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Top researchers just demolished a huge fear about legal pot

Not-so-big marijuana. <a href="" target="_blank">Tanjila Ahmed/Flickr</a>

The nation's most prominent anti-marijuana group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), says it exists largely for one reason.

"People often ask us what our biggest fear of legalization is," the group writes. "The answer is simple: Big Pot" (emphasis theirs).

SAM says that Big Marijuana is already here: "Already in Colorado, Washington and elsewhere, massive special interest groups and lobbies have emerged to protect the marijuana industry." They go on:

Like Big Tobacco of yesteryear, Big Marijuana knows that it needs lifelong addicted customers to prosper. Addictive industries generate the lion’s share of their profits from addicts, not casual users. 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.

SAM has been fairly successful at getting the message out, and talk of "Big Marijuana" is now a staple of public discussions about marijuana policy.

"Big Marijuana is coming — and even legalization supporters are worried," Vox wrote in April. "Is Big Marijuana a good thing?" Quartz recently asked. Just last week, venerable DC think tank The Brookings Institution (disclosure: I used to work there) held an event titled "Big Marijuana: How corporations and lobbies will shape the legalization landscape."

But in conjunction with the event, a pair of Brookings researchers who study marijuana policy released a report that pours a lot of cold water on the notion that marijuana legalization will usher in "Big Tobacco 2.0."

"The Big Marijuana rubric is more misleading than helpful as a guide to policy," Brookings' John Hudak and Jonathan Rauch write, "because it oversimplifies and stereotypes what is in reality a continuum of business scales and structures."

Hudak and Rauch point out that the marijuana industry, as it exists today, is made up of a scattershot patchwork of business models:

A marijuana business can be a legal home grow in Ft. Collins, Colorado; a cancer-patient cooperative farm in Humboldt County; a pop-up clinic in San Francisco’s Lower Haight; an antiseptic dispensary in Bristol, Connecticut, staffed by a board certified pharmacist; a wellness center in Washington, D.C., owned by a rabbi; a vertically integrated chain of dispensaries that relies on a set of large grow facilities to supply its consumers; a maker of edibles and oils in Boulder, Colorado; and many more variations.

In short, there's no Philip Morris of pot. And the broad diversity of state-level regulations -- to say nothing of the ongoing federal prohibition -- make the emergence of such a player highly unlikely. "The analogy to Philip Morris and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (RJR) in their buccaneering days is, we believe, a caricature. Caricatures don’t make for good policy," Hudak and Rauch warn.

Beyond that, citizens, policymakers and the public health community are not likely to forget the hard-learned lessons of the past decades' fights against Big Tobacco. "Legal marijuana percolates in a policy environment that has been informed and shaped by the country’s bitter experience with tobacco," Hudak and Rauch argue. "Within the marijuana industry, Big Tobacco is an object lesson in what not to do."

At the Brookings event, SAM's executive vice president Jeff Zinsmeister argued that it will be "very difficult to break the market forces that inevitably lead Big Marijuana to act like Big Tobacco." Zinsmeister said that if marijuana is legalized at the federal level, the marijuana industry "would consolidate very rapidly." And he pointed out that in such a scenario, the existing tobacco industry could simply start buying up marijuana businesses and rolling them up under their existing brands.

But Hudak and Rauch call a powerful Big Tobacco-style oligarchy the "least likely" regulatory landscape, and say that the wine and beer markets provide a much closer analogy for what will happen with marijuana. With alcohol, for instance, states led the way on regulation after the country repealed prohibition in 1933. This led to a variety of regulatory frameworks -- many of which persist to this day -- all under federal oversight.

You can already see a similar structure emerging with marijuana, with states like Colorado, Washington and others experimenting with different methods of regulating the product.

Alcohol-style regulation isn't perfect, of course. Researchers generally agree that alcohol taxes are too low relative to the social harms caused by alcohol use, like drunk driving, violence and early death. And public health officials point out that a small percentage of drinkers consume the overwhelming majority of alcohol sold in this country, essentially making the beverage industry dependent on heavy users for profits.

But Americans generally agree that an imperfect regulatory regime is preferable to prohibition. Today's marijuana reformers like to point out that the failures of alcohol prohibition are being repeated with drugs today -- despite being illegal, marijuana is still widely used. Prohibition has created a lucrative black market for violent criminal elements. And that black market cares little about keeping drugs out of the hands of kids.

"Big Tobacco tried for decades to conceal the harms of their drug, and millions of lives were lost as a result," SAM, the anti-legalization group warns. "We are naive to think that this wouldn’t happen with any other drug that is legalized."

But as Hudak and Rauch see it, it's naive to think that we haven't learned anything from decades of hard-fought tobacco regulation.

"The 2010s and 2020s are not like the 1960s and 1970s," they write. "The notion of an effectively unregulated marijuana industry doing as it pleases to the children of America is ahistorical and implausible."

Nicholas Cunningham, known as the "Kushgod," argues for the legitimacy of his mobile marijuana business while demanding respect from local law enforcement. (Video: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post, Photo: Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)