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

By Laura Stack

The wave of decriminalization/legalization of marijuana keeps marching across the land in 2021. Businesses providing marijuana and its paraphernalia are proliferating like fire ants. Serious marijuana users remain a relatively small American minority, but they have powerful allies in business. The potential profits are huge, as long as the industry can addict, maintain, and grow their user base. Marijuana industry insiders have begun to link up, slowly forming the inevitable Big Marijuana giant.

And like Big Tobacco after the ill effects of smoking became obvious, they’ve begun to deny, deny, deny, and to pressure politicians to stand with them. The marijuana industry is following Big Tobacco’s script point-by-point—even more blatantly in some cases. You might think that after fighting so hard to limit smoking, to cut back on its societal and public health costs, U.S. federal and state governments would be working frantically to counter this latest plague in our populace. Nope. Big Tobacco is happening all over again.

Tobacco Redux

Since the 1960s, entrepreneurs have increased the THC content of herb marijuana via selective breeding, and have invented ways to extract the THC in concentrate formats containing as much as 99% THC. This point must be loudly repeated by anti-marijuana activists because the pro-marijuana advocates typically won’t tell you. This is Big Tobacco’s tactic of enriching nicotine delivery on steroids, and it destroys mental health much faster.

Despite still being illegal at the federal level as of January 2021, state-level decriminalization began in Texas in 1973. Marijuana later gained a significant (if spurious) foothold in the U.S. as medicine, starting in California in 1996. Other states followed, and as of November 2020, medical marijuana was legal in 35 states, the District of Columbia, and four (of five) of our permanently inhabited territories.

Like Big Tobacco, pot advocates argue marijuana isn’t just benign, it’s good medicine for what ails you. They use historical accounts of their product’s use, as Big Tobacco did. They’ve strenuously lobbied politicians, just as Big Tobacco did. They spread lies about its health benefits in public forums and media. They even fund their own medical studies to use as marketing (the original is here, behind a paywall). Meanwhile, the industry ignores the known negatives of cannabis (see Part I of this article), downplays addiction (one example) and distorts existing science for business and political reasons. But with the exception of glaucoma (which responses better to cheaper, legal drugs), all marijuana does is makes you forget your problems briefly, while often making them worse.

The FDA has approved one cannabis-derived drug and three derived from synthetic cannabis. Legit doctors use them only for a few rare seizure disorders, nausea associated with chemotherapy, and the treatment of anorexia in AIDS patients. Yet in many states you can pay a physician at a “weed clinic” to issue you a card so you can buy marijuana legally, simply by reporting pain, stress, insomnia, or emotional issues. None of this “medical marijuana” includes the FDA-approved medications. The “physician” isn’t required to write a “prescription” as usual for “medicine,” including the product, route of administration, how much and how often, for how long. There is no requirement the patient follow up with the doctor to determine if the “medicine” is achieving the desired effect.

Like any industry, the marijuana industry has long used celebrity advocacy to make marijuana look cool and trendy—just as Big Tobacco did.

The Worst Offense

Until the government forced then to stop, at least one big tobacco brand used a cartoon character that appealed to kids for marketing, and has also used other methods to deliberately market to children. Candy cigarettes, “chewing tobacco” gum and bubblegum cigars remain on the shelves, with the packages often mimicking the packages of existing tobacco brands. Several studies indicate they encourage kids to smoke later in life. I remember “smoking” the bubble gum cigarettes myself.

In recent years, accidental ingestion of marijuana products by children has increased significantly. This stems partly from adult negligence, when they leave edible products where children can get to them. Partly it’s because manufacturers deliberately market edible THC products in ways that appeal to children. These include candy, brownies, fruit chews, gummies, ice cream, cookies, and sodas. They use packaging with bright colors, catchy names, and images so similar to existing non-THC products even adults may not notice the difference.

There’s a one-letter different between the names of Pop Tarts and Pot Tarts, whose packages look like the real thing. Other candies resemble Reese Peanut Butter Cups. Twice in 2018, middle-schoolers poisoned fellow students after sharing gummy candy, once in January in New Mexico and later in November in Florida. The first was an accident; a nine-year-old innocently brought her grandfather’s gummies to school (he had a medical marijuana card). The second may not have been since the gummies were purchased online. In the latter case, five kids were hospitalized, and a 12-year-old boy was charged with felony possession and distribution.

In 2016, 19 people at a family party in California, mostly children ranging from 6-18, were poisoned by THC candy included in gift bags. Three ended up in the ICU. Marijuana edibles tend to be strong, and their effects can last for hours. In Massachusetts, cannabis-related poison center calls and visits doubled for individuals aged 0-19 through 2016.  Maine saw a 160% rise from 2016-2018. My home state, Colorado, saw such calls rise from 16 in 2012 to 64 in 2018 for children 0-8. The numbers may be low, but they represent a quadrupling of the ingestion rate for young children over the course of six years. And those are only the reported cases.

Marijuana sweets are dangerous to children, period—especially those who can’t read the labels. For those who can, they’re an attractive, tasty gateway to a gateway drug.

Regulatory Response

In an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2014, physicians Kimber Richter and Sharon Levy warned:

“…although the United States has, since tobacco’s rise, adopted regulatory structures designed to protect consumers, they do not apply to marijuana, in part because marijuana use and sales remain illegal under federal law. Colorado and Washington are developing regulatory infrastructures to fill this gap… No evidence exists regarding which regulations might minimize population harm from marijuana. The marijuana industry’s trajectory could therefore repeat tobacco’s.”

So far, the most obvious federal response has been a strong warning from the Surgeon General in late 2019. This warning focused on the damage marijuana does to the developing brain. This statement is important, but has no legislative enforcement; it’s just another warning among many provided by the medical community.

Meanwhile, as of 2018, Colorado alone had 3,101 places one could legally purchase marijuana products, even though most towns and municipalities in Colorado have taken the lead in banning marijuana products. Significant marijuana regulations do exist in Colorado, but regulators’ ability to regularly inspect all businesses and home grow rooms remains questionable. Some sources claim the industry mostly drives the regulatory system here and in other states. And despite a steep sales tax in California, only half the expected taxes have been collected. It’s cheaper to buy pot on the black market.

Summary

Although some efforts have been made to control marijuana proliferation, they’re mostly limited to the grassroots and local levels. Federal levels of control remain limited and ineffective, as do state efforts. Despite fighting the Big Tobacco behemoth for 60+ years, and scoring wins, we’re once again falling for the underhanded and sometimes despicable tactics Big Tobacco used to get a stranglehold on the public. Our children are in great danger, now and in the future. Big Marijuana is looming on the horizon like Godzilla—or Potzilla—but unlike that monster, its toll will be real, and many times more tragic than it has been already.

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