By Richard Neely
Has anyone noticed that a person can roller skate down Charleston’s Quarrier Street at high noon without fear of being hit by a car? Our mines are closed; the price of oil and gas is so low that there is limited drilling; and the chemical industry is slowly moving to the Gulf. Local government units are going bankrupt and the state deficit is projected at over $466 million.
Therefore, the issue of legalization of marijuana is not a social issue, and it is not a medical issue: It is an economic issue. And as an economic issue, there is great urgency. Neighboring states have not legalized recreational marijuana, although Ohio recently legalized medical marijuana. Therefore, right now — not next year, not after the next election, not “down the road,” but rather right now, we have a great opportunity to begin a new industry that will employ thousands directly and indirectly. In Colorado, the industry generated about $1.1 billion last year in sales, and governments collected $150 million in direct taxes. Indirect commercial activity and indirect taxes produced more.
In economics, the Boston Consulting Group propounded an empirically based theory in the 1980s that the greater a firm’s total lifetime production of any product, the lower the firm’s costs per unit. Called the “learning curve theory,” Boston Consulting pointed out that a large-scale producer will inevitably be more competitive than new entrants in any field because of what the firm has learned about production and distribution. Therefore, if West Virginia can get the jump on other eastern states now and exploit a monopoly in the East for four years, we can become the low-cost producer of quality marijuana.
Today marijuana is an “industrial” and not an “agricultural” product: In Colorado, it is illegal to “grow” marijuana in open fields; rather, all production is done through “hydroponics,” where the plants are grown indoors in large tanks using 24-hour sun lamps. This industrial process would be a boon to the electric utility companies, who are currently experiencing an exodus of West Virginia residents and industries with no commensurate reduction in the cost of electrical infrastructure maintenance.
As to marijuana as either a social issue or medical issue, any 12-year-old in West Virginia can get marijuana for either recreational or medical purposes in half an hour. And, with eight states already making marijuana legal for recreational purposes, its pervasive legal use in the next 10 years is inevitable. West Virginia already has a “conspicuous policy of non-enforcement.” Therefore, the only question is whether the West Virginia Legislature will sit around gathering wool until the one “real” opportunity for job creation has gone down the toilet, or do something very un-West Virginian, namely be innovative in the next seven weeks.
Colorado has an excellent set of statutes regulating marijuana, so all we need do is copy those statutes. By not allowing marijuana to be grown outdoors, we create jobs and more jobs building, maintaining and controlling the indoor industrial process.
We have a fair, but not spectacular, tourism industry. But if we legalize marijuana, West Virginia would become much more attractive for tourism, second homes, and as a place for young, entrepreneurial millennials to live. This has been Colorado’s experience; Denver’s real estate market is booming from young people attracted by what “legalization” says about the tone of the society.
West Virginia is the second oldest state in the Union, right behind God’s waiting room, Florida. Alas, people under 40 aren’t social conservatives like me and others born in the last century: Young people are generally a libertarian, live-and-let-live bunch, so if we want to keep and attract new blood, we must change with the times.
What, of course, will discourage our legislature from needed action is that Republicans must always fear challenges from the right. The Tea Party is a greater threat to Republican incumbents than the Bernie Sanders socialists are to Democrat incumbents. And, for so long as marijuana usage is presented as a “social issue” to benefit long-haired, poetry-reading, NPR-listening, gun-controlling beatniks and hippies, the right wing threat will be there. However, if legalization is presented as an opportunity to put unemployed coal miners to work in places like Pineville, Logan, Cabin Creek and Webster Springs, or as an opportunity to keep our kids home and bring in some new, well-educated young people, or as a cure for our cities’ and counties’ insolvency, we might have a chance of getting a statute passed this year.
Finally, it does us absolutely no good to legalize “medical” marijuana or to take any other half measure. That kind of thinking still conceptualizes marijuana as a “social” or “medical” issue, which will cause us to be losers instead of winners.
If we want a new industry and all the campaign talk about “jobs” wasn’t just mendacious political rhetoric, then we must legalize recreational marijuana in the next seven weeks!
— Richard Neely is a former chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, a practicing lawyer and a former professor of economics.