Marijuana Lobby Admits Tobacco Industry Executives Pay-to-Play

06/07/2017 12:47 pm ET Updated Jun 07, 2017

“What do you want, what do you hate, what’s going to turn you off so I can’t ask you for money?”

This was the question the nation’s top pot lobbyist recently posed to tobacco executives in Michigan, where his lobbying group has drafted language for a recreational marijuana legalization law and is now collecting signatures to place it on the state’s 2018 ballot.

That Rob Kampia, Executive Director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), went on-the-record to admit he asked this of Michigan tobacco companies is both alarming and contemptible. MPP is the lead special interest group responsible for funding and organizing every state-based marijuana commercialization campaign in the U.S. Kampia’s shameless solicitation for contributions from the tobacco industry should send chills down the spine of every American who remembers our painful national experience with Big Tobacco.

The nascent marijuana industry, which has been profiting off of high-potency commercial products, is not only following in Big Tobacco’s footsteps, but now openly admitting to taking money from them.

Make no mistake, the marijuana industry is laying the groundwork to take center stage as Big Tobacco 2.0. Tobacco companies have been eyeing marijuana as the next big addictive enterprise since the 1970’s, and now they’re getting in on this cash cow in the ultimate quid pro quo: taking money in return for shaping the language of today’s marijuana legalization initiatives.

Kampia admitted he went back and forth with Michigan tobacco executives over how to create a law that would forge an “oligopoly” of licensees permitted to transport marijuana. The tobacco magnates wanted this provision in order to permanently line their own pockets and crush business competition before it could even appear.

Americans should see through the haze: these are the interests and shadowy figures really driving pro-marijuana legalization campaigns in our country. Why is the tobacco industry and its financial interests shaping marijuana laws, rather than science and evidence? When did common-sense public health regulations become second to the motives of cigarette industry tycoons?

As soon as Coloradans cast their votes for marijuana legalization in 2012, potential profiteers celebrated. One former Microsoft executive proclaimed that he would create the Starbucks of marijuana and “mint more millionaires than Microsoft.”

But the green rush doesn’t stop there: “Big Marijuana” is lobbying and advertising with the backing of established billionaires. Big Marijuana knows it needs lifelong addicted customers to prosper, because like any addictive industry, the large majority of profits come from addicts, not casual users.

Translation: The marijuana industry is trying to hook kids—just like Big Tobacco.

Kids and teens who start using marijuana before the age of 18 are the bullseye target for the marijuana lobby. These are their most loyal and lucrative customers. Perhaps that’s why this industry is fighting tooth and nail to block controls on advertising, labeling, shape, and color of marijuana products.

Wave goodbye to the old days of rolling joints on your parents’ couch, and say hello to fruit-flavored “kush pops” that look identical to a normal cake pop—expect these contain over 220mg of THC, more than 22 adult servings.

These colorfully packaged edibles have been crafted and targeted toward younger users in ads on the Internet and throughout mainstream newspapers and magazines in states like Colorado. But this has consequences.

Colorado now leads the country in past-month marijuana use by youth, likely because marijuana advertising sent the message to kids that pot use is socially desirable. And a new study published last month found that marijuana-related emergency room visits by kids in Colorado more than quadrupled since the state legalized marijuana, with most visits related to mental illness.

No matter what segment of public policy you examine, most Americans will agree that when tobacco industry magnates get to make the rules, our country suffers. Marijuana legalization is ultimately about Wall Street, not Main Street. It’s time for our lawmakers to put the emphasis back on public health, and stop pot lobby insiders from enacting laws that harm our communities and our kids.

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Kevin Sabet, Ph.D., is a former advisor to three U.S. administrations, and President and CEO of the non-profit and nonpartisan group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which he co-founded with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy and senior editor of The Atlantic David Frum in 2013. He worked in the Clinton (2000) and Bush (2002-2003) Administrations, and in 2011 he stepped down after serving more than two years as the senior advisor to President Obama’s drug control director, having been the only drug policy staffer to ever serve as a political appointee in a Democrat and Republican administration.

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