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Up in Smoke

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Up in Smoke

New York’s upstate region should be an energy arsenal of democracy, not a pot plantation. March 14, 2022
New York
Politics and law
Economy, finance, and budgets
Infrastructure and energy

During World War II, American industrial might, key to the defeat of the Nazis and Japanese, earned the name “arsenal of democracy.” As Vladimir Putin tightens his oil and gas stranglehold on Europe and pursues conquest in Ukraine, America’s energy prowess could merit that name as well—especially in upstate New York. In the 1940s, upstate manufacturers supplied bomb sights, aerial reconnaissance equipment, and anti-tank weapons. Today, the region is home to massive natural gas reserves that lie untouched and off limits.

The gas-rich Marcellus Shale has long been tapped in neighboring Pennsylvania, which has become the Texas of the Northeast. But overblown fears about fracking have aborted the growth of a similar industry upstate, even as its young people flee the region and its cities decline. New York’s share of the Marcellus reserves is substantial. Its estimated 9 trillion cubic feet of gas, once shipped in liquified form, could be keeping houses warmed and well-lit in Germany, helping wean that nation off its dependence on Russian energy.

The benefits to New Yorkers would be substantial, too. New pipelines could be helping turn turbines for Con Ed, which is unfairly shouldering blame for rising electricity prices while forced to pay high fuel prices for out-of-state imports. The shale gas industry could also be a source for good-paying jobs. In Pennsylvania, the average wage in the fracking industry is $71,000—and the highest-end workers earn about $127,000 a year.

But instead of inexpensive, relatively clean-burning natural gas, Governor Kathy Hochul, in thrall to progressive environmentalists, promises to “jumpstart” a “safe, sustainable, and equitable” cannabis industry, having just signed legislation to permit large-scale cultivation. She prefers industrial agriculture for harvesting weed, whose economic benefits cannot compare with shale gas extraction—and whose essential purpose is of dubious social merit. There remain no FDA-approved medical purposes for marijuana, and it is hard to justify a push for increased drug use as the United States struggles with an addiction and overdose epidemic.

Worse still, as California and Oregon have learned, it can be hard to spot illegal pot farms. Such crops have fueled a vast black market, thus defeating one of the key reasons for legalizing marijuana in the first place. The weed market in the Golden State is a “mess,” concedes the Los Angeles Times, which supported legalization six years ago: “The black market is as big as ever, with roughly 75 percent of marijuana sales in the state coming from unlicensed sellers. Illegal pot farms are still degrading sensitive environmental habitats.”

Nor will black-market cultivation likely be confined to rural areas. New York State’s little-known Cannabis Control Board is drafting regulations to approve home-grown pot for medical use, which would lay the foundation for illegal cultivation anywhere. The board has proposed rules allowing any adult qualified to use medical marijuana to raise six cannabis plants yielding 24 grams of concentrated cannabis. The national group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which urges caution in the legalization process, estimates that this is enough for 256 joints. It would still be illegal to sell one’s harvest, but that would be hard to monitor, and landlords wouldn’t be able to prohibit small pot farms in apartments. And it has become ever easier to qualify for medical pot: one now needs only a virtual doctor’s visit, and pain of any kind qualifies.

All this, says Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples–Stokes, herself from upstate, will be in the service of an industry “centered on equity and economic justice for communities of color.” One wonders what she and Hochul have been smoking. Minority communities need less drug use, not more legal sellers. Far better to train inner-city kids for the good-paying oil and gas industry jobs that upstate fracking would deliver. If they had their priorities straight, New York’s leaders would turn upstate into an energy arsenal of democracy—not a pot farm.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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