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Weed Goes West

Utahns search for their American Dream in California’s marijuana “Green Rush.”

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Not everyone sees cannabis seedlings as something delicate and special like a puppy, however. Despite general disdain for the federal government’s intrusion on local governments and business, all of Utah’s delegation in Washington, D.C., opposes states’ rights in regards to cannabis regulation.

That includes Sen. Orrin Hatch, even though he is an outspoken supporter of Utah’s nutraceuticals industry—a group of companies that sell natural products aimed at improving health. He’s also a rare Republican willing to defy the pro-life movement’s objection to stem-cell research, a position Hatch defends citing a patient’s need for life-saving treatments that stem cells can’t deliver now, but may someday.

Even though thousands of years of tradition, modern scientific data and anecdotal patient accounts say that marijuana helps treat their bad mood, crippling pain, dwindling appetite and other maladies too numerous to list—Americans for Safe Access is a clearinghouse for that information—Hatch isn’t persuaded.

“Illegal drugs—including marijuana—are a scourge on our society—hurting children, families and communities alike,” he wrote in an e-mailed comment. “This isn’t a cute ‘lifestyle’ issue, as some try to make it out to be; it is an issue that concerns the safety of our citizens and communities.”

The job opportunities and tax revenue from legal cannabis don’t convince Hatch, either.

“Sure, we could have a huge, booming national business that creates thousands of jobs by legalizing all kinds of illicit drugs—cocaine, heroin, meth, etc.—but everyone knows it is a terrible idea,” Hatch wrote in his statement. “We would be killing our children and destroying our future. When we know that illicit drugs are bad and destroy people, families and communities, it is appropriate for the federal government to ban them.”

Some high-profile world leaders who once agreed with Hatch have changed their views. Mexico’s most-recent former president, Vicente Fox, for example, has called for a national debate on legalizing drugs to quell the drug-fueled violence between black-market cartels that has claimed 28,000 lives along the border in recent years.

“The creation of any legitimate, regulated market for marijuana outside of the black market is not good news for criminal syndicates,” says Drug Policy Alliance’s California director Stephen Gutwillig. “Banning a substance outright cedes all control to the underground market, to criminals. They get to decide who gets to buy marijuana, at what age, under what circumstances and with what contents.”

It won’t be surprising to see American lawmakers shift their positions, however, because the public’s opinion of cannabis has shifted more quickly in the past decade than ever before.

From 1970 to 1995, Gallup polls found American opposition to legalizing marijuana dropped from 84 percent to 73 percent. Their most recent poll, in April, however, saw opposition drop to just 54 percent, with young people being the most supportive of legalization. Likewise, polling in California for Prop. 19 has been very close: A September poll from ABC7/Survey USA found 47 percent supporting legalization and 43 opposed.

St. Pierre says patient access to cannabis has largely led the debate in the past decade, but that will likely shift to tax revenue and job creation, especially as communities begin to tax it. California’s canna-business—largely dominated by small business—is also getting competition from giant corporations.

“You can go to Sears.com and buy products from Hydrofarm, one of the oldest companies in the [cannabis] industry,” Harold says. “You can go on Kmart and buy products right now that are hydroponic products. [They’ve added them to their product line] in just the last few weeks. It’s taking hold mainstream.”

And why not? Despite prohibition in most states, the National Survey on Drug Use & Health in September found that 16.7 million Americans (about 6.6. percent) used marijuana in the past month alone. Harold says a decent hydroponic startup kit to grow at home costs about $1,500. That’s an opportunity too good for some business people to ignore.

But the green rush might have already passed Utah by. While Zeke leaves open the possibility that his future will involve his home state, Harold doesn’t even plan to open a retail location here for another decade or so. He loves Utah and would like to live here again, but says he wouldn’t move his headquarters to the Beehive State, despite enticingly low corporate taxes, even if marijuana were legalized.

“For one, most [cannabis] companies are based in California now, or close to it. To ship to Utah, or anywhere else, is expensive. Two, you need employees to run your business. Accountants don’t really need to have knowledge of the industry, but the rest of your people do,” he says. “I don’t think I would ever base the business out of Utah. … [California] is the birthplace of this industry.” 

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