“The Marlboro of marijuana”

As cannabis legalization moves forward, journalists need to learn to deal with industry spin.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

11 thoughts on ““The Marlboro of marijuana””

  1. " journalists are going to have to learn to deal with industry spin."

    Of course they will. Most legitimate journalists are reasonably bright, so they will learn that just like they learned to deal with spin in politics, in the various energy industries (coal, electricity, oil and gas, etc.), in the entertainment industries (TV, films, etc.), in the food industries, …etc.

  2. I find it hard to believe that anyone still cares about the laws against marijuana. I've never once heard anyone say that they are gagging for a doobie but by golly, they're just going to have to wait because it's illegal. The people who use it use it, and the ones who don't, don't. Unless you buy it from an undercover cop, you're not going to jail for using marijuana in private. Especially not if you're affluent, college-educated, suburban, and white.

  3. re: substance use disorders involving cannabis

    where might I find the official definition of SUD?
    Is this the term that replaces the ambiguous/inaccurate word "addiction"?

  4. I think the media criticism here is misplaced. Every story can't cover every angle. This story is a business story, and CBS used your input accordingly.

    The media have been pretty thorough in their coverage of the downside of marijuana legalization – and in many of those stories didn't mention the business angle at all.

  5. Does daily use automatically mean heavy user? Daily use of alcohol doesn’t imply a problem drinker. 14 drinks a week for men is still considered low risk.

  6. The writer didn’t tell the story you had hoped. But he wasn’t spun.

    Sometimes I get frustrated when people don’t challenge some of what you say too.

    Thanks Mark.

  7. I can see how "pricing, marketing, product innovation, and ease of access" could all contribute to a reduction of cannabis-related social costs and/or SUD and/or usage rates.

    For example, I can not have an ounce of parsley delivered to my home because the gasoline to deliver it would cost more, there are no warning labels and dissuasive graphics on sandwich baggies, vaporizers are less harmful than smoking, teens arguably find cannabis easier to obtain than alcohol.

    Perhaps I am mistaken, but I do not think the evidence that the legal regulation of cannabis leads to an increase in SUD is as robust as the evidence that humans contribute to climate change and tobacco smoking causes often fatal lung diseases.

    There are other factors besides pricing, product innovation, marketing and ease of access that influence usage rates, the percentage of consumers who use daily, the percentage of daily consumers who develop a SUD, the adverse consequences of a SUD, and so forth. There is little evidence that usage rates are statistically related to cannabis laws and their enforcement.

    I suspect that you are not allowing for the possibility that some of the consumers who fit the criteria for a SUD are actually medicating other mental conditions with cannabis, perhaps successfully.

  8. “Moral qualms” about marijuana laws? Didn’t some great American maintain that “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”?

    I hope the Feds legalize it so I can stop smoking it!

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