The Tobacco Industry’s Longstanding Desire to Sell Marijuana Cigarettes

In one of the last Newsweek magazine cover stories we will ever see, Tony Dukoupil offers a fascinating inside view of the business people who are making millions by selling quasi-legal marijuana. Exactly as predicted by yours truly, they are not long-haired hippies in tie-dye T-shirts but hard nosed, profit-focused, stylishly attired businessmen who make campaign contributions and try to squeeze out their smaller mom and pop business rivals.

Andrew Sullivan was one of many observers to pick up on the possibility that the tobacco industry will soon follow these early adopters into the pot business, bringing their ruthless, addiction-promoting tactics with them. Tony quotes my friend Dr. Peter Bourne as recalling tobacco industry executives discuss such things during the Carter Administration, but we needn’t rely on Peter’s memory when we have a smoking gun.

I dug through the internal documents that the government forced big tobacco to release and found evidence of the industry’s longstanding interest in selling pot. I gave one of the documents, a report commissioned in the 1970s by Brown and Williamson, to Mike Rosenwald of Washington Post, and here is how he wrote it up:

This is the dream tobacco companies have had since at least the 1970s, when consultants issued a secret report to Brown & Williamson touting a future product line in marijuana. “The use of marijuana today by 13 million Americans is socially the equivalent of the use of alcohol by some 100 million Americans,” said the report, found among millions of documents turned over to plaintiffs during the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s. “It is the recreational drug; the choice of a significant minority of the population. The trend in liberalization of drug laws reflects the overall change in our value system. It also has important implications for the tobacco industry in terms of an alternative product line.”

The tobacco companies, the report concluded, “have the land to grow it, the machines to roll it and package it, the distribution to market it. In fact, some firms have registered trademarks, which are taken directly from marijuana street jargon. These trade names are used currently on little-known legal products, but could be switched if and when marijuana is legalized. Estimates indicate that the market in legalized marijuana might be as high as $10 billion annually.

The report was a long time ago, and no doubt the industry has more modern ideas for selling marijuana today. Maybe that’s why, during the run up to the 2010 election in which marijuana legalization was on the ballot in California, Altria took control of the web domain names and For those not in the know, Altria is the parent company of Phillip Morris, the manufacturer of Marlboro, Players, Benson & Hedges and many other popular brands of tobacco cigarettes.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “The Tobacco Industry’s Longstanding Desire to Sell Marijuana Cigarettes”

  1. Tobacco Industry certainly seems to have the desire to sell pot but they are also clearly not powerful enough to have legalized it, since, umm, it hasn’t been legalized yet. And they have had the desire since the 70s. Even when, as likely, one or more of the ballot initiatives passes next Tuesday, there’s still no room for mass commercial exploitation as per the limits imposed by the proposed measures. That opportunity will, at the very least, remain a potential one till the Feds formally let go of pot prohibition.

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  3. Duh! I was saying this in the 70’s during the Carter administration when we came close to legalization back then. It’s a no-brainer for big tobacco.

  4. I live in CO and have been a legal patient and have voted for the somewhat ‘legalization’ of weed for recreational use this year (Yes on 64) and I think that even if the tobacco companies do try to compete with the local pot businesses they would eventually lose, since most of the patients and recreational users I know, which is many are more in support of buying local, sticking with a few shops, growing their own, and pushing out franchise pot businesses from CA that try to set up shop in CO. I think the tobacco industry would have a hard time getting into already established places with MMJ.

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