Can Cannabis Save Coal Country?

By David Jenison on August 17, 2017

"Winter is easing in the rolling hills and hamlet hollows, and all the pre-spring indications are that marijuana will have another big year and remain this state's No. 1 cash crop, just as it continues prime in West Virginia and Tennessee," wrote the New York Times in an article titled "Kentucky Journal; Fighting Appalachia's Top Cash Crop, Marijuana."

The newspaper estimated that the annual Appalachian cannabis crop exceeded $4 billion in value, which is all the more impressive when one realizes this article came out in 2001. Sixteen years later, cannabis remains the most valuable crop in Appalachia, "bigger than tobacco" as one drug agent put it, and the value of cannabis seizures by law enforcement actually exceeds the value of the region's top legal crops. 

Donald Trump promised to bring coal jobs back to Appalachia, but the region's main legit industry is on the brink due to cheap natural gas, not regulations. Between 2000 and 2008, coal dominated the energy sector, supplying about half of all U.S. power. In 2016, coal's share of U.S. power fell to 32 percent, trailing natural gas (at 33 percent) for the first time. Adding to the coal industry dilemma, new forms of energy like wind and solar power are on the rise, while the coal seams still available are found in increasingly less accessible places. 

To quote the Scientific American in 2016, "Donald Trump’s promise to open shuttered coal mines in Appalachia might be as hard to fulfill as getting Mexico to pay for a new wall."

Maybe it's time for Appalachia to ditch coal in favor of a crop with a much brighter future. Even as an underground product, cannabis is already Appalachia's leading cash crop, and it could fill the community coffers if it were taxed and regulated as a legal commodity.  

At the annual Appalachian Studies Association conference in March 2017, Virginia native Mark Ferguson presented "Will legal pot end Appalachia’s biggest cash crop?" Ferguson recalls a happier time in local cannabis cultivation that has since become more dangerous in response to law enforcement and prohibition. Whereas cannabis farmers once welcomed people on their property, growers now secretly cultivate hundreds of thousands of plants in places like the Daniel Boone National Forest. In many cases, the plants are hidden so well that farmers need rappelling rope to reach them. 

Ferguson's article, which updated an earlier piece he published on his blog in 2011, noted, "[The value of cannabis cultivation] far exceeds farm incomes, and it even outstrips Appalachia's other breadwinner: coal. For instance, the world's largest coal company, Peabody Energy, earned $1.82 billion in 2010. That figure is based on worldwide production, and it is still dwarfed by the $4 billion pot industry in the Appalachian region."

Ferguson wonders if the area needs to cash in now or risk losing a profitable crop to the midwest. 

"Appalachia faces tough questions," he continues. "Will it continue to convict people who grow its biggest cash crop? Will it ignore a 2015 report that named marijuana the nation's fastest growing industry? Will it stand by as another of its economic pillars falls?"

A 2015 article published in Appalachian Magazine made a similar argument. The author recalls seeing "an entire column of dark green military-style Humvees" roar past his grandmother's home on their way to a cannabis farm. "[An] entire crop of marijuana was being confiscated by drug enforcement officers who, within a matter of hours, would be casting millions of dollars worth of goods into an incinerator." 

The West Virginia-based author proceeds to describe how the state has changed, noting that, "For those of us living here, or at least trying to make a living in this place, life in West Virginia has never been so uncertain or different…. As local leaders in the state's southern and most hardest hit counties find themselves in the fight of their lives to save their towns from ruin, the rest of us can't help but watch."

In addressing the flagging local economy, the author notes that Appalachia can do little more than promote ATV tourism and sell Hatfield & McCoy coffee mugs, but he offers a better option: "The true cash industry which could be changing everything for this hurting region may have been growing in them thur hills all along—marijuana, or to be more precise, cannabis. Out of all the plants suited for growing in the Appalachian region, it’s hard to make a case for any one more so than Mary Jane herself."

Many argue that Appalachia, like California, has areas with the ideal climate, soil and hydrology for cultivating cannabis. Now consider what California has done with its state-legal cannabis. In July 2017, the Orange County Register published a report that showed cannabis is now more valuable than the state's next five leading agricultural commodities combined. According to cash farm receipts for 2015, cannabis took in $23.3 million, followed by milk ($6.28 million), almonds ($5.33 million), grapes ($4.95 million), cattle ($3.39 million) and lettuce ($2.25 million). 

The Appalachian Trail is home to the Smoky Mountains. Why not give the mountain range a fresh new meaning? 

Right now, the federal government prohibits the cultivation of both cannabis and non-psychoactive hemp. Even if Appalachia didn't want to grow weed, it could certainly grow hemp like George Washington did hundreds of years ago, and the new hemp industry could help turn the economy around before coal's decline inflicts more harm. It's better than spending money to lock people up, which would have included post-presidential hemp farmer George Washington if he lived under the current federal laws. 

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