I wrote earlier this week about the sophisticated ad campaigns recently launched by supporters and opponents of marijuana legalization. The two camps agree that marijuana is going mainstream but part company on whether this is an ominous development or cause for celebration.
The argument put forth by the anti-legalization Grass Is Not Greener coalition is a novel one, and worth digging into. "If we’re not careful, the marijuana industry could quickly become the next Big Tobacco," its Web site warns.
"I think most Americans would be surprised to learn how quickly this industry has matured," Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) and an outspoken legalization critic, told me. "Big Tobacco ignored major scientific findings about cigarettes, deceived the public, funded their own research, and devoted every ounce of their energy to one thing: increasing use for profit." He says the marijuana industry is doing the same today.
Even if there is some truth to this, legalization opponents are on shaky ground when it comes to ignoring scientific findings and misleading the public. After all, the federal case for marijuana prohibition continues to be built on half-truths and the occasional deception. Grass Is Not Greener's Web site repeats many of these same talking points in a breakdown of "Facts" and "Myths" that takes considerable liberties with the definition of both.
On the other hand, there's no doubt that the marijuana industry is becoming more sophisticated. There is a trade organization, the National Cannabis Industry Association, that promotes "the growth of a responsible and legitimate cannabis industry." There are at least two full-time pro-marijuana lobbyists working on Capitol Hill.
It seems inevitable that marijuana will continue to get bigger, but a comparison point with Big Tobacco doesn't work. For starters, marijuana is simply less harmful than tobacco. Marijuana's addictive potential is less than a third of tobacco's. THC, the active compound in marijuana, is considerably less toxic than nicotine, which until this year was used as an industrial insecticide in the U.S.
Currently the evidence is mixed on the prevalence of cancers associated with marijuana use, although it seems reasonable to conclude that inhaling flaming plant material into your lungs on a regular basis could produce negative health consequences down the road.
Mark Kleiman, a UCLA professor who studies drug abuse and drug policy, says that compared to tobacco, marijuana will be "a smaller industry and therefore less powerful. But I don’t think it will be less insidious." He thinks the alcohol industry is a better comparison, because the usage breakdown of alcohol is similar to marijuana's.
Most of the alcohol industry's revenue comes from the top 10 percent of drinkers, who consume half of the drinks, Kleiman says. This tracks with the marijuana sales figures currently coming out of Colorado, which show that the top 20 percent of marijuana users account for 67 percent of the overall demand so far.
The distribution of tobacco users, on the other hand, is different. The average smoker consumes about 15 cigarettes per day, or three-fourths of a pack. The tobacco industry is "appealing to the median smoker, and the median smoker has a drug problem," Kleiman says. Tobacco revenues are more evenly distributed across the user base, but marijuana revenues are likely to come largely from a smaller share of heavy users.
While there's plenty of room for debate about whether it's preferable for marijuana to tread the path of alcohol or tobacco, there's no doubt that the stakes are considerably smaller. "The dangers of really bad cannabis policy simply aren't as great as the dangers of really bad alcohol policy," Kleiman says.
A privatized marijuana industry's profit-making motives are almost certain to conflict with various public health interests. But conflicting interests don't constitute grounds for outright prohibition and criminalization - if that were the case we would have outlawed fast food, congressional lobbying, and much of the financial industry a long time ago.
They do, on the other hand, make a compelling case for smart, cautious regulation. A recent Brookings institution report concluded that, from a governance perspective, the rollout of legal marijuana in Colorado has largely been a success (the report is agnostic over whether the actual policy of legalization is a good one). You can be sure that other states will be watching closely as they consider similar legalization measures in the coming years.