Big Cannabis: will legal weed grow to be America’s next corporate titan?


The people who made a hippie dream come true do not look the part.

Instead of tie-dye T-shirts, the campaigners who masterminded the legalisation of recreational marijuana in Colorado wore dark suits and ties to enjoy the world’s first legal retail pot store sales. Instead of referring to the counter-culture, they talked approvingly of regulations, taxation and corporate responsibility. They seemed clean, successful – mainstream.

Big Cannabis will legal weed grow to be America's next corporate titan

With Washington state poised to follow Colorado later this year, and activists in a dozen other states preparing to fight for wider legalisation, a once-illicit plant is now breeding a big, legitimate industry replete with advocates, interest groups and lobbyists.

The Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Medical Marijuana Industry Group and the National Cannabis Industry Association are just some of the groups now vying, with notable success, to shape public opinion and government policy.

To the likes of Diane Goldstein, a former lieutenant commander with the police department of Redondo Beach, California, who’s become an activist for the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, this is welcome evidence that society has turned against the drug war. “It’s no longer dangerous for people to have a rational view about a failed policy,” she said.

But for critics like Kevin Sabet of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalisation, the celebratory scenes in Denver pot shops this week were evidence that a Big Tobacco-style campaign of manipulation had prevailed.

Many Americans, Sabet said, were unaware that pot could cause long-lasting health damage, especially to the young, and that the American Medical Association opposes legalisation. “It’s Big Tobacco redux” said Sabet, who also directs the University of Florida’s drug policy institute.

What was a fringe movement four decades ago had evolved into a slick, well-funded network based in Washington DC, he noted. “It was, ‘We need to cut our ponytails, take off our tie-dye shirts, put on our Macy’s suits, go to Congress and start lobbying state legislators.’”

And, he argued, the marijuana industry has been mimicking cigarette companies’ playbook in trying to portray their product as virtually harmless while using chemistry and marketing to turn consumers into addicts.

According to Sabet, the industry comprises a vast coalition of lobbyists, billionaire sponsors like George Soros and the late Peter Lewis, and profit-seeking investors like Privateer Holdings and the ArcView Group.

An estimated $1.43bn worth of legal marijuana was sold for for medicinal purposes in 2013, and that figure is likely to increase exponentially with the advent of legal recreational pot.

There is no doubt the industry has come a long way since Keith Stroup founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws with $5,000 from the Playboy Foundation in 1970.

Marijuana in a shop in Denver, Colorado.
Marijuana in a shop in Denver, Colorado. Photograph: Reuters

Activists say smartening up their appearance was a natural step. A few years ago, Mason Tvert wore scruffy T-shirts while urging Colorado college students to back legalisation. After winning that fight with a ballot initiative in the November 2012 general election Tvert became the Marijuana Policy Project’s communications director and moved to a smart, well-staffed office near the domed state capitol in Denver. “Yeah, I wear a suit these days,” he smiled.

More important, he said, was the campaign’s focus on a core message: pot is safer than alcohol.

Buttonholing legislators and policymakers was crucial to reform, said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group. “We’re lobbying for regulation and taxation. That’s why we’re beside the state capitol. We’re down there every week.” The group recently moved to a new office in Denver.

Tvert and Elliott attributed the momentum behind legalisation to public recognition that prohibition is a fiasco that leads to needless mass jailing and fiscal waste. And Goldstein, the police officer-turned activist, said pro-legalisation forces still have only meagre resources and could barely be said to have lobbyists. Leap’s speakers, she said, are not paid.

Mark Kleiman, a public policy professor and drug legalisation expert at UCLA, said the marijuana industry is not a united group with shared interests, and should not be viewed as a single lobbying force.

Many of those who have licenses to grow and sell medicinal weed, for instance, stand to lose heavily from legalising recreational pot because it would expand competition and depress prices, he said. Colorado’s medicinal sector obtained exclusive rights to sell recreational pot for nine months, a temporary shield, but medicinal growers in Washington state fear disaster.

In contrast to profit-driven industry lobby groups, said Kleiman, marijuana’s legalisation efforts so far were led by advocacy groups and funders like Soros who stood to make little or no financial gain. “These are not mostly people who are making a living from cannabis and are therefore lobbying for laws in their industrial interests.”

That would likely change, he said, with more legalisation and money. “The marijuana lobby is going from being purely ideological to being industrial.”

Could some of today’s bong-lovers become tomorrow’s industry spin doctors? Kleiman said it would be foolish to try to guess how lobbying will evolve but he did predict that as the industry gained a firmer footing it would more aggressively promote its interests.

“Ten years from now will there be an evil marijuana lobby devoted entirely to preventing any effective regulation or taxation? Absolutely. But that’s not the reality at the moment.”


One Response

  1. levi says:

    The distillers went to Congress and got Marijuana criminalized after the Prohibition. People had turned to marijuana when alcohol was not available and would not go back to drinking. The sales of alcohol were an important source of revenue for the Federalies and the alcohol industry played this to get Congress to help them rebuild the alcohol industry by outlawing marijuana. Marijuana could not be controlled as a source of taxation and alcohol could. The Prohibition movement was secretly funded by the oil companies to force the automobile technology developed to use gasoline for fuel. Prior to this the automobile makers helped promote automobiles to the public by advertising that the car could run on several fuels, alcohol being one. Most of America lived on or near the land and every farm could make its own fuel by distilling corn. Oil could not become the Big Oil if it could not capture completely the fuel needed for automobiles, hence the need to set up the movement to outlaw alcohol across the nation till the automobile industry was totally petroleum dependent. When this was accomplished and there was no possibility of an alternative fuel for cars and farms, then there was no need to keep the Prohibition in effect. Sooo, now we have to outlaw marijuana. I think voting got us into this shit and we are now going to use the same scenario to get us out of the Drug War and so on. It ain’t happening. Voting to continually fix our problems is like heroin to a heroin addict, more doesn’t mean better. Now the AMA will have to make the next move because the oil from marijuana that has the THC content is one of the absolute best cancer cures ever. And you are supposed to remain sick and duped so its got to get convoluted on the use of marijuana. I think we need 40,000 new laws for this new political meat grinder to capture the public attention and get us all spearing the windmill of what is the “correct” use of the plant.

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