Big Tobacco May Be Dreaming of Big Marijuana

Marijuana on a farm owned by Five Zero Trees Dispensary in West Linn, Oregon. (Photo by Nick Swyter/News21) 

Big Tobacco is poised to transform the fledgling marijuana market into a business bigger than legalization advocates have imagined, according to researchers wary of the consequences.

An analysis of previously secret documents from major U.S. tobacco companies show Big Tobacco, despite denials, has since the 1970s considered cannabis as both sales rival and possible product.

“(The tobacco industry has) the political clout with legislators, the financial capital, to transform this market from something that’s primarily run with small investors and mom and pop shops into something that’s modeled on the tobacco industry,” said Rachel Barry, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who co-published the 2014 study “Waiting for the Opportune Moment: The Tobacco Industry and Marijuana Legalization.”

The public health consequences could be major, Barry said, based on analysis of more than 80 million pages of tobacco industry documents that became public as a result of litigation.

“There’s not enough research to prove that it’s harmless,” Barry said of marijuana. She believes the pro-pot wave that has legalized medical marijuana in 23 states, plus Washington, D.C., is moving too fast, with too little regulation.

For now, U.S. tobacco companies are stymied by marijuana’s federal status as an illegal Schedule 1 Drug, said Troy Dayton, CEO of the ArcView Group, a national investment network specializing in legal cannabis.

“(Tobacco companies) are not going to touch anything until federal law changes,” Dayton said. “They are too heavily regulated and deal with too many PR issues to touch this with a 10-foot pole.”

Barry said the government ought to act now to impose similar restrictions on cannabis as it does on tobacco sales  – including restricting advertising and working to prevent use by young people. If lawmakers don’t, she said, marijuana use will become normalized, leading people who might never have smoked to start.

She’s in favor of outlawing sales of marijuana within 1,000 feet of schools, banning coupons or discounts and limiting the number of dispensaries in a given area. Otherwise, a “large corporate takeover” by Big Tobacco could flood the United States with marijuana, she said.

“Tobacco companies manufacture and produce and have alliances with distributors and retailers,” Barry said. “Those sort of relationships, it gives them a big upper hand.”


This story is part of America's Weed Rush, an investigative reporting project produced by News21 that involves top college journalism students from across the country. Mr. Bodley is a Reynolds Fellow studying at Elon University.


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