Cannabis is now the fifth most valuable crop in the United States behind corn, soybeans, hay, and wheat. Its $6.2 billion wholesale harvest value surpassed that of staples like cotton, rice, and peanuts, according to a new report from Leafly.
"Cannabis consumers and cannabis cultivators don't even know their own power yet. That was one of the things that emerged from the report," David Downs, lead author of the report and California bureau chief at Leafly, said.
The Department of Agriculture tracks yields, prices, and crop values for traditional agriculture, but because cannabis is federally illegal, no such statistics had been collected for cannabis — until now. Leafly's 2021 Cannabis Harvest Report tracks farm licenses, legal production, and crop value across 11 legal states for the 12 months of 2020 or whenever the most recent 12-month data were available on a state-by-state basis.
Leafly researchers collaborated with economists at Whitney Economics on the report. Although cannabis is legal in some form in 37 states, authors chose to focus only on Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — the 11 adult-use states where consumers can "walk into a store" and purchase cannabis, according to Downs.
Some 13,042 licensed cannabis farms across those states produced 2,278 metric tons of cannabis last year — enough to fill 57 Olympic swimming pools or 11,000 dump trucks lined up end-to-end and stretching for 36 miles, according to the report.
Cannabis was ranked within the top 5 crops by wholesale value in all 11 states. In several of them, including Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Oregon, cannabis was the single most valuable crop. The wholesale harvest value in those states ranged from $104 million in Alaska to $1.03 billion in Colorado.
"Where states are agricultural powerhouses, it has to compete. In states where there is no real agriculture, and because of these state programs you can only grow it in that state, it will kick the tar out of cranberries in Massachusetts," Downs said.
But even in California, which the USDA reports is the largest producer of agricultural products in the United States, cannabis is the fifth most valuable crop by wholesale value behind crops like almonds, grapes, pistachios, and strawberries. Californian cannabis cultivation supported 7,548 licenses and generated $1.66 billion in wholesale value, according to Leafly, and that doesn't even include California's robust illicit market.
"It's really exciting to put this front and center in front of people," Downs said. "Because when you understand that and you understand its impact, it gives you literally stronger ground to stand on moving forward as a voter, as a policymaker, as a member of the industry."
The study's authors hope this report will lead to more practical changes like transparent, even coordinated, data tracking for cannabis agriculture state-by-state, and fairer treatment of cannabis farmers.
In 2020, farmers cultivating traditional crops received $35 billion in emergency aid from Congress amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Cannabis farmers received none of that aid, according to Leafly. Cannabis farmers also lack access to traditional business and crop insurance, due to limitations on banking in the cannabis industry. Like other cannabis businesses, cannabis farmers are forced to pay onerous taxes. California cannabis growers paid $144 million in cultivation taxes in 2020, according to the report. One cannabis farm in Santa Barbara, Calif., paid more in local taxes than ExxonMobil, Downs said.
"Policymakers, consumers, and the farmers need to realize their own power and stop apologizing for how many jobs they're creating and how much revenue and taxes they're generating for their respective regions," he added.
There could also be very real political repercussions once lawmakers realize the economic power of cannabis.
In Kentucky, for example, longtime cannabis opponent Sen. Mitch McConnell enthusiastically embraced hemp, cannabis' low THC cousin. The shift came after he recognized the economic potential of hemp to help farmers battered by the decline of tobacco, Politico Magazine reported.
"It makes me want to ensure that whenever the discussions are happening locally, which is where the rubber meets the road in terms of these policies, [policymakers] know what they're turning their nose up at because of stigmatization, and the scheduling of marijuana," Downs said.
Leafly plans to release a Cannabis Harvest Report annually moving forward. Next year, authors plan to update the states as more legal sales come online, address hemp production, and include data on different product categories. Ultimately, they hope researchers and regulators will follow in their footsteps, challenging their numbers and improving upon what Leafly started.
"We're doing the best we can. But we look forward to the intellectual rigor, that people whose shoulders we stood on stand on ours," Downs said.