Pubdate: Sun, 14 Sep 2014
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2014 The Dallas Morning News, Inc.
Author: Kevin Sabet
Note: Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the 
University of Florida, is the co-founder of Smart Approaches to 
Marijuana and served as senior adviser at the White House Office of 
National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2011.

Seeds of Change or Seeds of Ruin?


Proponents of legalization and other drug policy reforms make some 
important points. It is true that most people who try drugs do not 
get addicted - they stop after using a few times. It is also true - 
and regrettable - that America's incarceration rate is embarrassingly 
high and that blacks and Latinos bear the brunt of harsh arrest 
policies. And, finally, despite our best efforts, fully eradicating 
drug use and its consequences remains a distant dream. 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 

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 that 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 
peerreviewed 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. 
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom