Home-grown $$$

Mar 11, 2009 at 12:00 am

Here's a thought to make you wonder what kind of radical nut job Larry Gabriel is: What about legalizing marijuana in Michigan and making hemp a part of our agricultural and industrial economy?

I'm not talking about creeping up on the idea in increments. I'm talking full-blown twisting up a doobie and publicly puffing your day away without recrimination. Buying and selling marijuana for recreational purposes is already a huge part of our underground economy, or black market if you please.

"The state is losing billions of dollars due to marijuana being illegal," says the Rev. Steven Thompson, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "It would be a big boost to our economy. Federal statistics about two years back showed that the cannabis plant is the No. 1 cash crop here in the state of Michigan and it's illegally grown."

When something illegal is your No. 1 cash crop, and you are in an economic freefall, it seems to me the crop needs to get some official attention from the state. That's what's going on out West. California State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano has proposed legislation to legalize marijuana in California. His proposal acknowledges the fact that, although illegal, marijuana is California's biggest cash crop. We're talking about $14 billion a year. And that doesn't even take into account what's imported from outside of the United States.

Let's get out front here in Michigan. We don't want to come late to the party after half the nation has legalized the weed when there is nothing but the equivalent of stems and seeds left in the marijuana bonanza.

There are so many ways marijuana and its hempen counterpart can bolster a faltering economy. For starters, it can be grown here, which would bolster our agriculture industry. It can be regulated and taxed, and the money paid for it will ripple through the economy. We'll save money in the criminal justice system, from initial arrests and court costs to prison and parole costs.

And hemp has so many uses it could almost be considered a wonder plant. The wide-open fields found all about the city have already spawned a growing urban farming movement. If hemp were added to the mix, it could spawn all kinds of economic activity, from textiles to car parts.

Canada legalized hemp-growing in 1998, and 60 percent of what Canadian farmers grow is imported to the United States — not to mention the illegal cannabis grown there that comes here. We could grow it ourselves.

There could be a hemp-based textile industry here. Clothing of all kinds is made from hemp. There are products such as jewelry, shoes, paper, rope and, from the seeds, body and cooking oils. As we develop a cellulose-based ethanol industry, hemp has more cellulose content than most plants — and it grows really fast

There are even 100 percent biodegradable plastics made from hemp. If you play Frisbee golf you may have been tossing the hemp around. Ford, GM, Chrysler, Saturn, BMW, Honda and Mercedes use hemp composite door panels, trunks, head liners and other parts in their vehicles. An Australian company uses a hemp plastic resin to make musical instruments and furniture. It's not new; Henry Ford long ago demonstrated that car doors and fenders made with hemp and sisal cellulose plastic were strong, dependable car parts.

Hemp is even used in brewing one of our favorite beverages. The Frederick Brewing Company in Maryland produces Hempen Ale, brown ale made with hemp seeds that, according to the label, give it a "creamy head" and "mellow herbal flavors and aromas." Hmmm ... maybe the Stroh Brewery could do something with that.

Talk about a cash crop. It's hard to argue against hemp even if you have problems with people deriving pleasure from smoking marijuana. The grade of cannabis that is grown for hemp production is pretty useless for the purpose for getting high. The low level of THC (the psychoactive ingredient that induces the high) in the plant makes that nearly impossible. But its nonrecreational possibilities seem nearly endless.

Maybe it's just a pipe dream, but I can see the green hemp fields of Detroit waving in the breeze, the sun shining down as people work the fields. I see textile manufacturing. I see oils squeezed from the seeds. I see industrial plastics. All of it comes from a ubiquitous weed that practically grows itself.

"It can be grown anywhere," says Thompson. "It should be grown in Michigan."

We once imagined a shiny, space age future with astronomically tall buildings, flying cars, domestic robots and vacations to the moon. We could change our thinking and dream of a smaller, sustainable city with agriculture and small industries fueling a culture of community and closeness.

Since we're already growing it here, we may as well get more out of it than an illegal buzz.

Michigan's medical marijuana law has already produced a healthy result, although no distribution system has been created. In Dec. 2007, Keith Campbell, of Unionville in Tuscola County, was charged with possession, manufacturing and possession of marijuana with intent to deliver and, because he had a gun, two felony firearms counts. Campbell's doctor had recommended he try marijuana for a medical condition. After the new law went into effect on Dec. 4, Campbell's attorney, Matthew Able, filed a motion to dismiss the charges and the judge did so.

I'm sure there will be much legal wrangling over how the law is applied, and you may not want to go through the headache, but if you have a doctor's recommendation, it's legal to grow a bit of the herb for your personal use. Just in case you need his help, Abel's office is in downtown Detroit above the Anchor Bar.

It's a shame that the uproar over the future of Cobo Center has degraded into an "us vs. them" argument. I thought we had grown up past that. Most of the bravado, posturing and rhetoric coming from Detroit City Council members have little to do with details of the deal arranged by Mayor Ken Cockrel. Again we have the specter of a fight between council and the mayor, division between Detroit and surrounding areas, and race as an ordering principle of how and why we do things. Barbara-Rose Collins' rambling diatribe last Thursday, capped off by a rendering of the old hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers," was embarrassing.

I've never found that particular song, with its metaphors of military might and war, to be particularly uplifting. And I have no idea what it has to do with the Cobo situation.

It does show that blacker-than-thou is still a strong part of Detroit politics. I suspect that, in addition to any legitimate problems with the deal, there are political influences stemming from the upcoming mayoral races stirring the pot — and that goes from the mayor's office, through council, and on down to Freeman Hendrix, who came in third and out of the race in the Feb. 24 primary. Hendrix, who has been very vocally opposing the deal, may well have his hat in the ring for the August primary.

Whatever it is, our elected officials and others need to keep their arguments focused on the issues and not the egos.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]