The South need not rise again, but it can (and should) get high again. Which is to say the economic opportunities involving the legalization of cannabis are too great to dismiss, too lucrative to deny, and too significant to decline.
These opportunities, which in 2016 generated $500 million in new tax revenue in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington alone, can help finance the urgent business of government –– from building new schools and hiring more teachers to recruiting more firefighters and police officers; from helping to convert deficits into surpluses and enriching treasuries from Texas to the Carolinas to Virginia; from creating jobs for farmers and drivers, security officers and scientists, researchers and retailers to expanding entrepreneurship nationwide.
At $4 Billion per year, the (still limited) legal cannabis market has already surpassed Girl Scout Cookies, tequila, and music streaming services (the black market is estimated to be over ten times that). Over the next four years this market anticipates a 27.5% Compound Annual Growth Rate, outpacing growth figures for both cable TV in the 1990’s and broadband internet in the 2000’s and generating over $2 billion in total tax revenues annually.
Should the South willingly leave all that treasure to other states?
To achieve these goals, and I write these words as a former resident of Atlanta whose respect for the South is deep and true, Southerners must accept that legal cannabis can be a boom crop the equal of tobacco, with neither the negative political consequences nor the costly fallout from class action lawsuits.
Our challenge is not a matter of commerce so much as an issue of culture. The perception of cannabis as ‘marijuana’, the belief that pot is dope – by and for dopes – influences the South's resistance to the legalization of this valuable crop.
The South already has a few chips in the cannabis game. The cannabis research lab at University of Mississippi’s School of Pharmacy has been the only U.S. facility permitted by the federal government to cultivate and study cannabis. In fact, Ole Miss has been supplying cannabis as medicine to a select group of patients for nearly 40 years now.
The University of South Carolina has also been an industry research influencer for years. Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, Vice President for Research at the University, led one of the first teams in the world to demonstrate that cannabinoids can kill cancer.
What if all the South's top colleges and universities could connect to this movement? Imagine encouraging the researchers at Duke and Emory, Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, Tulane and UT-Austin to flex their intellectual muscles unlocking new treatments for multiple sclerosis, autism, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Imagine the grants and awards these institutions could win, bringing as much power and prestige as Raleigh’s Research Triangle.
And just imagine the collective power of thought the South could harness if Southern Senators joined Senator Cory Booker in his new legislation to lift the federal ban on cannabis. Southern legislators could play a powerful role in pivoting the stigma around marijuana by showcasing demand from law-abiding citizens who use it both recreationally and medicinally. After all, more than 80% of Americans believe cannabis should be legalized in some form (Harvard poll) and 94% believe it should be legal for medicinal purposes (Quinnipiac).
It's time to dispel myths around cannabis and encourage and enable well-paying jobs that will bring the South to the forefront of the fastest growing industry in the country.
It's time to change the culture, and change the minds of the supporters we need.
It will require patience, and testimony from patients.
It will require advocacy by advocates of passion and eloquence.
It means we must think of this effort as a political campaign, energized by a message of urgency and clarity, which we repeat locally until we win regionally; until we triumph divisionally; until the South as a whole – from Birmingham to Baton Rouge, from Nashville to New Orleans, from Memphis to every precinct and parish below the Mason-Dixon line – welcomes the legalization of cannabis.
We will not finish this mission in 10 months or necessarily in 10 years.
But let us nonetheless resolve to do all we can, which is all we must do, to ensure that legalization helps the South flourish as soon as possible.
Now is the time to launch this campaign.
Lewis Fein is the Chief Media Strategist for Precise Cannabis. A graduate of Brandeis University and the Emory University School of Law, Lewis is a frequent commentator involving health and wellness, science and technology, and government and business. He resides in Southern California.
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