Marijuana's value hard to measure -- it's illegal, after all

Supporters of legalizing marijuana and officers charged with seizing it have different opinions about the drug, but they agree on one point: It's a valuable crop.

Just how valuable, however, is another point of contention.

With the arrival of fall, growers of the illicit crop are racing to harvest the plants while law enforcement officials rush to find and wipe out growing sites. In two recent seizures in Tulare and Fresno counties, officials destroyed thousands of plants, which they said were worth $7.2 million.

That estimate is based on a formula used by the state Department of Justice: on average, each plant would yield a pound of usable marijuana over its remaining lifetime, and a pound of marijuana is worth about $4,000 when sold in small quantities on the street.

While marijuana advocates generally agree with authorities on the value of a pound of marijuana, they disagree that each plant yields a pound of pot. They say authorities should measure the actual marijuana seized, rather than make assumptions about a plant's lifetime potential.

The argument is more than a technical discussion. Larger quantities generally result in harsher penalties in court.

Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, better known as NORML, calls the values police put on seizures "self-serving."

"I don't think most plants (would yield a pound) at any one time -- unless it's a massive plant," he said. "What would make more sense would be to weigh the buds," which are the part of the marijuana plant where the intoxicant, a chemical called THC, is located.

Special Agent Casey McEnry of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency in San Francisco disagrees.

"We're not weighing the plants," she said. "When I give an estimate, it's based on how many pounds (a plant) is capable of producing."

That's also the approach taken by the state Department of Justice's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. Michelle Gregory, a special agent in Sacramento, said while some plants may not produce a pound, others will produce more.

"We're not going to weigh it over and over," she added, disputing arguments by marijuana advocates that prosecutions should be based on the weight of the drug when it’s dry because that is its usable form.