Is State-Legal Marijuana Creating “Big Marijuana”?

One of our cannabis lawyers, Hilary Bricken, recently did a TEDx talk on the development of “Big Marijuana.” The overall theme of this Ted session was the “Potential in Polarity,” and/or the “Best of Both Worlds.” Given these two themes, my talk focused on whether state-legal marijuana is helping to create “Big Marijuana.” For those of you who don’t want to spend 18 minutes watching the presentation, this post summarizes her talk. For those who want to see a truly compelling talk, the video can be found below. 

With legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, D.C., and with multiple other states on the horizon also looking to legalize marijuana, the marijuana industry has exploded and simultaneously matured, though it remains federally illegal.

As many of you know, the Department of Justice has taken a “hands-off” approach to enforcing federal marijuana laws, opting instead to tolerate “robust state regulation” for now. But at any moment, the federal government could eviscerate state cannabis legalization experiments. It likely won’t though because the majority of Americans would oppose such action. The pressing question is thus not “will marijuana be legalized” but rather, “what will legalized marijuana look like in twenty years?” Should America treat cannabis like a prescription-only drug, or should adults be free to buy joints like they now buy six-packs? Can cannabis as a party drug coexist with cannabis as a miracle cure? Most importantly, is the creation of “Big Marijuana” inevitable? In the context of “the best of both worlds,” can we have marijuana legalization without infiltration of big business interests?

There’s an entrenched and legitimate fear among both prohibitionists and cannabis advocates that Big Marijuana lurks within legalization. And with Big Marijuana will come big companies like Phillip Morris and Anheuser-Busch — companies that profit at least in part off addiction, are not tied in with local communities, and whose general business model has been to promote consumption, while fighting against both science and regulations that might impact on their bottom lines.

Many of those who fear Big Marijuana see the states as easy marks. State lawmakers crave the campaign donations, the tax revenues, and the regulatory ease and security Big Marijuana can offer. Most recently here in my home state of Washington, issues of protectionism and access to capital caused the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board to relax its resident-only restrictions, allowing non-residents to finance state-licensed recreational marijuana businesses through gifts and loans. This has led many to question whether we really want our state to be flooded with outside capital focused on expanding and promoting the local cannabis industry. Yet, on the flip side, don’t we also want these cannabis businesses to succeed, thereby proving legalization is superior to prohibition? Should we treat cannabis like any other agricultural product or should we closely control it to prevent big business from coming in and taking advantage of consumers?

Ultimately, the policy choices currently being made in the states will guide the Feds on federal marijuana legalization down the road. Promoting over- consumption, preventing youth access, and mitigating community impacts are all legitimate concerns, and the decisions favoring “corporate cannabis” versus “cottage cannabis” are still constantly being made in all marijuana-friendly states with robust marijuana regulations. The momentum of legalization is slipping out of the hands of the Feds and into the hands of the states at a time when the stakes are high for the future of cannabis.