Green Machine: The Stunning Growth of Legal Cannabis
Hemp, weed, pot, grass, the devil’s lettuce-whatever you want to call it, marijuana is the most popular recreational drug in the country. Depending on the strain and method of ingestion (smoking and consuming in edibles being the most popular,) the plant provides users with a variety of feelings- creativity, relaxation, silliness, hunger. And it’s linked to far fewer fatalities and illnesses than other illegal drugs or even alcohol. Now, some states are legalizing cannabis sativa for medical and/or recreational use, and growers and dispensaries are seeing huge profits as people purchase untold pounds of the newly legal leaf.
Until fairly recently, pot was completely illegal nationwide, with penalties for possession ranging from fines to long-term imprisonment. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 made marijuana a Schedule 1 drug, part of the most restricted category alongside much “heavier” substances like heroin and LSD, meaning it had no medical uses and a high potential for abuse. The War on Drugs that the government has conducted ever since greatly stigmatized and penalized marijuana, and many lost hope that the popular plant would ever be societally acceptable.
But Americans don’t like being told what to do, and pot has not gone anywhere. While weed remains illegal at the federal level, many states have enacted legislation to ease restrictions on the drug, and some have legalized it outright. The result? A booming industry that is raking in billions of dollars and bolstering state budgets with the resulting taxes.
In 1996, the people of California pushed through Prop. 215, legalizing pot for medical purposes, and 22 other states have since followed suit. Although it’s used to treat nausea, epilepsy, and even multiple sclerosis, pot is most commonly prescribed as a pain treatment- and it’s less habit-forming than painkillers, which many blame for the nation’s current epidemic of opiate abuse. Medical marijuana was an easier sell than complete legalization, but some 20 years later, voters have now approved the legalization of pot for recreational use in the Sunshine State. And the marijuana industry is, fittingly, industrializing. Large-scale cannabis farms are popping up around California, looking more like factories than the shady “grow-ops” that used to produce pot. Weed is going legit.
California, whose economy is larger than many countries, consumes a lot of the country’s legal pot (in 2015, they generated $2.7 billion in sales, 62% of all medical cannabis sales in the US). But other states are rapidly catching up, with growing operations opening every day. Colorado and Washington shocked the nation by legalizing pot for recreational use in 2012, meaning residents don’t need a prescription to get high, and in 2016, legal cannabis sales in Colorado topped $1 billion.
Pot isn’t just making money for those growing it, it’s also creating jobs. New Frontier Data projects that the legal cannabis market will create more than 250,000 jobs by 2020, more than manufacturing or even government jobs.
Americans love their pot, and the growing legal weed industry shows no signs of stopping. Experts estimate that around $50 billion of pot is sold in the United States each year – but only $7 billion of that is legal. It seems to be only a matter of time before other states look at the success of the legal marijuana industries in California, Colorado, and Washington, and see green (pun intended).