A Rose By Any Other Name: The New Age of Cannabis in America's Heartland
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.
— Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Illegal drug, natural medicine, cash crop, weed, pot, ganja, Mary Jane—whatever you call it, however you classify it—cannabis is bringing activists, medical patients, career farmers, and venture capitalists together to rebuild a traditional American industry with vast modern potential. The infamous seven-leafed flora has polarized policy-makers for most of the 20th century and now Americans across the nation are rightly demanding justice and fairness in modern regulations. Gone are the days of reefer madness and hollow scare tactics—the systematic miseducation at the hands of programs such as D.A.R.E. is no longer tolerated. Millions agree: the stakes are far too high to delay this meaningful progress any longer.
Cannabis sativa, one of the oldest known medicinal herbs, is native to Central and South Asia although it flourishes all over the world today. Evidence of the inhalation of cannabis smoke dates back millennia as charred cannabis seeds were discovered in a brazier at an ancient burial site in Romania from 3,000 BCE. And moreover, anthropologists and archaeobotanists assert that people used cannabis for both fiber and mind-altering purposes as early as 7000-4000 BCE.
More recently, cannabis was even widely grown in the American colonies beginning in 1619, when King James I ordered every colonist to grow 100 plants to be exported. So it followed that more than a hundred years later, the Declaration of Independence would indeed be drafted on hemp paper. In 1850, the US continued its love affair with cannabis by introducing its medical preparation and permitting it to be legally sold in all US pharmacies. Then in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in the US to require products to be accurately labeled with their contents. By 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) was established by the government to further drug regulations by outlawing all recreational drugs. And then came Mr. Anslinger.
Harry Anslinger headed the FBN and worked to popularize claims that cannabis caused violent crimes, irrational actions, and overly sexual behavior. Seeking a surefire way to get his propaganda in the hands of the most Americans possible, Anslinger was introduced to William Randolph Hearst. Hearst owned a chain of publishers across the US, acquiring existing newspapers beginning in 1887, until he owned papers across 30 major US cities. Hearst’s particular style of reporting—or “yellow journalism”—typically sensationalized stories and provided readers with lurid details of dubious origins. When Harry Anslinger needed to control the popular narrative in order for his federal campaign against cannabis to succeed, a partnership with the newspaper mogul was a perfect fit. The story became one of debauched violence and madness: instances of minorities committing heinous crimes under the influence of cannabis began to flood national newspapers and popular opinion began to turn. With the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the final nail was hammered into the coffin, dawning the era of cannabis prohibition that we know today. Fortunately, this legislative attempt to curtail Americans’ cannabis usage would not last even a century.
Cannabis in the New Millennium
Sixty-three years after prohibition was finalized, Colorado first legalized a medical cannabis marketplace in November 2000, and began accepting patient applications in June 2001. Initially, patients were linked with a private grower called a “caregiver” who is permitted to care for up to five patients, in a direct grower-to-consumer model. Throughout the next seven years combined, just over 6000 patient applications were submitted. Sensible Colorado, a group representing both patients and caregivers, won a lawsuit in 2007 that nullified the five-patient cap and allowed caregivers to provide medicine for as many patients as they chose. It would take two more years for storefront dispensaries to begin operating, but in early 2009 over 250 opened for business. Colorado received 38,000 patient applications in that year alone. By the end of 2009, over 900 dispensaries were operational in the state.
So began the “Green Rush,” the millennial answer to the infamous California Gold Rush of yore. With data from legal states like Colorado, the rest of the country began to take notice of what legalization could do for them: the Colorado Department of Revenue reported that in August 2014 alone, recreational cannabis sales reached $34.1 million and medical sales trailed only slightly at $33.4 million. The state raked in $7.5 million in tax revenue, and over $44 million by the end of 2014. With this money allocated towards statewide school construction and educational campaigns on cannabis use ($40 million and $4 million, respectively), it became apparent that even non-smokers benefitted very tangibly from legalization.
Fortune magazine reports that venture capitalists are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into cannabis-related ventures: phone apps to link consumers with the exact strain of flower they seek, grow facilities, infused lotions, oils, and even personal lubricant for intimate use. Celebrities, too, are eager to build cannabis brands. The Bob Marley estate has developed a line of rolling papers and is working on patenting their own genetics for plants as well. Snoop Dogg released his own series of vaporizer products called The Double G series. Clerks director Kevin Smith partnered with a dispensary to sponsor a movie he directed, creating two branded strains of bud to generate interest for the small film. Wiz Khalifa has a sponsorship from a California-based dispensary that also carries a strain named for him. Even SkinnyGirl brand low-calorie cocktail inventor and reality TV personality Bethenny Frankel is developing a brand for the cannabis market—she’s looking to genetically engineer her buds so they won’t give users “the munchies.”
The Green Rush is not restricted to players with deep pockets, however. Dr. Jeffrey Miron, Senior Lecturer in Economics at Harvard University, is in the process of an in-depth longitudinal study of data from the US’s newest industry. Miron asserts that there is “room for large and small entrepreneurs…plenty of room for product differentiation in the same way that you see for, say, beer, because [cannabis flowers] can have different scents…[and] THC content. There is plenty of room for the entrepreneur to try to market oneself as being in some way superior [to the larger operations] and capture a good market share.” Artisanal products, sometimes known as “boutique buds,” may be able to hold their own with consumers in medical and recreational markets…but what about in an industrial market?
Hemp: An Industrial Miracle
In addition to the psychoactive flowers of the female cannabis plant—the part that gets you “high”—there are considerable uses for cannabis stalk, leaves, and seeds from male plants. These non-psychoactive portions of the plant are commonly referred to as “hemp” and have been for millennia put to use for different purposes: hemp stalk can produce industrial textiles such as rope, carpet, tarps, and nets; consumer textiles for clothing, shoes, and fine fabrics; and various paper products including printing paper, specialty paper, newsprint, and cardboard. Hemp pulp strengthens building materials including fiberboard, insulation, cement, stucco, and mortar. Hempseed oil can produce industrial products including oil paints, varnishes, printing inks, putty, and biofuel; and can also be used in personal hygiene products like soaps, shampoo, lotions, balms, and cosmetics. Hemp is also a great source of dietary fiber, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and offers a complete source of protein with 17 amino acids, including eight of the ten essential ones.
Impressively hemp lends itself to the manufacture of some forty-plus products, being both remarkably easy and sustainable to grow. There is little need for chemical interference—only eight of about a hundred known pests cause problems—so pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are typically not used. Hemp is even a natural weed suppressor due to the speedy growth of large leaves which tend to block sunlight for smaller plants.
Producing more pulp per acre than timber and requiring just a single grow season for maturation (versus a decade-plus for timber), hemp stands to revolutionize papermaking as we know it. Cannabis has very low levels of lignin, which is what helps strengthen the cell walls of many plants and maintains the sturdy square cellular shape, so it requires less acid treatment for pulp production. The pulp is naturally a light cream color, so unlike wood-based paper, hemp paper does not require harsh chlorine compounds for bleaching, which results in a substantial decrease in chemical by-products.
Environmentally-friendly hemp can also be synthesized to replace many toxic petrochemical products. Research into hemp biodiesel and hemp ethanol demonstrated favorable results, and biodegradable plastics made from hemp are promising as well. With the dicey political climate surrounding foreign and domestic oil interests, it is imperative that the US begin the switch to more sustainable alternatives for energy. Corn ethanol is currently the most familiar and widely-researched biofuel in the US, however hemp ethanol is an improvement in many aspects including higher soil conservation and higher ethanol yields per unit biomass. In studies comparing the dried biomass yields of corn and hemp, corn produced an average of 145kg/hectacre while hemp produced an impressive 305kg/hectacre. In layman’s terms, this means hemp is capable of producing double the amount of usable fuel per unit of land than corn.
Opportunities in the Midwest
There is no region more acutely aware of the opportunities presented through the cultivation of cannabis and industrial hemp than the American Midwest. The crown jewel nestled in the center of the country, Ohio contains the highest concentration of individual farms in the region with over 75,400. These farms together have over 10.8 million acres devoted solely to cropland. With the falling prices of traditional Midwestern crops, agriculturalists are absolutely on a quest to diversify.
So where better to reintroduce one of the country's first staple crops than the region in which almost half the land is already dedicated to farming? Economically, the Midwest boasts high concentrations of heavy industry and agriculture. With its characteristic vast expanses of flat plains and nutrient-rich soil, one former Vice President called the northern central states the “most productive agricultural civilization the world has ever seen.” Corn, wheat, soybeans, oats, and barley dominate the landscape, accounting for 40% of the world crop.
In recent years, however, American farms have been hit with falling crop prices. The US Department of Agriculture estimates a national net farm income of $107 billion in 2014, down approximately 19% from $128 billion in 2013. Forecasts for 2015 net income call for less than $80 billion by the end of this year, and so continues this downward trend in farm revenue. Midwestern land-grant universities—institutions of higher education subsidized by the US government and intended to offer robust programs specializing in agriculture, science, and engineering—have closely studied cycles in American agriculture. Carl Zulauf of The Ohio State University has noticed two modern trends: the increasing popularity of “local microfarms for picky posh people,” and the success of big farms employing the latest technologies which allow them to produce cheap food, biofuels, and chemicals.
Ohio in particular is well-positioned to rise to the forefront of cannabis production, research, and refining. Outside of the considerable acreage and density of individual farms, the state offers one of the largest public research universities in the country. The Ohio State University, founded in 1870 as a land-grant university, was originally called the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College (students could even pay their tuition with hemp stalk up until 1910). Yet, within a decade, the university had expanded to include liberal arts studies as well, marching into the 20th century with a respected academic presence.
Today OSU is the third largest campus in the nation with a main campus enrollment of over 60,000 students. In a report by the National Science Foundation released in 2007, OSU’s research expenditures were over $720 million, garnering a spot in the top 10 most-funded public universities, and placing 11th among both public and private universities. The Buckeyes rank third among all American universities for private industry sponsored research. Specialized labs include the Center for Automotive Research, Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, the Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the Center for Urban and Regional Analysis. In 2006 the university pledged to designate at least $110 million of its research efforts to “fundamental concerns” which include research towards a cure for cancer and renewable energy sources—both areas in which cannabis offers remarkable untapped potential.
Beyond the obvious assets of well-funded specialized research facilities and millions of acres of the best farmland in the country, Ohio meets criteria in other key aspects as well. The reasonable cost of living is one such advantage—Forbes Magazine notes a recent swell in the populations of “Rust Belt” cities such as Cleveland and Columbus. Their researchers suggest this is due to the fact that “lower costs in these regions…allow [residents] to live far better than they would in a pricier city on either coast”. The populations of young college graduates have plateaued in traditional magnet cities such as New York and San Francisco, and actually dropped in cities like Chicago and Portland, while Cleveland has seen 20% growth in the past decade. Not to be overshadowed, Ohio's capital city of Columbus has morphed into an underground cultural hub boasting rich nightlife, inventive fine dining, two professional sports teams, and over 300 bars. These factors culminate in an environment ripe for start-ups and settling down long-term.
Perhaps the linchpin cementing Ohio’s immense potential in the Green Rush are the extremely low costs of starting and maintaining businesses here. In June 2015, the state made history when the senate voted unanimously to pass legislation that reduces business filing fees in the state—the first instance of this type of deflation in the nation. Nearby Illinois charges $850 to file Articles of Organization, which is the first step in legally incorporating a business entity through the Secretary of State. In Ohio, the fee dropped from $125 to $99. The going rate in other legal states is marginally higher with Colorado coming in at $150, New York state $200, and Washington state $200. “In terms of business filing fees, Ohio will now be the lowest-cost state in our region to start and maintain a business,” asserts Secretary of State John Husted.
Tying It All Together
If dandelions provided empirically supported data to suggest it were a safer alternative to opiate-derived painkillers and a host of other pharmaceuticals, could be used to manufacture paper and textiles, plastics and concrete substitutes, and could even be a sustainable source of biofuel—would we as a nation still be questioning our right to cultivate and possess it? Considering the long list of products and environmental benefits, not to mention the medical potential of cannabis, it is a wonder that such a powerful raw material remains federally illegal. After all, alcohol prohibition didn’t even last two decades and it doesn’t offer half the industrial and medical potential of cannabis. If any other plant offered such a wealth of opportunity—or had such a rich history in this country—would we still be battling prohibition? Cannabis is the future and it is high time the United States clears the smoke on the subject.
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