“The Marlboro of Marijuana”

Founders Fund, a big venture-capital firm, has announced a substantial investment in Privateer Holdings, the parent of Leafly, Marley Natural, and other quasi-legal cannabis businesses.

In return for being allowed to break the news, CBS News gave the story fairly reverent treatment. (I was interviewed, and the story quoted my skepticism that there was big money to be made selling cannabis, but not my concerns about whether the commercial legalization of cannabis is the best available policy.)

The story gently noted that all of this activity remains illegal under federal law, but not as if that actually mattered; none of the “job creators” being interviewed was asked whether he had any moral qualms about complicity in lawbreaking or about encouraging the growth of problem cannabis use. The ambition of Marley Natural to become “the Marlboro of marijuana” was reported as if there had never been anything morally problematic about Marlboro. The Privateer guy was allowed to say, unchallenged, “One of our fundamental beliefs is anyone who wants to consume cannabis is already consuming it.”

Of course he has the right to believe that, or to pretend to believe it, just as coal-company executives have the right to pretend not to believe in global warming and just as cigarette-company executives in the 1950s and 1960s had the right to pretend to believe that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. But that belief, or pretended belief, is obviously false, simply because some people, for ethical or practical reasons, prefer not to break the law.

And the implication that viewers were intended to draw from that claim – that legalization won’t increase the prevalence of substance use disorders involving cannabis – doesn’t pass the giggle test; pricing, marketing, product innovation, and ease of access will all contribute to what is already a worsening problem. (The number of daily or near-daily cannabis users has grown sevenfold since 1992, and about half of those heavy users self-reports symptoms that would justify a diagnosis of SUD.)

As cannabis legalization moves forward – and I don’t see anything likely to stop it – journalists are going to have to learn to deal with industry spin. But the best guess is that they will remain, as the usually are, willing to pay for access with favorable coverage.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.