It’s a tough time for America’s pot prohibitionists.
Behind the sound and fury of the nation’s 58th presidential election, anti-drug groups are fighting a series of ballot measures threatening to dramatically increase the number of Americans able to buy marijuana without any pretext aside from a desire to get stoned.
Across the US, 25 states already tolerate some form of legal cannabis use, including four that regulate the sale of marijuana for recreational use. That number is almost certain to increase in November, with California, the nation’s most populous state, very likely to legalise and regulate recreational pot.
If that happens, recreational marijuana will be legal along the entire west coast, while initiatives in Massachusetts and Maine could open the eastern states, too. The huge number of people suddenly living in states with legal marijuana regimes would pressure the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to alter its classification of the drug, which currently falls in the same class as heroin. Pressure would also be heaped on the federal government to end its own (largely unenforced) marijuana prohibition.
To put it in other words, America’s ban on pot could quickly go up in smoke.
Faced with a devastating domino effect and 60% national support for cannabis legalisation, opponents have had to rethink their line of attack.
In the 1930s anti-marijuana film Reefer Madness the “burning weed with its roots in hell” was depicted as a fatal, morally depraving toxin. Decades later, by which point Reefer Madness had become a cult hit, the Partnership for a Drug Free America was producing iconic, if ineffective, advertisements including the timeless “This is Your Brain on Drugs” trailer. The advertisement showed a tough-looking dad frying an egg while dictating that “this is your brain on drugs”.
Where anti-drug advocates once argued the devil was in the plant, they now see it in the detail, arguing that those who stand to profit from the newly licit economy will have too much influence for the system to operate soundly.
From Maine to Santa Monica, the threat of “Big Dope” looms as the number one scare when trying to shoot down ballot measures. Reform opponents tie this to another more traditional talking point, arguing a corporate weed lobby would be able to walk over legislators and smother regulations protecting children from the industry’s reach. There’s been a consistent focus on advertising restrictions and candy-like edible marijuana products as a result, in much the same way as Australia’s alcohol debate came to focus on alcopops under the former Labor government.
America’s leading anti-pot group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) has been at the fore of such efforts. Founded with the assistance of a Kennedy, the organisation has prepared materials and organised push-back. In a 2015 interview with Vox, co-founder Kevin Sabet placed the emergence of a “Big Marijuana” lobby as his primary objection to legalisation and made a direct comparison to Big Tobacco.
That has led to a Tea Party style anti-establishment tone in some of SAM’s material, like a briefing document that prompts campaigners in Maine to remind voters: “The Maine initiative is funded by Washington D.C. special interests who just want to get rich at the expense of you and your children.”
[Rundle: things to do in Denver when you’re high]
Similarly, at a recent debate on the Massachusetts initiative, Democratic state Senator Jason Lewis said he understood people were open to legalisation for recreational use. But that’s not all they would be voting on, he warned.
“[The initiative] introduces the commercial, billion-dollar marijuana industry into Massachusetts. It’s an industry that we’ve seen in Colorado and elsewhere that puts their own profits ahead of the health and safety of our kids and our communities,” he said.
It’s not just prohibitionists and politicians who have deployed this argument. In California, some small cannabis growers and collectives have come out against the changes, fearing a massive industry will swamp their small operations and hippie vibes.
Public health experts like NYU’s Professor Mark Kleiman have also warned a profit motive for corporate producers will act as an incentive for them to target the small number of high volume consumers who undeniably suffer from substance abuse. Writing in The Lancet Psychiatry, Professors Wayne Hall and Michael Lynskey advised governments to adopt higher taxes and restrictions on promotions before “a large and profitable cannabis industry has developed with the financial and political resources to resist public health regulation, as the alcohol industry has effectively done in most developed countries during the past several decades”.
Unfortunately for the anti-drug camp, embracing this line of attack has given rise to a number of ironies.
Pro-marijuana reform campaigns have enjoyed donations from big time donors, but anti-legalisation advocates have their own cashed-up backers. Among them is the infamous Sheldon Adelson, one of the biggest and most partisan donors in the US, who has given millions to the “no” camps around the country. A billionaire Republican who haplessly personifies the influence of big money in politics, Adelson is also a casino magnate. Not exactly an industry heavily invested in the public’s health.
More insidiously, another “Big” has been pushing money towards anti-drug organisations in recent years. As a 2014 The Nation investigation documented, the pharmaceutical companies that produce drugs like OxyContin have been among the biggest donors to anti-drug groups. In the grips of an opioid epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year, it has been suggested this is an attempt to take the focus off legal and highly addictive pharmaceuticals while keeping medical marijuana sidelined as a potential rival painkiller.
Then there’s the fact politicians currently in office are pushing a case which itself relies on the assumption they will be too weak or corrupt to resist strong lobbying.
In fact, there are sensible measures that can be instituted to curtail industry power. Colorado, for instance, was able to update its laws in response to widespread problems with edible cannabis products. All propositions ban consumption for those aged under 21 and prevent marketing that targets children. In Washington state, ownership rules prevent one company from acting as a grower, distributor, and vendor of cannabis, an effort to dilute power in the industry. Local areas also have the power to opt-out of the regulatory system, banning distributors from their county.
Last but not least, the argument fails to acknowledge there are already people leveraging profit from addiction while avoiding the inconvenience of taxation or regulation: drug dealers.
The fact anti-drug campaigns have pushed this talking point to the top of the pile is a reminder of how far America’s relationship with marijuana has come since Nixon kicked off his war on drugs. Even those still fighting the battle have conceded the plant with its “roots in hell” is less frighting to many Americans than the current state of their political system.
If the fear of Big Marijuana does sway some voters come November, you could hardly blame them.