Marijuana Production in the United States (2006) by Jon GettmanPolicy Analysis and Recommendations

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The DEA’s Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCESP) is a well-run and well-funded program. [24] The DCESP is staffed with dedicated and well-trained professionals, and it benefits from the best equipment, state-of-the-art technology, and the cooperation of local law enforcement and National Guard personnel throughout the country. From 2001 to 2005 the program eradicated an average of 33,033 outdoor cultivation sites per year and an average of 2,701 indoor marijuana grow-rooms per year. From 1982 to 2005 DCESP eradicated over 103 million cultivated marijuana plants, an average of 4.3 million cultivated plants a year over this 24 year period. (See Table 9.)

Table 9. Cultivated Marijuana Plants Eradicated (1982 – 2005)

Cultivated Plants


Despite their best efforts the DCESP has been unable to curtail the growth of domestic marijuana cultivation in the United States, let alone make any progress toward suppressing, abolishing, or eliminating this market phenomenon. For example, consider these comments from this 1982 report by the DEA on eradication efforts:

“Quantitative analysis of data derived from the 1982 program reveals that domestic marihuana (sic) reduction for 1982 was significantly greater than that estimated for previous years. Using a relatively accurate plant count and conservative weight per plant factors, it is estimated that 1,643 metric tons of marketable marihuana were eradicated. The strategic intelligence estimate for 1981 domestic marihuana production was 1,200 metric tons. Therefore, the program shows that in 1982, 38% ore marihuana was eradicated than was previously believed to exist.

“Although a total U.S. marihuana production figure is not easily determined, the statistics obtained from this program reveal, without doubt, that the United States is becoming a major source for the drug.

“By all measures, the 1982 DEA Domestic Marijuana Eradication/Suppression Program was extremely successful.” Pages iii-iv [25]

The program has been successful in achieving its annual short-term goals of (a) establishing a credible deterrent to discourage market participation through eradicating large quantities of marijuana, making arrests, and (b) seizing property and assets from defendants. Nonetheless the program has been unsuccessful in curtailing the growth and expansion of marijuana cultivation in the United States. Indeed an unintended effect of publicity about program successes such as arrests and seizures has been to promote market participation. News about seizures of marijuana plots and grow rooms widely advertises the high prices and profit potential associated with the cultivation of high quality marijuana.

The 1982 DCESP report also notes that “the latest published estimate for domestic marihuana (sic) production in 1980 is 700 – 1000 metric tons. Not yet published estimates for 1981 indicate an increase to 900 – 1,200 metric tons.” [26] Contemporary Federal Government estimates of marijuana production in the United States have now reached 10,000 metric tons, a ten-fold increase over this 25 year period.

The public policy of discouraging marijuana use through prohibitive law enforcement activities depends on establishing and exercising control over production. The purpose of the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is to establish a closed system of production and distribution in which both illicit production and diversion from licit manufacture is both minimal and subject to control through law enforcement activity. Illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, at least in theory, are subject to control by way of eradication, interdiction, and disruption of long international supply lines. Marijuana, on the other hand, is produced through increasingly decentralized and diffuse domestic and international cultivation, frequently in places virtually imperceptible to law enforcement efforts.

DEA’s eradication efforts began in 1979 in California and Hawaii. In 1981 the program added five additional states, and in 1982 the program was expanded to 25 states. The program now operates in every state in the country. Extensive eradication efforts produced unintended effects, such as driving cultivation onto federal lands and into indoor cultivation. Over time the DCESP required the assistance of the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Guard. Growers began to cultivate smaller plots to avoid aerial detection and also to develop techniques and genetic strains to produce marijuana with increased potency. Even as DCESP expanded its efforts to all fifty states, developed new technologies, and adapted its enforcement tactics to respond to trends and changes in grower strategies marijuana production in the United States steadily increased in scope, size, price, and profitability.

While the DEA’s DCESP often provides hope of short-term gains against the proliferation of marijuana cultivation in the United States a long-term perspective demonstrates that it has only produced a facade of control. Despite the best efforts of dedicated law enforcement officers, public administration professionals, and political appointees DCESP, based on past performance over the last 25 years, appears incapable of exercising control over or providing a credible deterrent against the cultivation of marijuana in the United States.

Advocates for and supporters of the current prohibitive marijuana policies often argue against alternatives to law enforcement suppression policies by claiming that legalization, the only reasonable alternative, would lead to greater use of marijuana. However without effective and credible control over production it is impossible to limit access to marijuana by teens and children, and limiting such access is not only the paramount objective of anti-drug policies but also the only certain way to reduce marijuana use in the long term. Arguments based on the premise that marijuana use is dangerous or otherwise detrimental to minors and adolescents in fact make the strongest case in support of changing public policies. Adopting more realistic and more effective methods of controlling the market will not only reduce access to teenagers and children but also provide sufficient revenue to fund sufficient law enforcement, education, and treatment approaches to all drug abuse issues.

The ten-fold growth of production over the last 25 years and its proliferation to every part of the country demonstrate the irrefutable reality that marijuana has become a pervasive and ineradicable part of the economy of the United States. The contribution of this market to the nation’s gross domestic product is overlooked in the debate over effective control and discouragement of use by teenagers and children. Like all profitable agricultural crops marijuana adds resources and value to the economy. The focus for public policy should be how to effectively control this market through regulation and taxation in order to achieve immediate and realistic goals, such as reducing teenage access, rather than to continue to sacrifice achievable goals in exchange for unachievable long-term goals that have failed to materialize over the last 25 years.

The remedy to this failure to exercise control will not be found in better administration. The current policy approach will not succeed through increased funding, refinements in management, more sophisticated technology or marginal adjustments such as changes in legal penalties or greater efforts to build public support. These adjustments have been tried and have failed. New regulatory approaches need to be explored, discussed and enacted.

It’s time to debate the legalization of marijuana in the United States. Skeptics argue against legalization as a way of reducing teenage access, for example, by citing teenage access to alcohol and tobacco in a legal market despite age restrictions and related penalties. However unlike marijuana teens do not have a profit motive to sell tobacco and alcohol to one another. Effective control over production of tobacco and alcohol are prerequisites to both controlling access to those drugs by teenagers and the implementation of successful educational and discouragement campaigns. Replacing the façade of control provided by current policies with effective regulatory policies is also the first step in enacting effective policies to reduce teenage marijuana use.

Key elements of marijuana legalization policies should include federal and state excise taxes on production, distribution, and sales along with licensed market participation, age restrictions, and prohibitions on advertising and marketing to minors. Current regulatory models for tobacco and alcohol provide suitable examples upon which to base legislation to enact effective marijuana controls under federal and state laws.

Under the policies of the last 25 years marijuana has become the most widely produced illegal drug in the United States and the nation’s largest cash crop. The ten-fold increase in marijuana production from 1,000 metric tons in 1981 to the contemporary estimate of 10,000 metric tons undermines all drug control programs; with results like these it is difficult to take assurances of long-term effectiveness in any federal anti-drug program seriously. Taxation and regulation of marijuana is in the public interest. The refusal to implement a regulatory program for marijuana in the United States is irresponsible and a violation of the public trust.

The ten-fold growth of production over the last 25 years and its proliferation to every part of the country demonstrate that marijuana has become a pervasive and ineradicable part of our national economy. The failure of intensive eradication programs suggests that it is finally time to give serious consideration to marijuana’s legalization in the United States.