But placing faith that legalization will help any of these issues is misguided. In fact, legalization threatens to further contribute to disproportionate health outcomes among minorities, all the while creating a massive new industry — Big Tobacco 2.0 — intent on addicting the most vulnerable in society.
For example, with much fanfare, and alongside the ex-president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, former head of Microsoft corporate strategy James Shivley announced this year that he was creating “the Starbucks of marijuana.” His plan? To buy up marijuana stores in Colorado and Washington state, “mint[ing] more millionaires than Microsoft in this business.”
And so, in the midst of America’s great debate about marijuana legalization, Big Marijuana is born. Pot legalization is no longer about a few friends calmly sharing a joint on the weekend in their own living room. Inevitably — and ever so swiftly — it has become about big business and big bucks.
Shivley isn’t the only one preparing to cash in. At least three marijuana vending machine companies, already earning millions of dollars in revenue from medical marijuana “patients,” have announced giant expansion plans. “It is like a gold rush,” remarked one vending executive. A couple of Yale MBAs recently created a multimillion-dollar private equity firm dedicated solely to financing the marijuana business. As one of them explains, the firm has become inundated with pitches from businesses who plan to become the “Wal-Mart of marijuana.”
To a student of history, none of this should come as a surprise, of course. Tobacco executives in the 1900s wrote the playbook on the reckless and deceitful marketing of an addictive — and therefore hugely profitable — substance.
Indeed, Big Marijuana creates unique problems that neither the status quo (with all its deficiencies), nor a grow-your-own approach to legal marijuana presents. Like Big Tobacco, the large-scale commercialization of marijuana will require consistently high use rates and increasing addiction rates to keep shareholders and investors happy. We’ve seen this horror movie before.
First, we know that addictive industries generate the lion’s share of their profits from addicts, not casual users. In the tobacco industry, 80 percent of the industry’s profits come from 20 percent of smokers. So while most marijuana users try the drug and stop, or use very occasionally, and the brunt of the profits — and problems — come from the minority of users, that minority causes enormous problems to our roadways, educational system, workplace and health care system.
This means that creating addicts is the central goal. And — as every good tobacco executive knows (but won’t tell you) — this, in turn, means targeting the young. People who start tobacco or marijuana in their youth, when their brains are still developing, have far greater chances of becoming addicted. Internal company memos released as a result of the great tobacco settlement tell us as much: “Less than one-third of smokers start after age 18,” says one, and “if our company is to survive and prosper, we must get our share of the youth market. … [That] will require new brands tailored to the youth market.” Such memos were circulated even as the tobacco industry was publicly rejecting youth cigarette use.
The poor and otherwise vulnerable are also prime targets. They suffer the highest addiction rates of any group. It’s no wonder that peer-reviewed research has concluded that tobacco and liquor outlets are several times as likely to be in poorer communities of color, and that the tobacco industry has cozied up with homeless shelters and advocacy groups as part of its downscale marketing strategy. David Goerlitz, a former Winston Man model who now suffers from smoking-related illnesses, testified before Congress in 1989: “Of course, children aren’t the only targets. … Once, when I asked an R.J. Reynolds executive why he didn’t smoke, he responded point-blank that ‘We don’t smoke this [expletive]; we just sell it. We reserve that right for the young, the poor, the black and the stupid.’”
That doesn’t mean we have to be content with the status quo. We need much better science-based prevention, early intervention and treatment. We need to make sure our laws are equitable and fair. Specifically, even as marijuana remains illegal, low-level marijuana offenses should not saddle people with a criminal record that hurts their chances at education, housing or other assistance. Drug treatment courts and smart probation programs must also be taken to scale.
But under legalization, big business and big lobbies peddle pseudoscience and stop at nothing to protect their profits. Before it was ordered to disband due to deceitful practices, Tobacco Institute Inc. was the industry’s lobby group, challenging studies linking smoking with cancer and rebutting surgeon general reports on cigarettes before they were even published. Today, tobacco still has a powerful presence in Washington. It fights any safety measures that might curb cigarette use and ensures that federal cigarette taxes remain low. (To bring federal cigarette taxes back to their inflation-adjusted level in 1960, we’d have to see a 17 percent increase in tobacco taxes today.)
We can fully expect marijuana profiteers to recycle the tactics that have earned Big Tobacco billions and billions of dollars. Already, the claims made by Big Tobacco only a few decades ago are being revived by the new marijuana moguls: “Moderate marijuana use can be healthy.” “Marijuana-laced candy is meant only for adults.” “Smoked marijuana is medicine.”
It is true that marijuana is not as addictive as tobacco (in fact, tobacco is more addictive than even heroin). And marijuana and tobacco differ among other dimensions of harm. Tobacco, though deadly, is not psychoactive. And unlike marijuana, one can drive impairment-free while smoking tobacco. That means that when someone is high, their ability to learn, work and become an active member of society is threatened. That is the last thing young people need today as they try to get a quality JOB or education.
Indeed, education and public health professionals, including groups like the American Medical Association, National School Nurses Association, American Society of Addiction Medicine, American Psychiatric Association, American Pediatrics Association and American Lung Association, regard today’s high-potency marijuana as harmful. The best science tells us that learning and IQ are directly affected by regular marijuana use among kids and that marijuana use is associated with a host of other problems such as mental illness, car crashes and increased health care costs. Can we afford decades of deceit from an industry that depends on addiction and heavy use for profits all over again?
Some say that it doesn’t have to be this way. We could establish a safer form of legalization by setting up measures that prevent the emergence of another Big Tobacco. History and experience show, however, that even the best of intentions are easily mowed over in the name of big profits. This will be American-style legalization. Unless we repeal the First Amendment — which declares commercial speech as free speech — and unless we quickly do away with our long-standing Madison Avenue culture of hypercommercialization, legal marijuana will lead down an all-too-familiar path. We are seeing this play out in Colorado with abandon.
It will be the Yale MBAs, the established addictive industries and the new Mad Men of marijuana who will benefit most from legalization.
“Let’s go big or go home,” was Shivley’s final remark to the press after his announcement about creating the Starbucks of marijuana. In order to avoid another public health disaster and give our young people a chance to succeed, let’s hope that he and others like him do go home. But we shouldn’t count on it.
* Webmaster's Note: Cannabis is absolutely & categorically NOT addictive. This was written by a brainwashed, red-neck Texan, in which state a young honours student currently faces a sentence of LIFE IN PRISON for baking a tray of ganja brownies! This is the most Neanderthal state in the US regarding cannabis laws!