EDITORIAL: Will we see gold from pot?

JOKES ABOUT LEGALIZED MARIJUANA aren’t funny anymore except to people who, at the moment, find everything really amusing. Who would have thought that the promise of big money and better laws would dampen our sense of humor?

Last week we learned that a new company called Good Green Group LLC based in Westchester County has named two sites in Columbia County as locations where it would like to grow and process marijuana for medical purposes, something that will be legally possible once the state chooses the five companies to operate such facilities statewide.

This week the state Department of Health released the names of the 43 companies that have filed applications to become one of those five medical marijuana franchises and, sure enough, Good Green Group was on the list. Does that mean we’ll be adding legal marijuana to the agricultural products produced here in the county?

It’s a long shot. If it comes down to a lottery, the odds would be slightly better than one in nine of winning. But the health department gets to choose from among the applicants, and because some of them have experience producing medical marijuana in states where the product is already available to help relieve the symptoms of cancer and other maladies, these established firms would probably have an advantage.

That doesn’t mean Good Green Group isn’t serious. It cost $10,000 for the company to submit the application and if it is one of the five companies chosen it will cost another $200,000 for a two-year license. Stephen Steeneck, one of the principals of Good Green Group said he expects the initial investment would come to $10 million.

The two sites Mr. Steeneck has listed as possible locations for his company’s pot plant plant (or grass factory, if you prefer) are the old L&B Furniture factory near Route 9G in Hudson and the closed Roe Jan School building on Route 22 in Copake. Neither structure was designed for what seems likely to be a high tech agricultural/pharmaceutical operation. So $10 million might be a conservative estimate.

The risks of the medical marijuana business are different from the illicit trade that continues to prosper wherever marijuana can’t be legally obtained. If you pay your taxes, government won’t bust you. And while foreign suppliers may eventually decide to compete with you, they won’t use automatic weapons to increase their market share.

Whatever it costs, the rewards will be substantial to the companies chosen for this new state-sanctioned monopoly. The Washington Post recently reported that sales last year of medical marijuana in Colorado–a state where recreational marijuana is also legal–were nearly $400 million. How odd, then, that only 43 companies applied here. The relatively narrow field suggests to how fierce the competition among the applicants will be.

There’s no way for outsiders to predict what the outcome will be. But anyone familiar with state politics knows that there is, or will be, some sort of imperative for distributing the marijuana manufacturing windfall statewide. Looked at through a geo-political lens, the New York metropolitan area including Long Island will get one or two sites, western New York another, perhaps Central New York  and the Southern Tier will each have one, which leaves one license available for the Capital Region and North Country. At least we’re in the game. Or are we?

The Hudson site is zoned industrial, but does anyone know the environmental consequences associated with the industrial production of marijuana? Will those factors remain trade secrets like the fluids used in fracking?

In Copake the state has allowed a serial polluter to dump prohibited materials for years a few miles from the proposed site. Will state regulators consider their negligence and its consequences a plus for the Good Green Group’s proposal?

How would the Columbia Economic Development Corporation, recently the target of a state investigation into its reporting practices and potential conflicts of interest, respond to a request for assistance from the Good Green Group? Maybe the Good Green Group wouldn’t want to be publicly associated with the CEDC.

The Good Green Group has an opportunity to profit from a substance that can relieve pain and suffering. It’s their right and could be a positive step for our economy. But while the pharmaceutical industry has brought us amazing drugs, it has also hidden the dangers of some products, kept others unaffordable and encouraged us to overmedicate ourselves and our environment. Medical marijuana is now joining that industrial parade. Good luck with that.

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