivators really do operate small family farms (mainly because it lessens the chances someone will snitch).

Certainly it's time to think about including marijuana farmers in the farm bill so they can get cheap crop insurance that pays for accidental losses -- say, if your basement flooded -- and pays if there are unfortunate fluctuations in price. Speaking of which, pot futures should be a part of any well-run commodities market.

Including marijuana in the food-stamp program -- a major part of the farm bill -- might be counterproductive. Food stamps are intended to combat hunger whereas marijuana is known to induce severe attacks of the munchies.

The Journal estimates that there are now 2,000 to 4,000 legal marijuana businesses, with annual sales of $1.2 billion to $3 billion.

The growers have a trade organization, the National Cannabis Industry Association, based in Washington, D.C. Their website doesn't give a street address, but we like to think it's high above Pennsylvania Avenue.

Dale McFeatters is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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