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

Critics of Colorado’s new drug policy say the campaign for legal marijuana mimics cigarette’s lobbying as ‘Big Tobacco redux’

By Rory Carrol

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 celebrate the world’s first legal retail pot sales. Instead of talking about the counter-culture, they spoke approvingly of regulations, taxes and corporate responsibility. They looked sober, successful – mainstream.

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.

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.”