Dire predictions that legal adult use of marijuana will set the stage for “Big Tobacco 2.0” to hoodwink us and poison our children simply do not stand up to the weight of scientific evidence or practical policy considerations. While the economic allure of entering a newly-minted legal industry has tobacco companies taking notice, continuing to craft public marijuana policy around alarmist spin and false analogies is a recipe for continued failure.
In the near term, the ongoing federal prohibition of marijuana will continue to stymie large, risk-averse corporations from monopolizing the market, in the same way that individual cannabis companies have no avenue to pursue multi-state monopolies thanks to the federal ban on cultivation, possession and transport of the plant.
Federal prohibition will eventually crumble, but by the time it does, many states will have legal frameworks in place that emphasize local control, safe production standards and public-health-conscious regulation of advertising and sales.
One benefit to the state-by-state patchwork of legal medical and adult-use cannabis laws is that the states appear to be much more sensible than federal regulators about the products a grower is allowed to use on a plant intended to be harvested for human consumption.
Consider this: Our federal government has approved a list of 599 additives to tobacco. By contrast, here in Maine, there is exactly one over-the-counter “pesticide” allowed for use on cannabis plants in the regulated market. You read that right – one product – and that product, called Azamax, is itself an extracted oil of the neem tree.
Beyond that, Maine’s regulated medical cannabis producers rely on environmental controls, beneficial insects, and microscopic worms called nematodes to eliminate mold, mildew and critters that like to munch on marijuana. When those controls fail, the solution is to destroy the plant or the crop.
There is no reason to believe that expanding Maine’s regulated market to responsible adult users will incite licensed, regulated farmers to begin applying heavy metals or any other dangerous substances to their products. This is particularly true if a valuable cultivation license depends upon producing a clean, lab-tested, potency-labeled product.
Furthermore, medical cannabis consumers here and elsewhere have come to expect a clean, additive-free product. Even in a fully federally legal environment, producers who think they will get away with loading the plant up with chemical additives will likely find either that state regulations prevent this, or that consumers abandon their product for the more natural alternatives available.
Neither is there any reason to believe that youth will have more access to cannabis products when we allow those products to be sold in licensed and inspected retail facilities. The recent pushback in Colorado on edible packaging and labeling is a good example of the regulated market correcting itself toward greater public safety.
The threat of Big Tobacco provides a straw man argument for those who wish to continue criminalizing cannabis users and propping up illegal marijuana profiteers. The reality is that, in the arena of marijuana policy, the individual states are functioning as the laboratories of democracy they are intended to be.
States are testing and refining policies that work for them, allowing citizens the opportunity to shape a new, socially responsible industry in its earliest days.
An industry that values consumer health, honest education, public safety and social justice.
In short, an industry that looks and acts nothing like Big Tobacco.