The Rise of Big Marijuana: Lessons Learned from Big Tobacco, Part I

By Laura Stack

It’s been over a century since some savvy businessmen took tobacco out of the hands of roll-your-own, everyday joes and started producing cheap cigarettes in bulk. Aside from making the product affordable to almost anyone, their most profitable innovation lay in using milder and better-cured tobacco with smoke that was more palatable and easier to inhale deeply. Consumers were hooked.

The result was Big Tobacco, a juggernaut that took almost a century to even slow down. The financiers and manufacturers who controlled the industry knew for certain that their product was addictive and dangerous by the 1950s. They then conspired to do everything possible to amass as much power and money as they could before the public—and the government—caught on. Hmmm…does this sound familiar what’s happening with Big Marijuana today?

Their tactics included:

Meanwhile, the government imposed excise taxes on cigarettes to reduce tobacco use. As tobacco-related deaths skyrocketed in the 1950s and 1960s, the government, physicians, and consumer watchdog groups began fighting back, primarily with Surgeon General warnings, product regulation, marketing restrictions, and legislature requiring distinct warnings of the dangers of smoking on all cigarette packages. This slowed the juggernaut down, cutting the percentage of Americans who smoked in half by 1993—but didn’t stop it.

Still, the results proved worth the efforts: tobacco control and smoking reduction has saved an estimated eight million lives in the preceding half-century, according to one influential study published in 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Nonetheless, peer-reviewed medical sources estimated 440,000 to 500,000 Americans per year still died of smoking-related illnesses like cancer and emphysema as of that year (a number that holds steady in 2020), and many millions more died young during Big Tobacco’s reign of untouchability.

The Very Definition of Addiction

Until the 1950s, smokers could argue they “that didn’t know” smoking was bad for them. Now, it seems obvious. Even long-term smokers often call cigarettes “cancer sticks” and “coffin nails,” and are regularly cautioned to quit smoking by their physicians. We’ve all seen it. We’ve also all seen how hard this minority has fought to maintain their right to smoke in public, in an era when we know secondhand smoke alone kills more than 41,000 people a year. So why would they still persist in harming themselves and others?

One word: ADDICTION.

Even as the long-term effects of smoking began to be recognized, the tobacco industry told its customer base that cigarettes were actually good for them, and even now, few industry officials have ever agreed publically that tobacco is addictive (see above). But in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association (APA) defined Tobacco Use Disorder as one of its nine recognized substance use disorders (SUDs) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Tobacco shares the list with luminaries like alcohol, cannabis (marijuana), hallucinogens, inhalants, opioids, phencyclidines, sedatives/hypnotics/anxiolytics, and stimulants.

The Looming Crisis

Today, the legal marijuana industry is on the verge of morphing into Big Marijuana, as financiers pour capital into start-ups and big business takes an interest in its potential. One might think the lying, cheating, hiding Big Tobacco might provide a cautionary tale to guide the government and public as the marijuana juggernaut builds steam. But from all indicators, the people in charge have learned precisely zilch.

Even though marijuana is still illegal at the federal level and in several states, many states have given in to what they apparently see as the inevitable—though there’s hope, as marijuana sales are often blocked at the municipal level and many cities opt out of selling it.

Meanwhile, the nascent Big Marijuana industry continues to grow, blatantly using the same tactics as Big Tobacco did—conspiring to do everything possible to amass as much power and money as they can before the public—and the government—caught on. They will, but it will be many, many years as before, and we will lose many, many generations of our young ones who will suffer the mental illnesses that result in the still-forming brain: psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar, and depression. And many, like my 19-year-old son Johnny, will die by suicide when their brains turn on them.

We’ll discuss more about Big Marijuana next week in Part II.

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