Could Big Tobacco evolve into Big Pot?

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I’m glad someone did an article on this (NBC News) because frankly, this is something I’ve been wondering about myself for the past couple of years.

With a total of four states now with legal marijuana (Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska), might the day come when pot sales will be controlled by huge corporations, perhaps even a single massive mega-corporation?

Boy, there are dollars to be made there. Billions upon billions of them. Too much profit to keep Big Business out for long. It’s legal now for about 18 million people in the U.S. — and I guarantee that number will continue to escalate, maybe a LOT and maybe soon. California might be next in line to legalize pot.

According to NBC:

“My concern is the Marlboro-ization or Budweiser-ization of marijuana,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “That’s not what I’m fighting for.”

“It’s a cultural thing,” said Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the country’s oldest consumer pot lobby. “All of us have at least a little bit of discomfort with the corporate stuff.”

Which brings me to big tobacco. “Marlboro-ization.” I’ve long suspected that Big Tobacco is keeping an eye on the effort to legalize pot … and drooling in the process. The tobacco industry has been in a long, slow decline for about 20 years now. So the industry will have to diversify. One way to accomplish this is by selling more cigarettes overseas — but the gargantuan market of China is off-limits because the Chinese government doesn’t want American tobacco companies taking over its state-owned market.

So, that leaves … marijuana. I would not be shocked. Not in the slightest if RJ Reynolds or Philip Morris got into the marijuana-selling business in the next 10 to 20 years. Pot advocates see it looming on the horizon. They mention beer companies, too.

NBC News:

“Beer, wine and tobacco people—I’ve met with them all,” said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML, which is above all a consumer rights organization. He doesn’t love the idea of Big Pot, but he believes it will help guarantee that users get a quality product at a fair price.

He recalled two lunches in Washington, D.C., (one at DC Noodles, the other at Pizza Paradiso); several office visits; and a grand tour through Savor, the district’s popular beer and food conference.

“It’s been so surreal,” he said, reflecting on more than two decades as a marijuana lobbyist, all of it spent outside the warm circle of the other vice industries.

“I always dreamed of these meetings,” he added. “I pictured balding guys, with comb-overs, red suspenders, eating in quiet restaurants—and lo-and-behold that’s what they’ve been.”

The article focuses pretty heavily on the alcohol industry and whether beer and spirits distributors might want to get involved in the marijuana business someday, or if they see marijuana simply as a competitor.

I’m focusing a bit more on the Big Tobacco aspect, because frankly at this point, I think it’s more likely Big Tobacco would get involved in pot rather than beer companies.

My old pal Stanton Glantz (one of the most prominent anti-tobacco crusaders of the past 30 years) is quoted extensively in the story.

NBC News:

Tobacco executives, meanwhile, have been studying the marijuana industry for years, according to Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. His research has drawn an 80-million page archive of tobacco industry documents, spanning the 1960s to the late 1990s. Many of the documents reference softening pot laws, rising use, and the dual threat/opportunity of a third major vice industry.

In early 1970, for example, an unsigned memorandum distributed to Philip Morris’ top management read, “We are in the business of relaxing people who are tense and providing a pick up for people who are bored or depressed. The human needs that our product fills will not go away. Thus, the only real threat to our business is that society will find other means of satisfying these needs.”

“These documents reveal that since at least 1970, despite fervent denials, three multinational tobacco companies, Phillip Morris, British American Tobacco, and RJ Reynolds, all have considered manufacturing cannabis cigarettes,” according to an investigation by Glantz and two colleagues, published this summer in Milbank Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal of public health.

Make no mistake. Pot will be legalized, if not everywhere in the U.S., than in most of the U.S. And I’m predicting sooner rather than later. The political will to keep it illegal is slowly caving. And it is big, big, big business, a multi-billion business. You can be damned sure Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds are thinking about it.

The question is … would that be a bad thing?

In my mind, only if they completely abandoned the scourge of the 20th century — tobacco.

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