CHARLESTON – 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?
That is because 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, like the Boone County Board of Education, are going bankrupt, and the current state deficit is projected at roughly $466 million. Furthermore, the new billion dollar casino near D.C. cuts into our tax revenues from race track gambling and the Greenbrier Resort.
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.
As it stands now, neighboring states have not legalized recreational use of 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 many more indirectly.
In Colorado, the industry generated about $1.1 billion last year in sales, and governments collected $150 million in direct taxes. Indirect taxes, of course, produced more through worker income tax, real estate tax on new industrial facilities, and state fees like workers' compensation premiums.
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 quality control, efficient production and economical distribution.
Therefore, if West Virginia can get the jump on other Eastern states now and exploit a monopoly in the East for three or four years, we can become the experienced and low-cost producer of high 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.
Among other things, this industrial process is a boon to the electric utility companies who are currently experiencing an exodus of West Virginia industries and middle class workers (Kanawha County, for example, lost 700 students in the public schools last year alone) 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 attending a public school can get marijuana for either recreational or medical purposes within half an hour. And, with eight states already making marijuana legal for recreational purposes, its pervasive legal use in the next 10 years is all but inevitable. For all intents and purposes, West Virginia already has a “conspicuous policy of non-enforcement.”
Therefore, the only question is whether the West Virginia Legislature – most of whose members have campaigned on “providing jobs” – will sit around gathering wool until the one “real” opportunity for jobs has gone down the toilet, or do something very un-West Virginian, namely be innovative and creative, in the next seven weeks.
All of the heavy lifting on marijuana legalization has already been done: Colorado has an excellent set of statutes regulating the industry, so all we need do here is copy those statutes. Among other salutary things, as I indicated before, Colorado does not allow marijuana to be grown outdoors for public safety reasons, which means jobs and more jobs building, maintaining and controlling the indoor growing and harvesting of the product.
We have a fair, but not spectacular, tourism industry. Particularly we have Timberline and Snowshoe for skiing and modest all-season recreation, and we have white water rafting in Fayette County. In addition we have the Greenbrier Hotel and some very nice state parks.
But if we legalized 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 where the real estate market is booming in Denver from young people attracted by legalization and what “legalization” says about the tone of the society.
West Virginia is the second oldest State in the Union, right behind the retirement Mecca of the World, Florida. But we need to understand that people under 40 aren’t social conservatives like me and others born before World War II: the young people are generally a libertarian, live and let live bunch, so if we want to keep our own young and attract new blood, we must accommodate the young and not drive them off.
What, of course, will discourage our Legislature from needed aggressive action is that Republicans must always fear challenges from the right. The Tea Party is always a much 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 in spades.
However, if legalization of marijuana 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 rejuvenate our State to keep our kids home and bring in some new, well-educated young people, or as a cure for our cities’ and counties’ endemic 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-way measure. That kind of thinking still conceptualizes marijuana as a “social” or “medical” issue, which will cause America once again to stamp our foreheads with the name “loser,” printed backwards so we can read it in the mirror!
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!
Neely is a former chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, a practicing lawyer at Neely & Callaghan in Charleston and a former professor of economics.