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Americans are buying more legal pot than Oreos, Girl Scout cookies, and Pringles combined

One of the benefits of marijuana legalization is the rise of a new, multibillion-dollar industry that provides legal jobs to thousands of taxpaying workers. This is one of the main reasons advocates have used to get legalization enacted in Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, and Alaska.

But how big is that industry, really? A new chart from Statista puts it in context: US purchases of legal marijuana in 2015, counting retail sales in states where marijuana is legal for medical or recreational purposes, were bigger than Dasani, Girl Scout cookies, Oreos, and Pringles sales combined in 2014.

Statista

The benefits to this are obvious: more jobs and more tax revenue. Colorado, for one, found in 2015 that nearly half of potential summertime visitors cited legal marijuana as an influence for their vacation decisions (although only 8 percent of actual tourists said they visited a marijuana dispensary).

The estimate from Statista, taken from a Marijuana Business Daily report, is likely only the beginning, too. The industry expects to grow dramatically over the next few years, especially as more and bigger states — perhaps California — fully legalize pot.

But there's a downside to this, too: This new industry is interested primarily in getting people to use its new, fun product. And that industry's interests may sometimes come into conflict with public health.

The big public health risk to marijuana legalization

While the massive profits from marijuana are often cited as an advantage to legalizing pot, they also speak to one of the big concerns about legalization.

That concern: Big, for-profit companies will get into the marijuana industry and market the drug in ways that encourage widespread use and abuse.

This isn't unprecedented. Take, for instance, big alcohol companies, which have successfully lobbied to block tax increases and regulations on alcohol — all while marketing the products as fun and sexy on television to millions of people. Meanwhile, alcohol is linked to 88,000 deaths each year in America.

Or look at the ongoing opioid painkiller epidemic. In the past couple of decades, pharmaceutical companies marketed opioid painkillers to doctors as a safe, effective way to treat pain. Their claims turned out to be wrong, and they would end up paying hundreds of millions in fines for their fraudulent claims about opioids' safety. Yet at the end of the day, they made millions of dollars as their marketing scheme worked — and tens of thousands of people got hooked on and died from their products. (Ironically, marijuana could be a safe alternative to opioids for some patients.)

Marijuana is not as dangerous or deadly as alcohol or opioids, but that doesn't mean it's totally safe

Marijuana is not as dangerous or deadly as alcohol or opioids, but that doesn't mean it's totally safe. There's some evidence it can harm teenage brains. Some studies show it can trigger psychotic episodes for some people.

But a broader, more abstract problem is overuse. As Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, told me last year, "At some level, we know that spending more than half of your waking hours intoxicated for years and years on end is not increasing the likelihood that you'll win a Pulitzer Prize or discover the cure for cancer."

Yet it's exactly these people — the heaviest users — that marijuana companies will try to market to. As a 2014 study of Colorado's pot market found, the top 29.9 percent heaviest pot users in the state made up 87.1 percent of demand for the drug. For the marijuana industry, that makes the heaviest users the most lucrative customers.

That doesn't mean continuing to ban marijuana is a good idea. As I've written before, marijuana is relatively safe enough that even commercialization seems to be a better outcome than prohibition. Pot's illegality, after all, has led to hundreds of thousands of racially disparate arrests each year and has created a black market for pot that in turn helps finance criminal organizations' violent operations around the world.

But it's possible to legalize marijuana in a more responsible way — by, for example, leaving sales to nonprofit businesses and state governments or taxing and regulating pot heavily. That may mean limiting the growth of the legal marijuana industry, but it could lead to better outcomes for public health and safety.

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