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Marijuana Prohibition Is Hanging on by Its Final Thread -- There's a Bright Future on the Horizon

America will benefit to the tune of billions every year when we end one of our worst domestic policies since ... the prohibition of alcohol.

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Without question, the economic data show that cannabis should immediately be put to work for the American economy. That’s what, in the end, makes it a top-tier-important issue at a time of debt crisis, currency crisis and Middle East dictator crisis: not only are the enforcement billions better spent elsewhere, but revenues from the cannabis plant economy itself will impart billions into our economy every year.

It’s already happening with nutritive and industrial cannabis in Canada (still illegal to grow here). Smokable cannabis might one day be a niche industry, like cigars, one venture capitalist suggested to me. As North Dakota’s agriculture commissioner Roger Johnson (no liberal) put it in 2007, “What an opportunity we’re throwing away, not being a part of this [industrial cannabis] industry…We really ought to be in this business. It’s economics.”

What then? I just spent a year witnessing what one promising model for the Pax Cannabis era looks like. It was that experiment in local governance put forth by tiny Mendocino County on California’s North Coast – the one that had all of Matt Cohen’s plants wearing permitting bracelets. Here’s a paraphrase of the local Board of Supervisors’ thinking: “Look, cannabis isn’t going away. It’s like 80% of our economy. We can regulate it and tax it, or we can let the criminals reap all the profits, increasing crime locally and everywhere.”

Their crop’s local value, easily more than $3 billion annually, a bit outpaces number two grapes, at $74.9 million in 2010. Up until now, untaxed and unregulated. If you were a young 4H member in those emerald hills, which would you choose?

And thus Ordinance 9.31 was passed. Locals call it the “zip-tie program.” Ninety-five local farmers, some third-generation, bravely came aboveground in 2011 to declare, “I am an American small farmer. Please tax me, don’t arrest me.”

Only no one told the feds. A team of DEA agents, in his words “machine guns blazing,” came to chop down Matt Cohen’s plants at dawn on October 13, 2011. They also held him incommunicado from his wife and lawyer for eight hours. “It was pretty scary,” Cohen’s wife, Courtney, recalls of the raid. “As we ran downstairs to meet these guys I remember shouting, 'Please don't shoot our dogs! Please don't shoot our dogs!'"

Matt Cohen had paid about $8,500 in permitting fees to Mendocino County that spring. “Gladly,” the Farm Bureau member told me. “We aren’t fighting the Man. We are the Man.”

Local law enforcers had come to Cohen’s birthday party that summer. He was a poster child for cannabis farming done right. His 3,300 patients loved him for the reliable source of organically grown medicine his farm provided. One is AARP member Bill Harney, a liver cancer battler. When I visited with him in the “Valle Vista Senior Subdivision" home where he had for more than a year received deliveries from Cohen’s Northstone Organics Cooperative, he told me, “A year ago I weighed 118 pounds. Now I’m up to 155. My doctor recommended cannabis to me because he knew if I didn’t eat I would die.”

Cohen’s permit fees were part of the $605,000 raised by Ordinance 9.31 in 2011, which zip-tied thousands of samples from the county’s leading crop in those yellow bracelets, and directly saved seven deputy jobs that were slated for elimination in county budget cuts.

Cohen himself had made about $50,000 in salary in three years as a -- as far as Mendocino County was concerned -- perfectly legal farmer. As legal as if he had been growing corn or tomatoes.