Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, raised eyebrows in Charleston this week by suggesting a new cash crop for West Virginia: marijuana.
On Tuesday, during a legislative hearing on agriculture, Barnes said the state should consider establishing a marijuana growing industry, with the product exported to states where it is legal.
Barnes cited a report predicting that sales of marijuana in states where it has been legalized, such as Colorado and Washington, will grow by nearly $8 billion during the next few years.
"We may never legalize marijuana in West Virginia, but maybe the potential exists for us to export the crop," he said.
Barnes told The Inter-Mountain Thursday he brought up the idea because Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick was speaking about the state's current agricultural exports and potential future growth.
"West Virginia is in need of growing, viable businesses that create jobs," Barnes said Thursday. "When we hear more from medical and pharmaceutical companies about results of tests on the product, a more informed decision can be made."
Helmick pointed out at Tuesday's hearing that West Virginians spend $7 billion a year on food, but the state only produces about $653 million of food products a year.
"If the growing (marijuana) for export was permissable it could benefit our state by adding revenue," Barnes said Thursday. "For example, many people in the neighboring state of Kentucky are against alcohol, but the state is one of the largest exporters of top quality bourbon in the world.
"I cannot say this is an answer or solution but it is something to think about. We currently have an underground black market in West Virginia for marijuana and the question is, do we want to put this agricultural product in the hands of entrepreneurs that can make a viable business out of it."
During Tuesday's hearing, Helmick said the idea of exporting marijuana was something he'd leave to the Legislature to discuss.
"If you guys say this is right for West Virginia, we'll have our eyes on it," Helmick was quoted as saying by The Charleston Gazette.
Media commentators have pointed out several flaws in the idea, including that marijuana sale still is illegal under federal law, and how difficult it would be to enforce a ban on marijuana use in a state where the drug could be grown legally.