The challenge of ‘Big Marijuana’

Big money is starting to push marijuana legalization in the US, raising alarms that corporate profiteers may promote pot use among teens. A few states are wising up to the large commercial interests peddling a drug with high costs in public safety.

AP Photo
Employees tends to marijuana plants at a grow house in Denver. According to law enforcement officials, Colorado’s legal marijuana marketplace is in some cases serving as cover for a host of illegal drug traffickers who hide their product among the state’s many legal growing operations, then covertly ship it elsewhere and pocket millions of dollars from its sale.

In 2015, the sale of marijuana in Colorado was nearly $1 billion, only a year after legalization began. With money flowing like that, no wonder even legalization advocates worry about giant businesses dominating the pot trade in the few states that have lifted a ban on marijuana.

The bigger concern, however, is this: “Big Marijuana,” which may become akin to Big Tobacco or Big Liquor, could also use its corporate profits to drive up demand for a drug among teens. And in a possible case of “regulatory capture,” the big firms could use their financial clout to manipulate elected leaders to weaken curbs on pot sales.

The alarm is spreading as more states move closer to approving adult use of marijuana. Last November, Ohio voters rejected a measure that would have both legalized pot and given control for growing it to an authorized cartel of companies. And in Massachusetts, which faces a ballot question on legalization this fall, the Republican governor, the Democratic attorney general, and the Democratic mayor of Boston have come out together against taking such a step.

Their concern goes beyond the high costs of pot consumption to public safety and health. The Bay State’s top politicians cite the fact that “the marijuana industry is putting profits over people and taking over the movement for legalization,” as they wrote in a Boston Globe opinion piece.

“The financial backers of legalization are not neighborhood leaders, medical professionals, or grass-roots activists. They’re big businesses and investors, who are spending millions on campaigns across the country because they will profit from the legalization of marijuana.”

In 2014, legal marijuana was the fastest-growing industry in the United States, according to The ArcView Group, an investment research firm. Sales were up 74 percent that year and may be growing even faster. In California, which has allowed medical marijuana sales for two decades, a campaign for full legalization has splintered over the issue of big-money interests. Longtime advocates worry that the most likely ballot measure this fall, called the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, is being pushed by big money and would favor big corporations in pot production.

“Legalization should not be about replacing one cartel with another,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a legalization advocate who led California’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy.

The warning signs are clear that pot legalization may lead to governments being captured by the interests of pot profiteers. And as seen in Colorado, underage youth could easily become the main target of pot promoters. The real addiction in legalization may be in its corrupting profits. 

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