On the street it’s called pot, grass, weed, mary jane or reefer. It comes in cigarette and cigar-sized packages called joints and blunts. The active ingredient is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Call it what you will, but those who produce marijuana call it their cash crop.

You won’t see marijuana futures traded in open markets, but domestic production of this banned drug is big business. Conservative estimates of the value of confiscated crops suggest that in 10 states marijuana is the No. 1 cash crop. It ranks in the top five in an additional 29 states.

By these figures, producers banked $15 billion annually in the late 1990s, while the “street value” of the crop was more than $25 billion. Based on the standard government process for assessing value, where a single plant is expected to produce one pound of sellable product, the value estimates skyrocket to $26 billion for producers and $43 billion of sales on the street. These estimates would make marijuana the nation’s No. 1 cash crop.

Marijuana production is more than big agri-business. For many, it’s war. Hiding rows of marijuana plants amid rows of corn, widely spacing forbidden plants in fields, or “borrowing” small plots of land from unaware neighbors are a few ways growers wage a guerrilla war with law enforcement.

Eradication efforts have yielded dramatic scenes reminiscent of battlefield conditions. As helicopters hover low, DEA agents move in to burn or collect evidence. Kentucky’s infamous Corn Bread Mafia became known for their counter-attacks. Rottweiler guard dogs whose larynxes were slashed for stealth often met federal or state law enforcement agents.

The war with both law enforcement and basic climatic conditions ushered in the most important trend in marijuana production: at an increasing rate, producers are moving their operations indoors. Making the crop harder to spot is the most obvious, but perhaps not the most important, advantage of indoor production.

It also opens production to a wider geographical area. No longer are producers slaves to a natural growing season. Indoor operations are moving production centers out of the South and toward such unfriendly climatic areas as Alaska and the northwestern states.

In this more controlled environment, producers are also able to grow a much more potent crop. For example, the THC content of commercial-grade marijuana rose from 3.7 percent in 1985 to 5.5 percent in 1998. These operations are also producing a more potent variety of the plant called sinsemilla. This plant’s THC content has risen from 7.3 percent to a mind-altering 12.3 percent in the same time period.

As one would imagine, the price for the product tends to increase with the percentage of THC content. According to DEA sources, commercial-grade marijuana increased from $600 to $3200 per pound from 1985 to 1998. In the same period, sinsemilla prices increased from $2000 to $6000 per pound. A small, enclosed area—properly maintained—can create more cash than vast stretches of legal farmland.

The war on indoor production may be less dramatic than marijuana field battles, but no less intense. The battles wage on as agents pour over electric bills and follow leads of neighbors who hear generators running all night.
However, the use of heat detectors is creating some heat of its own. Last year, the Supreme Court held in Kyllo vs. the United States that infrared detection equipment cannot be used without a search warrant to seek out heat signatures that might indicate greenhouse activity. Score one for the producers.

One must not forget the ugly reality behind the staggering production statistics and the government’s counter-efforts. The demand for this drug is the engine that runs the business.

For those who ask what creates such demand, theories and philosophies abound and compete. Most will agree that as marijuana use increases, so will the creativity of the market from the farm to the street. In the fields, on the street, and among those seeking answers, the war goes on.

Steve Sumerel is director of the department of family life and substance abuse, of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina‘s council on Christian life and public affairs.

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