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How Cultivation Killed Prohibition

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It was the early 1980s, and the DEA was shocked.

Following the Paraquat scare of the late 1970s, Americans began to grow cannabis in the United States—initially in California, Oregon and Hawaii. In response, the DEA began a concerted effort to eradicate U.S. grown cannabis with an aggressive program, the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Supression Program. Pull the plants out of the ground, punish the growers and discourage the spread of cannabis cultivation.

As part of any good management plan, the DEA had made an estimate of how much cannabis was actually grown in the United States. Then, they set to work yanking as many cannabis plants as they could find out of the ground. It was a paramilitary operation, utilizing helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft with assistance from state and local law enforcement. They thought they were widely successful, and they made an estimate of how much cannabis they had seized compared to the original estimate.

This is where the shock occurred.

They had seized 38 percent more cannabis than was previously believed to exist. In rough figures, they thought there was somewhat more than 1,000 metric tons of cannabis being cultivated. They had seized upwards of 1,400 metric tons.

You’d think they’d be happy about that, and to some extent, they were. But the DEA knew they couldn’t get it all, only a fraction. They had hoped to get a significant fraction, but the program had “suppression” in its name for a reason. They knew they couldn’t get it all, but believed if they got enough and made a good show out of it, they could discourage further cultivation.

When they seized more than they believed actually existed, the DEA realized that domestic cannabis cultivation was already a tremendous phenomenon and one that was already getting out of control.

So, in short order, the DEA increased and expanded the program. Growers, then, emerged in several more states. The program expanded to more states.

Growers adjusted their strategy. They switched from extensive cultivation, large plots and fields, to intensive cultivation, smaller plots with better cared-for plants.

The DEA began to use forfeiture against private property used for cultivation. Growers moved to public lands. The program continued to become more aggressive. Growers moved inside.

Over the last 30 years, the domestic cannabis industry has grown, and decentralized, despite the DEA’s best efforts to suppress it.

Back in the early 1970s, John Kaplan wrote an insightful article, actually a chapter in a book, on different approaches to drug control. One of the key elements of prohibition, he argued, was to have control over the technology of production. If someone needs a factory to make a drug, it is easy to control that. Factories are hard to finance and easy to find. But if you can’t control production, you can’t enforce a prohibition. And that’s the story of marijuana cultivation in the United States.

This country went from virtually no significant domestic cultivation in the mid-1970’s to becoming one of the largest producers of cannabis in the world today.

How did that happen?

Prohibition made cannabis cultivation profitable, creating incentives for production. But it is more than that. Cannabis consumers also demanded better quality from the market, and this created additional opportunities for domestic growers to meet consumers’ demands and to meet them in a way that foreign producers could not. It helps an industry to be located near consumers, it facilitates communication and the accommodation of customer preferences. It also reduces the length of the distribution network, which in an illegal market means a reduction of risk.

There is another reason cultivation took off in the United States.

Cannabis consumers really enjoy growing cannabis.

It is an engaging pursuit for many growers, a satisfying enterprise in many ways, not just a profitable one. This is another reason behind the great quality and variety of U.S. grown cannabis.

The result of the growing cannabis industry in the United States is that it has become increasingly impossible to even dream of eradicating cannabis from American society.

Even if the borders could be sealed, even if all foreign cultivation could be eliminated, there is no way to prevent domestic production. Worse, the basic strategy of prohibition relies on inflating the price of cannabis to discourage use—and domestic cultivation turned that strategy upside down by increasing production.

Everything the DEA did to increase the price of cannabis further encouraged domestic production.

The domestic cannabis industry will survive legalization. Certainly large corporate interests will emerge and will capture large shares of the market. But nothing can, or will, prevent individuals from growing cannabis.

The same forces that are destroying prohibition will also serve to keep the corporate market in check. Anyone who believes otherwise, like the DEA, is in for a shock.

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