One of the concerns we have in the fight to end marijuana prohibition is the plight of the clandestine cannabis cultivator. In places like the Emerald Triangle of California, the southern corner of Ohio, and the backwoods of Kentucky, the illicit trade in marijuana has formed the backbone of local economies for generations.
What happens to them when we legalize? I’ll get back to that. In the meantime, let me tell you a story about aluminum.
Yes, aluminum. The stuff we make your beverage cans out of. The foil you’ve used to stash some weed in. The body of the airplane you once flew in. We barely give aluminum a second thought. It’s cheap, plentiful, recyclable, and has thousands of uses.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Aluminum is the most common metal found in earth’s crust. The ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks used various aluminum compounds to set dyes, make pottery, and staunch wounds.
The problem, though, was getting aluminum separated from those other elements. Until the 19th century, nobody had ever imagined that aluminum was an elemental metal. It had never been found in its pure state, like gold, silver, and copper. Aluminum was always found bound with potassium, sulfur, silica, and other elements.
Then in 1778, a chemist theorized that there could be a solid metal we’d come to know as aluminum. Soon, the process of electrolysis—the separating of elements using electricity—had been discovered.
By 1807, another chemist had used electrolysis to isolate potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium, and magnesium. He theorized that electrolysis should also produce a new element he called “alumium,” which evolved into “aLUMinum” in the United States and “aluMINium” in the rest of the English-speaking world.
In 1825, a chemist discovered a process by which he finally managed to produce a few tiny flakes of aluminum. But the sample was impure and so small as to be useless for research.
By 1845, scientists could produce enough of aluminum to discover its properties. They were astonished at the new metal’s malleability and light weight.
By 1852, aluminum was available commercially, but so incredibly rare that it sold for over $550 per pound.
In 1854, however, a process was perfected that allowed the large-scale production of aluminum for the first time.
In 1855, a few marbles of aluminum were displayed at the Paris World’s Fair. It was a huge hit. Aluminum was the newest precious metal. The elite would wear jewelry made of it. Emperor Napoleon would serve dinner on aluminum plates to his most-honored guests, leaving the comparatively common gold plates for the other guests.
Over the next thirty years, aluminum cost around the same as silver, about $20 per pound. But it was still impure and difficult to work with. The small demand for aluminum luxury items stalled further development of production methods and infrastructure.
In 1884, the United States topped the Washington Monument with a six-pound aluminum cap. There were only 3.6 metric tons of aluminum produced worldwide, compared to 2,834 metric tons of silver produced that year.
But then, the market for aluminum changed forever.
In 1863, two young chemistry students born, one in Ohio and one in France. They independently discovered a new process to refine aluminum that was cheaper and purer.
In 1886, they both filed patents in the United States, at which time other improvements in the refining process had dropped the price down to $6 per pound.
The American, Charles Martin Hall, founded a company that in 1907 would become the Aluminum Company of America, or as we know it, Alcoa, the world’s largest producer of aluminum.
By 1888, they were producing 50 pounds of aluminum per day, compared to less than 22 pounds per day produced worldwide just four years prior.
By 1891, Hall’s company drove the price of aluminum down below $1 per pound.
By 1903, aluminum was about 30 cents per pound, allowing the Wright Brothers to produce an engine cheap and lightweight enough to power their first flight.
By 1908, Alcoa was producing 88,000 pounds per day and the price of aluminum was under 25 cents per pound.
So what does all this aluminum history have to do with cannabis?
Well, I’m sure there had to be many people in the 19th century who had built their little mom-and-pop businesses around aluminum. From jewelry makers and metalsmiths for the luxury aluminum early on to the commercial producers and processors who’d make more common aluminum goods in the latter half the century.
By the 20th century, however, huge corporations came to dominate the aluminum production. Aluminum was no longer a luxury item for independent craftsmen to hawk as expensive jewelry and dinnerware for the elite. Change forced those entrepreneurs to find another way to make a living.
2016 is the 1886 of cannabis. Adding five more states with legalization, especially California, is going to increase production. Further legalization, especially ending federal prohibition, is going to reduce the difficulty of producing marijuana. A luxury item that once fetched $5,000 per pound is going to drop in price over the next thirty years to around $50 per pound.
While we may lament the end of an age of illicit cannabis growing that provided a living wage to outlaw farmers, we are powerless to stop the effects of technology and legality from drastically crashing the price of marijuana.
Nor should we; the reduction in cannabis price is going to unleash world-changing marvels from hemp that will rival the Wright Brothers aluminum-engine airplane—and make marijuana so cheap that anyone who wants some can have some.