The Current and Future Place of Cannabis Cultivation in the Global Economy

The news that Germany may legalize recreational cannabis as soon as the new coalition government is in office makes it increasingly clear that the plant and its derivatives are changing the face of the global economy. With a population of 83 million, Germany is poised to become the largest market for legal cannabis yet, far surpassing the current leaders—California and Canada.

In the US, the move to legalize adult use of cannabis on the federal level has bi-partisan support. In addition to a rather limited GOP proposal and a broader legalization bill sponsored by Democrats, there’s now a third initiative—also drafted by the Republicans—that is a compromise of the two. Regardless of the fate of any of those proposals in the current legislative season, the trend to legalize cannabis in the country is undeniable.

Sixty eight percent of Americans support this policy change, according to a recent Gallup poll. This is the highest number ever since the company started to ask the question in 1969. The Congress is historically more conservative than the voters it represents, but it is likely that legislators will soon enact the wishes of their constituents. With Canada having a legal marijuana market in place since 2018 and Mexico expected to follow suit, the legalization in the US would create a truly huge market spanning across a whole continent.

It means that the global patterns of cannabis cultivation and trade will change dramatically, and experts are at a loss predicting what exactly is going to happen. Close to 90 years of almost total prohibition of cannabis on a global scale resulted in very poor knowledge of how illicit markets function and whether they’ll manage to survive in the new legal environment or go extinct.

In the last 50 years, the geography of marijuana growing has come a long way—from the Hippie Trail comprising a handful of Asian countries with century-old traditions of cannabis cultivation and consumption to a truly global phenomenon. According to a UNODC report, cannabis was being grown in 135 member states between 2010 and 2015.

We have to ‘thank’ the War on Drugs for the fact that cannabis cultivation has spread so wide and so fast. Enforcement efforts have disrupted transcontinental trade, creating a competitive edge for those who were ready to meet the demand locally. The War on Drugs has also spurred innovation—because of the pressure to produce more potent products as well as bigger yields from a limited number of plants.

The innovation quickly led to the emergence of modern hybrids, sinsemilla (unseeded flowers), autoflowering feminized seeds, early-flowering and cold-resistant varieties, etc. Today, outdoor cultivation is possible in almost every climate. It’s even more true for indoor growing with artificial lighting and controlled environmental conditions.

It was probably easier back in the day to estimate the volume of the illegal trade based on the eradication of fields in the traditional producing countries like Morocco, Afghanistan, and Thailand, as well as on the border seizures. But today, the fragmentation of illicit cannabis production into small indoor and outdoor grow-ops means that we don’t know the first thing about it.

Even the classification of the plant itself remains a contentious subject among biologists. The traditional division of the plant into the Sativa and Indica subspecies says close to nothing about its chemical composition, according to a recent study. And while the commercial names of the strains, such as Girl Scout Cookies seeds, may convey a lot of important information—about its potency, aroma, and taste—to a cannabis aficionado, it has no worth to scientists.

So the current state of affairs in the illegal marijuana cultivation sector largely remains a mystery. It makes it even harder to make an educated guess about how it will transform itself as the legalization trend continues. One possibility is that in a world where cannabis is legalized or decriminalized globally, the traditional producers will regain their role as suppliers of endemic heirloom genetics. This is what Colombia plans to do as it has removed the regulatory barriers for exporting its produce to countries like Australia that don’t grow medical cannabis and rely on imports.

A totally different possibility is that the era of landrace varieties is over. This is what happens in Morocco for example where aboriginal subspecies are increasingly replaced with commercial high-yielding hybrids imported from Europe. The traditional cultivation and processing techniques here also make way to more advanced methods as Westerners come here with modern machinery, investments, and knowledge.

These developments also threaten the livelihoods of cannabis farmers in poor countries like it happens in the US where the mom-and-pop model finds it hard to compete with the “Big Marijuana”.

All this is a food for thought as the ending of the socially unjust and ridiculously ineffective War on Drugs may have its cons after all. So it is best to proceed, thinking of possible unintended consequences.