Murray, KY – We all know Kentucky's signature industries, coal, tobacco, but what about. . . Kentucky marijuana? Last year The Bluegrass State produced the third highest amount of "grass" in the nation, at 4.4 billion dollars. And there are some who want to capitalize on that. Angela Hatton reports on what legalizing marijuana would mean for the Commonwealth in the second in the series, "The Marijuana Belt." Trial attorney and perennial Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Gatewood Galbraith has been a marijuana advocate for over thirty years and he doesn't mince words about his stance.
"The plant should be utilized, taxed, and regulated in all of its capacities, and also to allow its use medically, and also allow its use by adults over twenty-one as long as they're not smoking it in public or enticing kids to smoke it."
He first encountered the drug in 1968, when a good friend of his recommended marijuana to treat Galbraith's chronic asthma.
"He said, 'Gatewood you should try this, it will help you.' And I really trusted this guy because he later became a doctor and I knew he was a smart fella. And so I smoked marijuana for the first time when I was 21 and from that date, from that very day forward I haven't had anything resembling an asthma attack."
Smoking marijuana to treat asthma? Sounds like hooey, but according to University of Kentucky Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science Dr. Joshua Lile research has been done on that very subject, linking tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, to asthma therapy.
"The rationale there is that THC and other cannabinoids are able to act as an anti-inflammatory."
Research has also gone into using marijuana to treat patients undergoing chemotherapy and people suffering from glaucoma. Thirteen states allow medical marijuana for purposes like this, but marijuana, legal or not, is still a drug and UK's Dr. Lile isn't sure enough long-term studies have been done into pot's negative effects on the body to warrant widespread use.
"There certainly are a number of studies that have suggested that there are long-term cognitive impairments with people who are chronic marijuana users."
Pot also has temporary effects that cause a lack of concentration, ability to perform tasks, and catalepsy, a reduction in movement. Lile says the severity of the effects vary widely. But marijuana isn't addictive like other drugs, right? Actually, Dr. Lile says in the last ten years, that view has changed.
"Certainly the magnitude of the magnitude of the physiological withdrawal response to stopping cannabis is not as large as with heroine, certainly it's not life-threatening like alcohol withdrawal, but there is a valid and well-characterized cannabis withdrawal that occurs upon cessation of use."
But even if the state risks the side effects, would legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational purposes be good for Kentucky's economy? Ken Troske is the director at UK's Center for Business and Economic Research and an economics professor. Troske says since the crop is currently illegal, it's hard to quantify how much money it would really bring in, but at least one thing is true.
"If your goal is to raise revenue, and I'm not saying that should be the goal, but if that's the goal, it could raise the amount of revenue you could raise from legalizing marijuana."
Troske doesn't take a stance in the marijuana debate, but he says from an economic cost-benefit analysis, there are advantages. A regulated marijuana industry would create jobs, although maybe not the highest paying jobs since marijuana is an agricultural crop. It would reduce jail expenditures from not prosecuting marijuana offenses. Revenue from state marijuana taxes would go into funding education and other social programs. Troske says costs for legalization would come from a possible increased health care burden from people suffering from marijuana side effects. He says legalization would also dramatically increase drug suppression costs in neighboring states.
"I mean, it's just like the costs we deal when we're trying to keep drugs from coming into the United States from Mexico. I mean, now, presumably lots of marijuana is going to be produced in Kentucky and shipped to Ohio, and West Virginia, and Missouri, and Indiana, Illinois, and Tennessee and other states near us."
And that's not all.
"Obviously if Kentucky suddenly legalized the production of marijuana and other states didn't, presumably people who are producing in other states, such as Tennessee, which is another large producer of marijuana, some of them would come over and grow it in Kentucky simply because it would be easier for them to grow it in a state where it would be legal."
But that's the caveat to this whole discussion. If Kentucky is the only state to fully decriminalize marijuana, the impact would be great, but if Kentucky is one of many, Troske says there would be no greater advantage to growing marijuana in this area than anywhere else. Despite the state's high production rates, our soil isn't markedly better for cannabis than any other state's soil. Agriculturalists says Kentucky's poverty, its hilly terrain, and its history with hemp production probably have more to do with the ranking than anything else.
Despite the talk about the economic and medical benefit from marijuana, Kentucky's cannabis debate is better typified by an incident earlier this year. Marijuana advocate Gatewood Galbraith sent a letter to Governor Steve Beshear's office urging the taxation and regulation of cannabis as a way to solve the state's budget crisis. Beshear's office says they never received the letter.