Politics & Policy

Marijuana: Big Tobacco 2.0

A marijuana plant at the Botanacare marijuana store in Northglenn, Colo., the day before the start of legal sales in the state, December 31, 2013. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
This is a predatory industry at war with America’s general welfare.

Big marijuana news was made last week when the firm Aurora Cannabis merged with rival MedReleaf in a $3.2 billion deal — the largest in the history of the industry. The merger will help consolidate Auroa’s status as “the biggest pure play cannabis company in the world,” the CBC reported, noting the company’s “supply and licensing agreements in countries as far afield as Germany, Italy, Brazil and Australia.” Together, added Reuters, this merged entity is expected to produce over 1.2 million pounds of cannabis per year “through nine facilities in Canada and two in Denmark.” The news was no doubt worrying to Aurora’s many rivals in the increasingly cutthroat world of commercial pot, such as Acreage Holdings, the ambitious firm that made headlines last month when former House speaker John Boehner joined its board of directors.

On both the bobo Left and the libertarian Right, legal pot has been traditionally imagined as a civil-rights issue for a small minority of stoner oddballs who practice harmless commerce amongst themselves. Yet as this longtime dream becomes reality, its actual outcome is manifesting as something far more aggressively capitalist and corporatized, driven by ambitious businessmen with no intent of staying small.

Already, states and cities where pot’s been legalized (or where prohibitions are barely enforced) are awash in pushy advertising and sleek retail franchises run by competitive corporations the market-watch websites insist your portfolio must include. The approach is paying off — Marijuana Business Daily, the leading industry journal, estimates Americans will spend about $8–10 billion on cannabis this year, ballooning to $18–22 billion by 2022. And this is supposedly an extremely conservative estimate boxed in by our current patchwork of laws — in a more consistent legal regime, another “MjBiz” chart declares, national pot sales would already have passed the $50 billion mark, eclipsing such iconic American staples as doughnuts, Big Macs, and firearms.

Marijuana is not a consumer good serving any obvious function. It’s a plant whose leaves you burn, sucking the smoke into your lungs until it makes your brain go funny. A growing pile of evidence suggests doing so is not healthy for either organ, though it can be quite addicting. Making money in marijuana is thus mostly an exercise in manufacturing a public desire to self-harm — a cynical project of a sort we’ve seen before.

Read any history of the modern American tobacco industry (I personally recommend Allan M. Brandt’s tremendous The Cigarette Century) and the parallels become obvious. Though tobacco was never banned, smoking it was not popular in the early 20th century, with fewer than 100 cigarettes per capita consumed annually in the United States. By the 1960s, that number had ballooned to over 4,000, with clever marketing largely responsible. Savvy corporations such as Philip Morris, Lucky Strike, R. J. Reynolds, and the rest pitched their products with campaigns that made use of what were then revolutionary fields of advertising, public relations, and social psychology, portraying an inherently worthless, corrosive product as something that empowered, bettered, and liberated its consumers. As retail marijuana evolves at a rapid clip from idle thought experiment to competitive marketplace of billion-dollar behemoths, the new drug’s playbook is essentially identical.

As was the case with smoking tobacco, smoking marijuana is said to prove you’re sociable, hip, and modern.

As with tobacco, marijuana is portrayed not only as largely harmless, but as objectively good for you, with a credible function as self-medication for all sorts of ailments.

As with tobacco, marijuana is presented as a signifier of individual liberty and self-empowerment.

As with critics of tobacco, critics of marijuana are cast as petty tyrants trampling on freedom while peddling hysterical junk science.

And as with the tobacco industry, a cash-flush marijuana industry is eager to use its wealth to slant scientific study and political debate, lest its flattering claims begin to sire organized suspicion.

The déjà vu of pitching pot as a heroic substance with minimal drawbacks seems particularly inexcusable given the tobacco industry’s now widely held reputation as American capitalism’s greatest public villain. It’s a taint born from a decades-long government project of systemically dismantling big tobacco’s presence from public life, censoring its advertisements, stigmatizing its dangerous products, and restraining their use, with each step carried out with exponentially increasing aggression and hostile rhetoric.

My suspicion is that we’re entering year zero of a long era of re-learning.

It was also a stigma, however, built through education, as generations of Americans were taught to understand their capacity to be victimized by the sophisticated manipulations of this pernicious industry, and their capacity to resist its seduction. Yet for whatever reason, given a new context in which to exercise these critical muscles, many have elected to let pot’s pushers begin their strikingly similar project with a clean moral slate.

There’s little reason to believe marijuana’s current romp of legalization across these United States will abate. To the extent they ever did, conservatives have largely ceased attempting to form coherent arguments in favored of keeping the drug banned, and it seems likely that libertarian arguments in favor of legalization, like the ones now spouted by Speaker Boehner, will eventually win the day. To many, especially those who only conceptualize the issue as a competition of abstractions, the emerging consensus in pot’s favor seems like a triumph of common sense, just as a previous generation was persuaded to see a lit tobacco cigarette as a “torch of freedom.”

It should be possible to enter this new age pragmatically, making peace with legalization but skipping ahead and imposing the regulations and public-information efforts that were incrementally used to help get America’s current per capita smoking back down to early-20th-century rates, and thereby restrain the social harm of a predatory industry at war with America’s general welfare.

My suspicion, however, is that we’re more likely entering year zero of a long era of re-learning.

J. J. McCullough — J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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