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Big Marijuana is coming — and even legalization supporters are worried

A marijuana business manager prepares for the first day of recreational sales.
A marijuana business manager prepares for the first day of recreational sales.
RJ Sangosti/Denver Post via Getty Images

In November, Ohioans rejected a very unusual marijuana legalization proposal. Beyond legalizing pot, the ballot initiative would have given campaign donors direct rights to the state's 10 pot farms as an explicit gift for their support. It was, even legalization advocates argued, a flagrant display of would-be members of the pot industry trying to cash in on a movement motivated primarily by social justice issues.

But while Ohio's measure was rare in its blatant cash grab, some legalization backers are increasingly concerned that something like Ohio's initiative will become standard — and the interests of the pot industry, which will grow more and more as legalization spreads, will take priority over the public's best interests.

Dan Riffle, the former director of federal policy at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a legalization advocacy group, recently told me that these concerns pushed him to leave MPP. In a revealing interview, he said that "the industry is taking over the movement."

"We used to talk three or four years ago about how we're creating this industry, yet nobody in the industry gives to MPP," Riffle said. "But now that they do give at least a little, it's like, 'Be careful what you asked for.' Because we owe them now, and they get to drive the agenda."

More than posing as a concern for the face and heart of the legalization movement, the worry that the industry will take over poses some challenges on the policy end as well. As support for marijuana legalization continues to grow, the question is quickly shifting from whether to legalize to how to legalize. And a movement that's led by a pot industry has different interests than the public and policy reformers might have.

On marijuana legalization, policy experts and industry interests clash

Drug policy experts have long argued that the best approach to legalizing marijuana is a restrained policy — one that limits access to cannabis by, for instance, putting state governments directly in charge of production and sales, or only letting nonprofits sell and distribute pot. The idea is to curb the excess and mass production associated with commercialization — and the drug abuse it could lead to — while ending prohibition and its harms, including more incarceration and a black market for pot that helps fund and sustain criminal groups around the world.

Mark Kleiman, drug policy expert at New York University's Marron Institute, previously walked through some of these concerns in an interview with Vox's Ezra Klein:

But from the marijuana industry's perspective, mass production and excess are good — since they provide more chances for profits even if they lead to more pot abuse. (Tobacco and alcohol companies, after all, directly profit from people's addiction.) So it's in the industry's interest to fight stricter regulations — and especially proposals that don't let for-profit pot businesses take root.

From 2012 through 2014, it seemed like both sides were getting their fair share of attention as Colorado and Washington state worked through regulations for their newly legal pot industries. But today, even legalization advocates acknowledge that the industry will play a significant role moving forward — and might even take over entirely after 2016.

The marijuana industry's growing ties with the legalization movement

A customer looks at different strains of marijuana at a dispensary in Oakland, California.
A customer looks at different strains of marijuana at a dispensary in Oakland, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Already there are some strong links between the marijuana industry and movement.

For example, at least five of 10 people on MPP's board of directors have direct ties to the industry: Troy Dayton is the CEO of the ArcView Group, which invests in marijuana businesses. Joby Pritzker, whose family started and owns Hyatt Hotels, invests in pot businesses. Tripp Keber is the CEO of Dixie Elixirs, which produces pot edibles. James Slatic is CEO of MedWest, which produces marijuana concentrates. And Rob Kampia, executive director of MPP, is a board member and the treasurer of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the lobbying arm of the pot industry.

Among lower-level staffers, Riffle said it's also common for many to move from the legalization movement to cushy jobs in the industry — something Riffle tried himself, acting as a lawyer for the industry in California, before he moved back into advocacy. This revolving door may create a financial incentive for those in the movement to support commercial legalization, since it may provide more lucrative job opportunities.

Still, many MPP board members and staffers were involved with legalization before they were involved in the industry — and before there even was a legal industry. As MPP spokesperson Mason Tvert told me, legalization is a deeply personal, genuine issue for many people in the movement.

"Those of us working at MPP got into this because we strongly believe that marijuana prohibition is bad public policy that is needlessly causing significant harm to society," Tvert said, citing multiple examples of him and other MPP members having run-ins with the law because of marijuana when they were younger. "We have all forgone potentially more lucrative careers (either within the marijuana industry or in other fields) to work on this issue because we feel so strongly about it."

"2016 may be the last year in which drug policy reform organizations … will be able to significantly shape the legislation"

Tvert also argued that MPP still gets few contributions from the industry: In 2015, for instance, $420,000 out of its $4.2 million budget will come from marijuana businesses, according to internal estimates.

But ties between the marijuana movement and industry are expected to strengthen as time goes on. As legalization expands, the industry will likely play a much bigger role in shaping and funding ballot initiatives, which can be very costly. Big Marijuana could also build the clout to sway lawmakers with campaign donations and lobbying if, instead of ballot measures, legalization takes the legislative route in some states.

Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance, said he has long expected the pot industry to grow and become a bigger part of the drug policy reform movement as legalization spread.

"On some level, we have always known that," Nadelmann told me. "And I think 2016 may be the last year in which drug policy reform organizations, driven primarily by concerns of civil liberties and civil rights and other good public policy motivations, will be able to significantly shape the legislation. And I assume that as the years progress, various industry forces will loom ever larger."

But the movement's industry ties could create a financial interest in legalization and how it's done. While someone with no industry ties likely doesn't have anything to lose by supporting a legalization measure that only lets nonprofits or state agencies grow and sell pot, a person with direct ties to the industry could lose money if the non-commercial measures pass over those that allow full-blown commercialization.

The big public health concern to legalization: commercialization

Marijuana plants. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The major concern with full legalization is that big, for-profit companies will get into the marijuana industry and market the drug in ways that encourage widespread use and abuse.

Take, for instance, Big Alcohol, which has successfully lobbied to block tax increases and regulations on alcohol — all while marketing its products as fun and sexy during television programs as big as the Super Bowl, which is seen by millions of people, including children. Meanwhile, alcohol is linked to 88,000 deaths each year.

"If we were a country with a history of being able to promote moderation in our consumer use of products, or promote responsible corporate advertising or no advertising, or if we had a history of being able to take taxes gained from a vice and redirect them into some positive areas, I might be less concerned about what I see happening in this country," Kevin Sabet, the co-founder of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, told me in 2015. "But I think we have a horrible history of dealing with these kinds of things."

Drug policy experts like Mark Kleiman at New York University's Marron Institute and Beau Kilmer at the RAND Corporation point to Colorado, where one study of the state's pot market conducted by the Marijuana Policy Group for the Colorado Department of Revenue 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.

Colorado marijuana demand

If marijuana companies are able to act like the tobacco and alcohol industries have in the past, there's a good chance that they'll convince more Americans to try or even regularly use marijuana, and some of the heaviest users may use more. And as these companies increase their profits, they'll be able to influence lawmakers in a way that could stifle regulations or other policies that curtail abuse.

Why is abuse such a big concern, particularly for a drug that has very few direct health harms? As Jon Caulkins, drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, told me in 2015, "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."

As Caulkins acknowledges, marijuana isn't linked to deadly overdoses. But there are risks, including dependence and overuse, accidents, non-deadly overdoses that lead to mental anguish and anxiety, and marijuana use potentially causing psychotic episodes.

So many experts prefer laws that prohibit or limit commercialization, such as creating a state monopoly that puts the state government in charge of sales (much like state-run liquor stores), allowing only nonprofits to sell marijuana, or legalizing marijuana but only allowing possession, gifting, and growing without allowing sales (like DC does).

But while legalization activists acknowledge the concerns of greater abuse, especially among teenagers, they argue that legalization is worth the risks of commercialization, simply because the effects of prohibition have been so bad.

For some activists, legalization is worth the risk of commercialization

For the marijuana legalization movement, the main concern is legalization — even if it creates an industry that doesn't always have the best public interest at heart. In fact, creating that industry — and letting it foster ballot initiatives — may be the quickest route to nationwide legalization.

Some advocates don't believe that commercialization is a bad thing. Tvert of MPP, for one, argued that "marijuana should be treated like alcohol," particularly since pot is the generally safer drug. Given that alcohol and tobacco use among teens — and tobacco use among adults — has dropped over the past few years, advocates say that a regulated commercial model can prevent abuse while allowing reasonable access for responsible adults.

Still, the CDC estimates that tobacco causes 480,000 deaths each year, and excessive drinking causes 88,000 deaths annually, about a quarter of which are caused by direct health complications — so the commercial model still allows for a lot of deaths. At the same time, marijuana has never been linked to an overdose death, so it does carry significantly fewer direct health risks, even if it's abused more under a commercial model.

Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, meanwhile, said the concern for advocates has always been social justice: While commercialization may produce some challenges in the future, the problems with keeping pot illegal — the racial disparities in pot-related arrests and the black market that funds criminal groups around the world, for instance — are far, far worse. (I previously made a similar argument.)

"Our focus — me, Drug Policy Alliance, the broader marijuana reform movement — has always been ending marijuana prohibition and all the harms associated with it," he told me. "That's been the bottom line."

For the movement, tapping into the industry also may be the best way to get legalization done quickly. As Riffle told me, ballot initiatives can be very expensive, so drawing from industry money could give a campaign a chance it otherwise wouldn't have. And beyond some wealthy activists who have a personal stake in the issue, it's usually self-interested members or would-be members of the pot industry who are best poised to contribute.

"Who's going to pay for a nonprofit, collective cooperative model? It's hard to find somebody who is willing to do that," Riffle said. "So it's left to the industry to fund legalization measures, and of course the industry is going to fund industry-centered policies."

A recent example of this is Ohio, a large state that requires a lot of money for political campaigns. There's no way legalization would have even made it on the ballot in November had it not been for the self-interested scheme that a few billionaires pushed through. Ohio doesn't even have medical marijuana — even though it has strong public support and the ballot initiative process could be used to legalize and regulate medicinal pot.

The industry's growing influence is also clear in California — as major players in the state's $1.3 billion medical marijuana industry and other business interests fought over which of the multiple (at least 10) legalization ballot initiatives should make it to the ballot in 2016. And with business interests at the table, it's unlikely that anything like a state-run monopoly or nonprofit model would win out — even though they may prove better for public health while ending the worst harms of prohibition.

But for legalization advocates such as Riffle, issues like commercialization at least merit debate, especially within organizations focused on marijuana policy. But Riffle's exit from the movement suggests that voices like his may not be heard — in part due to a growing marijuana industry that's become a bigger part of the movement, and will likely continue to ingrain itself in the cause as legalization spreads.