Shop Local, Buy Local: Why Small Farming Is the Future of American Cannabis Policy


Cannabis legalization is moving from "if" to "when", which brings up a variety of questions and issues never broached in a public forum under prohibition. As regulations emerge around the production, manufacturing, packaging and distribution of cannabis in both medical and commercial environments, we are suddenly recognizing that these debates are not new, nor are they unique to the cannabis industry. In fact, many of the considerations for cannabis regulations are already a large part of our societal discourse. Perhaps most obvious is the relationship between cannabis cultivation and the ever growing tension between small farmers and "Big Agriculture". A May 24, 2014 article in the New York Times titled When Cannabis Goes Corporate discusses how, in Canada, the federal government recently made it illegal for individual patients and small farmers to grow medical cannabis. Subsequently, they created a complex, capital-intensive regulatory framework that only allows large-scale corporate producers to operate legally. All of this in an attempt to rein in what was referred to as a "free-for-all" of thousands of smaller producers scattered across the county. Why should Americans care about this and what does it mean for the broader issue of crop production here at home?

Economics. Creating a regulatory framework that only supports a few large corporations hurts the U.S. economy as a whole by stifling small business and innovation within the cannabis industry. Competition makes industries stronger. By creating a new paradigm that avoids competition Canada has done the country, the industry, and the consumer a disservice. When competition is limited, ultimately it's the consumer that loses when they're offered less choice, and higher prices. Second, while laws limiting competition are often justified by arguing that they are "increasing public safety" or "reducing chaos" they are really just the product of a lobbying effort on the part of the big firms. They want a market advantage written into law so they can stop hiring new talent, stop innovating, and stop fighting to win customers by shutting down their competition. Economists refer to this as "rent seeking" and while exact numbers are virtually impossible to estimate, most economists agree that laws like this are one of the biggest drags on the US economy and one of the most important factors increasing economic inequality. Oligopolies serve to protect and benefit the rich. With the burgeoning cannabis industry we have an opportunity to start off on a different foot and we should take full advantage of that. In doing so, we will help the consumer and the US economy by creating future opportunities for tomorrow's small farmers.

Sustainability and Public Health. The corporatization of the cannabis industry ignores the decades of wisdom and expertise that small farmers have accumulated and follows the "monoculture" model of farming, that is, the practice of growing a single crop or plant species in the same space year after year and using large amounts of unhealthy pesticides and fertilizers. This is the basis of large-scale farm corporations that have been trying to control our food sources for decades. We are currently moving forward into an era where people are beginning to care more about how products they consume are produced and where environmental stewardship is becoming paramount due to things like global climate change. Due to this fact monoculture is being foregone in favor of the healthier and more environmentally supportive system of polyculture (a farming practice that imitates the diversity of natural ecosystems, thus, minimizing the need for pesticide and fertilizer use). Elwyn Grainger Jones, director of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized agency of the United Nations, recently stated, "Small farmers hold a massive collective store of experience and local knowledge that can provide the practical solutions needed to put agriculture on a more sustainable and equitable footing". Far from being an aberration or temporary fad, polyculture has been practiced for the majority of human history with great success and America's small-scale farmers are the people best equipped to carry on this tradition.

Job Protection and Equity. At great personal risk during arduous legal and political times people that worked in the cottage cannabis trade in both Canada and the US advanced the industry to where it is today. As such, they deserve to keep their jobs now that this risk is beginning to subside. Remember, up until fairly recently cannabis was illegal for all purposes in both countries and the reason there is any industry to speak of at all is because activists, small farmers, and entrepreneurs put their personal freedom on the line to move the industry forward. In the process some lost that freedom. Now, the government of Canada is saying, "thanks, but we'll take it from here" and giving pink slips to the little guy who can't afford to buy into the corporate structure, while handing the industry that these dedicated and courageous people created over to big business. That's not okay, and mirrors what we see happening with the production of other agricultural crops in the U.S.

Canada's federal government should be commended for having the courage to step up and take on something that has been long overdue in the U.S. -- regulating the cannabis industry. However, if we want a stronger and more robust system that is fair and that facilitates a healthy economy while protecting the environment and increasing consumer choice, we should create a system that allows all players, big and small, to participate and compete. After all, that's the American way. Thank you Canada, but America's cadre of small farmers can take it from here.

For a weekly roundup of news and developments in the drug reform movement and the injustices stemming from prohibition,  sign up to receive  AlterNet's Drugs Newsletter. Make sure to scroll down to "Drugs" and subscribe.

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