Who Is Secretly Working to Keep Pot Illegal?
Cops, Alcohol and Tobacco
“No group is more opposed to the legalization of marijuana than law enforcement,” says NORML spokesman Allen St. Pierre. “They aren’t just arguing for preserving the current status quo—they want stiffer penalties and more restrictions and the reason is simple: it’s job security.” According to St. Pierre, at least 30 percent of the work of law enforcement currently revolves around marijuana prohibition, with pot accounting for more than 50 percent of all drug arrests.
Police groups clearly offer the most visible opposition to legal pot; they often work behind the scenes as well. In 2008, Eric Steenstraw, president of the industrial hemp activist organization Hemp Now, helped manage to get bipartisan bill AB 684, the California Industrial Hemp Farming Act, passed. This state law would have allowed California farmers to legally supply manufacturers with hemp seeds, oil and fiber that they now obtain from Canada, China or other places where growing the crop is permissible. Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill almost immediately. “I was told afterwards,” says Steenstraw, “that it was John Lovell—the main lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers Association (and three other major California law enforcement organizations)—who got to the Governor. That was the only opposition we got and it was enough to kill the bill.”
While Lovell worked hard to get AB 684 vetoed, he actually had help. “There were 16 different law enforcement agencies who opposed the bill,” he says. “I only represented four of them. But Steenstraw’s correct about law enforcement’s opposition. There’s just no easy visual way to differentiate hemp from cannabis, and if this bill would have gone into effect, it would have seriously undermined major marijuana cultivation enforcement efforts.”
The Alcohol and Tobacco Industries
The idea that alcohol and tobacco companies would oppose looser restrictions on marijuana may seem odd. After all, both industries are in the business of making people feel good. But a number of researchers have found that pot turns out to be more of a substitute for alcohol and tobacco than a complement. In 2009, Amanda Reiman, a UC Berkeley social scientist, published a study in the Harm Reduction Journal showing that 40 percent of her patient population had substituted cannabis for booze at some point. Other studies found that when pot smokers can’t find marijuana they binge drink instead. Simply put: the tobacco and alcohol companies are worried about losing market share to weed.
In 1991, NORML used a Freedom of Information Act request to examine the funding records of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a nonprofit that provides anti-drug resources to parents. They discovered that 50 percent of the organization’s capital came from the alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries. So embarrassing was this revelation that, according to St. Pierre, “ever since, these industries have tried to hide their marijuana opposition.”
But with legalization pressures mounting last summer, the California Beer and Beverage Distributors came out of the closet and donated $10,000 to Public Safety First, an organization fighting against California’s Prop 19. In a CNN interview about the donation, Mason Tvert, executive director of SAFER (a Colorado-based pro-pot advocacy group), said: “Every objective study on marijuana has concluded that it’s a far safer substance than alcohol. Clearly what we’re seeing here is that the alcohol industry is trying to prevent competition. They realize that marijuana is the next most popular recreational drug after alcohol and they want to insure the booze keeps flowing and the pot does not.”
Some experts also feel that these industries are actually playing both sides against the middle. “The tobacco industry has a long history of opposing legalization,” says St. Pierre, “but no one is better positioned to start selling legal marijuana. They already know how to process and market dried vegetable matter. In fact, a few years ago, when everyone was suing the tobacco industry, the court documents revealed that one of the big British tobacco companies—a company that specialized in menthol cigarettes—had run experiments to try and figure out how to mentholate cannabis and how to market the result to the African-American community.”