Mis-Imagining Marijuana Inc.

I was on Nevada Public Radio a few weeks ago with Allen St. Pierre, who is a leading marijuana legalization activist. We had similar views on the likely shape of a legal marijuana industry, namely that it would be corporate dominated, employ armies of lobbyists and fight to keep taxes and health and safety regulations as minimal as possible. Mr. St. Pierre said that the food industry would be the best place to look for a parallel: About 90% of food is produced by mega-corporations and a few small players cut up the remaining scraps of business. I tend to think that a legalized marijuana industry would look like Big Tobacco — indeed marijuana production companies may simply be divisions of tobacco companies — but St. Pierre may have the better analogy.

Our predictions aren’t particularly insightful. Indeed, they don’t rise much above common sense: The shape of corporate America isn’t hard to discern. I was therefore intrigued to hear Mr. St. Pierre say that as he travels around the country, he spends a great deal of time disabusing legalization advocates of the idea that a legalized marijuana industry wouldn’t be, well, an industry. The likely form of a legalized marijuana industry isn’t appreciated by many people who oppose marijuana legalization either. Mis-imaginings of legalized cannabis in both camps are likely a consequence of the cultural meaning cannabis has for a significant portion of the U.S. population.

For millions of Americans, the word “marijuana” is hard-wired to the part of their brain that divides the human population into those who went to Woodstock and those who went to Viet Nam. The peculiar result is a largely left-wing movement fighting hard (alongside some corporate billionaires) to create a multinational corporation and a largely conservative movement fighting to stop the advance of capitalism and the private sector. Some people on both sides mis-imagine a legalized marijuana industry made up of bucolic co-op farms run by hippies in tie dye t-shirts, selling pot at the lowest possible profit to friendly independent business folk in the towns who set aside 10% of their profits to save the whales. This image is pleasant to some and revolting to others, but that’s as may be because it’s not what would happen under legalization.

This will be tough for baby boomers to hear, but the current generation of Americans doesn’t know Woodstock from chicken stock and understands the Viet Nam War about as much as they do military action in the Crimea. If the U.S. legalized marijuana today, those now fading cultural meanings would not rule the day, capitalism would. Cannabis would seen as a product to be marketed and sold just as is tobacco. People in the marijuana industry would wear suits, work in offices, donate to the Club for Growth and work with the tobacco industry to lobby against clean air restrictions. The plant would be grown on big corporate farms, perhaps supported with unneeded federal subsidies and occasionally marred by scandals regarding exploitation of undocumented immigrant farm workers. The liberal grandchildren of legalization advocates will grumble about the soulless marijuana corporations and the conservative grandchildren of anti-legalization activists will play golf at the country club with marijuana inc. executives, toast George Soros at the 19th hole afterwards and discuss how they can get the damn liberals in Congress to stop blocking capital gains tax cuts.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.