There are more than 300,000 people currently working in America’s hemp and cannabis industry. That’s more than the number of workers mining coal, brewing beer, and manufacturing textiles combined. Job gains in emerging cannabis markets range from a whopping 180% in Nevada, to an incredible 470% in Maryland, and an unfathomable 700% in Florida. The three highest revenue-generating states (California, Washington, and Colorado) have each earned more than $1 billion in lifetime cannabis tax revenue, with Oregon’s $275 million and Nevada’s $167 million rounding out the top five.
Fifteen states have so far fully legalized cannabis with another 36 legalizing it for medicinal purposes. Georgia, however, is not one of those states.
FACTS ON THE GROUND
Currently, only products that contain 5% or less of THC can be used, cultivated, processed and distributed in Georgia. This effectively limits the use of medical cannabis to CBD-based products, or those primarily made with hemp. Georgia regulations allow a limited number of patients with certain qualifying disorders — of which there are about 20 — to use cannabis medicinally. Those include late stage or severe conditions including cancer, HIV, and epileptic disorders. Public health advocates, including the Drug Policy Alliance, are critical of Georgia’s cannabis policies. Specifically, the Alliance finds that:
“While this law represents a rejection of federal prohibition on marijuana, denying access to the whole marijuana plant leaves the vast majority of patients without relief. Following a criminal justice approach, instead of a public health-focused approach, had led to devastating consequences in Georgia – including the country’s largest population under correctional control, vast racial disparities across its criminal justice system, and a rapidly rising overdose death rate.”
The state’s medical cannabis policies are a step in the right direction for criminal justice advocates. But, they are “grossly out of step with public opinion,” both at the national and state level, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). For example, research from fact tank, the Pew Research Center, shows a majority of Americans support legalization. Furthermore, “two-thirds of Georgians believe cannabis possession should be legal,” finds MPP.
Georgians have a lot to gain from either statewide or federal drug reform. For example, research from the ACLU finds that, “overall, the relaxing of marijuana laws, whether by legalization or decriminalization, coincides with lower average arrest rates for both sales and possession.”
To be clear, decriminalization differs from legalization. While the latter fully legalizes cannabis, decriminalization replaces criminal penalties (like jail time) with fines. In 2011, “California reclassified marijuana possession as an infraction instead of a misdemeanor, leading to a significant decline in misdemeanor marijuana arrests, which plunged from 54,849 in 2010 to 7,764 in 2011 – a decrease of more than 85%,” finds the Drug Policy Alliance.
However, arrest rates are lowest (about eight times lower) in fully legal states, the Alliance reports.
BILLIONS IN BENEFITS
In addition to decreasing arrest rates, pro-cannabis policies could generate hundreds of millions (if not billions) in tax revenue every year for the state. Think tank, Reform Georgia, says Georgia could earn up to $500 million in tax revenue from commercial cannabis each year. That figure, explains the organization, is “based on the revenue generated in other states [including Colorado] and adjusted for Georgia’s population.”
Since 2014, Colorado has earned more than $1 billion in tax revenue from commercial cannabis sales. However, the state’s population — and by extension, it’s consumer market — pales in comparison to Georgia’s. For instance, Colorado’s population is 5.75 million. Georgia, the ninth most populated state in the US, has more than 10.6 million. With nearly twice the population, the Peach State’s cannabis economy has potential to eclipse Colorado’s.
That revenue, reports Reform Georgia, could be re-distributed to education, healthcare and infrastructure. For example, more than $90 million was distributed to the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) between 2017-2018, reports the CDE. Those funds supported literacy programs, school construction, grants, and more.
Legalization has also proven to be a job engine in legal states. In fact, the industry is among the fastest-growing markets in the U.S., reports Forbes, employing more than 500,000 people full time in 2018.
Georgia’s agricultural industry is one of the state’s largest, reports the Georgia Farm Bureau. “Nearly two-thirds of Georgia’s 159 counties are primarily engaged in agriculture. One-in-seven Georgians is employed in agriculture, forestry or related fields,” finds Reform Georgia. Currently, HB 324, passed in 2019, allows Georgia farmers to grow industrial hemp, which can be used for CBD oil, rope, paper, pet products, fuel and more. That gives Georgia farmers access to the multi-billion dollar U.S. hemp industry.
In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Don Barden, CEO of bioscience company, GA Xtracts in Union Point and Watkinsville, says, “the ultimate goal is for hemp grown in the state of Georgia to be the next Idaho potatoes, California raisins or Vidalia onions.” That could create numerous economic benefits for the state, and create jobs beyond the agricultural sector. In fact, Barden told the publication that GA Xtracts hired 200-250 people this summer to help with processing.
Halcyon Organics, South Georgia’s first nutraceuticals company, reports that, “a well-regulated medical cannabis program will create new jobs for hard-working, tax-paying Georgians. From horticulturists cultivating plants, to labs testing the safety of the medicine, to employees at dispensaries, regulated medical cannabis will create thousands of new, high-paying jobs in our state.”
But, as it stands, the state only has a limited medical market. As such, it is missing out on millions of potential tax revenue dollars, and thousands of jobs.
A GLOBAL RESEARCH HUB
Georgia’s current medical cannabis program, which allows low-THC products, catalyzed cannabis research within the state – and legalization could open the floodgates further.
For instance, when Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed House Bill 324 in 2019, he granted UGA the ability to study and grow low-THC varieties of cannabis, reports The Black and Red. As a result, UGA received a $3.5 million grant to study the effects of medical cannabis on chronic pain from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 2019, reports UGA TODAY.
In an interview with the publication, one of the study’s researchers, David Bradford, explains that it will break new ground for Georgia. “Researchers have been able to document reductions in aggregate prescription use, especially opioids, after states implement [medical cannabis],” Bradford says. But scientists don’t know how this affects their healthcare decisions in the long term.
“We’ll be the first to systematically evaluate that, and hopefully can give Georgia and other policymakers some idea of what to expect as we continue to roll this policy out in the state,” Bradford adds.
Georgia is a world hub for health innovation. It’s home to top tier global research institutions, including the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Task Force for Global Health, and the American Cancer Society. According to The Red and Black, legalizing “medical marijuana sales represents an important step in improving the state’s ability to care for those with long term pain and opens the state to a burgeoning market.”
Written By Melissa Hutsell