One of the many persistent myths about cannabis—right up there with “George and Martha Washington smoked bowls at Mount Vernon”—is that pot is by far the nation’s top cash crop. Anyone who has ever flown over or driven through the Midwest should know better: Corn is king in the United States. And soy is no slouch.
Corn will certainly retain the title for the foreseeable future, but new research from Leafly concludes that legal weed is nearing the top of the crops, coming in as the country’s fifth most valuable harvest. That puts it just behind wheat and just ahead of cotton, the crop that in many ways fueled the rise of America. Cotton is also similar to cannabis in another, grimmer way: African-Americans suffered mightily to bring both crops to the masses. See also: sugar.
The myth of pot’s value as a crop isn’t nearly as goofy as many other pot myths, like the one that insists the federal government grows the best weed in the world on a secret farm. In fact, there are valid arguments for pot’s high value not being a myth at all. It depends on how “crop value” is measured. And the debate is muddied by the fact that pot was illegal for decades, and much of it still is. It’s not like growers of illicit weed are given to reporting their receipts to their local farm bureau. And since weed is still federally illegal, even legit growers and processors are leery about issuing reports when they don’t have to.
About 15 years ago, cannabis seemed to have been proven to be the leading U.S. crop in terms of cash value when the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws issued research showing it to be so. The annual value of America’s pot crop was $35.8 billion, the report concluded—outpacing the value of corn by more than $12 billion at the time. The entire media ate it up.
For several years, the report, written by NORML’s then-president Jon Gettman, was often cited uncritically. In 2012, a widely lauded book written by a team of researchers and titled Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know cast doubt on the report’s conclusions. The authors—Jonathan Caulkins, Angela Hawken, Mark Kleiman and Beau Kilmer—said Gettman had relied too much on “hypothetical” numbers, and drew specious conclusions. “Analyses purporting to support the claim,” they wrote, “must contort the numbers, citing the retail price of marijuana but the farm-gate price of other products, or pretending that all marijuana consumed in the United States in sinsemilla, or ignoring the fact that most marijuana used in the United States is imported, or simply starting with implausible estimates of U.S. production.” Gettman stood by his research.
Importantly, Leafly measured the value of legal weed, which is still dwarfed—even in California—by illicit grows. While the numbers there are still somewhat squishy, they’re a lot more solid than the ones purporting to quantify the illegal crop. According to Leafly, legal cannabis comes after corn, soybeans, hay and wheat. Corn’s value is about $60 billion. Pot’s value is $6.2 billion. Maybe the most remarkable stat Leafly shared, though, is the fact that there are now more than 13,000 pot farms in the United States. “It’s time to start treating cannabis farmers like farmers,” Leafly declared.
At some point all of the back and forth on which crop is the most valuable becomes—literally—academic. Leafly’s research, too, is founded on a fair amount of estimating—though the estimates appear to be more solid than Gettman’s were. That’s not a flaw: it’s just that, even with legal weed, it’s still impossible to pin down solid numbers. That will remain the case until pot is fully legal in the United States. At that point, the value of the cannabis crop will become just as reliably measurable as the value of the tomato crop.
For the moment, it’s probably best to just appreciate the fact that a crop that has sent thousands of people to prison just for possessing it is—without question—one of the most valuable in the country.