Take a look at a map outlining the current legality of cannabis in the U.S. You may notice larger concentrations of adult-use states in the Northern and Western regions, while the South offers some medical access. If you were to look at that same map, say two, five or seven years earlier, you’d see little to no legal cannabis in the Southern U.S.
It was a broad perception that these Southern states would never legalize cannabis use — but things seem to be changing. After previous failed efforts, Mississippi became the 37th state to legalize medical cannabis in February 2022, just one month after Louisiana expanded its medical program to include cannabis flower and about a year after Alabama legalized cannabis for medical access.
Cannabis legalization is thought to bring a positive impact on economies and job markets — and it seems states and government leaders of all types are starting to notice and take action. Cannabis has become a bipartisan topic both in Congress and among the general American population.
On the federal level, 2021 brought multiple comprehensive cannabis reform bills, most recently the States Reform Act from Southern Congresswoman Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). Prior to that, Congressman Dave Joyce (R-Ohio) and the late Don Young (R-Ark.) introduced the Common Sense Cannabis Reform for Veterans, Small Businesses and Medical Professionals Act. Shortly after, Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who has Southern roots, voiced support for ending federal prohibition. And multiple congresspeople have either voted in favor of or expressed their support for Congressman Ed Perlmutter’s (D-Colo.) SAFE Banking act bill, which would reform cannabis banking issues.
These efforts are adding to the campaigns for reform we’ve seen over the years. One of the most notable efforts is the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), introduced by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). This bill draft seeks to legalize cannabis in the U.S., advance equity and economic empowerment for communities impacted by prohibition, and other crucial regulatory updates.
The Potential Cannabis Holds as a Cash Crop
According to the USDA, Mississippi‘s top commodities are soybeans and corn. Louisiana‘s current top crops are also soybeans and corn, and Alabama‘s are corn and cotton. The economy of the South is driven by agriculture. Unfortunately, the USDA projects that major field crops, including corn, soybeans and cotton, will be subject to decline over the next 10 years. Declines in commodity prices could cause devastating repercussions to ripple throughout many communities.
Suppose these Southern farmers were to grow cannabis instead. In that case, they have the potential to make a new cash crop in the region — an economic benefit that could come with legalization. As a commodity, cannabis could have exponentially increasing effects on the economy with those revenue dollars in crops, leading to new jobs and tax revenue opportunities.
It’s clear that cannabis has the potential to be the new cash crop for the South — one with potentially positive impacts on its communities.
Starting a cannabis economy comes with a lot of big regulatory decisions and challenges, but the South has proven its skills in many of the areas that are crucial to successful cannabis markets: farming, manufacturing and regulated frameworks.
A crucial next step apart from decriminalizing is addressing the massive social injustice the War on Drugs propelled, which reinforced fundamental inequities, especially for the BIPOC community. These are the necessary steps to ensure that the future of cannabis is equitable and has social, environmental and financial benefits shared by all. There have been social justice and equity efforts across the map, but there is still so much work to be done. As the South warms up to cannabis as a crop, industry leaders must keep in mind how we can build frameworks that are socially responsible.
The economic opportunity that comes with the legalization of cannabis could be a game-changer for farmers and economies in the South.