Earth & Conservation

Rural Towns See Pot Farming in Their Future

Weed is becoming a lucrative legal product that could help some economically depressed areas.

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In rural Klickitat County in southwestern Washington state, a trio of thriving farms point the way toward a better future for an area where the economy has struggled over the years, in part due to the shuttering of a local aluminum smelting plant.

But those farms don't grow wheat, wine grapes or other crops for which Klickitat traditionally has been known. Instead, the outdoor fields and greenhouses are filled with tall marijuana plants, which produce a product that Washington legalized back in 2012. The farms supply cannabis to Seattle-based Solstice, a company that processes, packages and distributes the legal weed on a wholesale basis to licensed dispensaries in Washington. In the process, the farms employ 15 people on a permanent basis and additional seasonal workers, according to Solstice co-founder Alex Cooley.

The four-year-old marijuana company, which has grown to $5 million in annual sales, has partnerships with six farms across the state and employs up to 150 people at those locations and its Seattle headquarters. But Cooley says that's just part of the economic impact.

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"For every employee, we probably create two other jobs in other businesses - from carpenters, electricians, plumbers and air conditioning technicians, to people who make packaging and sell us scissors," he explains. Add the specially-trained retail workers who help emporium customers pick their variety of marijuana, and it all adds up to an economic boost.

The legal marijuana industry's potential for creating jobs and income has other places across the U.S. and Canada, where medical marijuana is widely legal, looking to use it as an economic development tool. Industry advocates tout it as a way to revive depressed rural areas and small towns that have lost jobs due to the closure of mills and factories and the decline of industries such as coal mining.

One hint of pot's potential as an economic driver comes from a recent report issued by Arcview Market Research and New Frontier Data, which says that legal marijuana sales grew by a robust 23 percent nationwide between 2014 and 2015, to $5.7 billion-and may hit $22 billion by 2020. About half of that future revenue is projected to come from marijuana sold for recreational use. That's already legal in Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska, and several more states have referendums this fall in which voters can opt to legalize it as well.

"It certainly has the potential to be an economic boon for states that create regulated systems," explains Taylor West, director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Another sign of marijuana's moneymaking potential is Colorado, which joined Washington in 2012 as the first states to legalize cannabis. Pot-related businesses generated nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2016, according to The Denver Post.

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U.S. states who want a template also could look to the Canadian province of New Brunswick, whose government recently began promoting cannabis as a job-creating industry. The province has invested slightly more than $3 million in U.S. dollars in Zenabis, a company whose medical marijuana facility in northern New Brunswick will create a projected 208 jobs.

But there are limits to how much the cannabis industry can contribute to economic growth, even supporters admit. In the U.S., marijuana is still a controlled substance under federal law, so it can't be shipped across state lines, even between places where local laws permit its cultivation, sale and use. Until that changes, the legal cannabis industry in states will be limited to their own residents. For largely rural states with fewer inhabitants, and depressed areas that have seen population declines, that puts a hard ceiling on the market for legal marijuana, and how much revenue it can generate.

Cannabis industry lobbyists hope to convince Congress and other officials in the nation's capital to lift the federal government to remove marijuana from its list of illegal drugs. That would allow regulation of marijuana to revert to the states, which could then make their own rules and engage in interstate commerce, West says.

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