The status of federal legalization in the United States is still a topic of conversation, though more so abroad than at home. Once a hot topic on domestic trade-show panels and podcasts, the energy and excitement admittedly have died down in what many refer to as the “post-pandemic” period.
Legalization has lost its place on most national news outlets’ broadcasts and proverbial front-page news slots. Online, a keyword search for “federal legalization” and related terms yields few results. Instead, most search-engine returns consist of stories about movement at the state level, where progress remains robust. But why is this? According to a Pew Research Center study published in late November, “an overwhelming share of U.S. adults (88 percent) say either marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use by adults (59 percent) or it should be legal for medical use only (30 percent).” If more than four out of five Americans support legalization of some kind, what’s the holdup?
Politics plays a major role, as do a handful of very large corporations that sway politicians with campaign contributions and lobbying. If you’ve been in the industry for more than a minute, you’ve likely heard people reference the “Big Three.” Typically, they mean Big Pharma, Big Alcohol, and Big Tobacco. All those industries exert powerful influence in Washington D.C.
They’re also invested in cannabis already. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration approved GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex, a drug that uses organic cannabis-sourced compounds. Does it make sense the FDA approved a cannabis-derived drug when the U.S. government still considers the plant a Schedule I narcotic with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse?” Not really. Yet, the FDA considers the prescription medication a safe and effective treatment for seizures.
Then there’s the alcohol industry, the only other sector that has seen prohibition similar to ours—albeit for a substantially smaller number of years. Constellation Brands made a splash in 2017 with its investment in Canadian cannabis giant Canopy Growth. Molson Coors, in collaboration with HEXO Corp. (another Canadian licensed producer), launched a CBD sparkling water called Truss in 2021. Heineken-owned Lagunitas launched an infused sparkling water in collaboration with AbsoluteXtracts. Even the most notorious blue-collar-turned-hipster brand, Pabst, launched THC-infused beverages in recent years.
Big tobacco companies are just as involved in the movement, if not more so. In 2018, British multinational tobacco company Imperial Brands invested in Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies, a biopharmaceutical company focused on researching, developing, and licensing cannabinoid-based compounds for the masses. That same year, Altria, which owns Marlboro, invested $1.8 billion in Canadian producer Cronos. But these investments by tobacco behemoths were nothing new. Back in 2016, Philip Morris International invested $20 million in Israeli tech company Syqe Medical, best known for developing a metered-dose medical cannabis inhaler.
If the Big Three already are invested in cannabis, don’t they have a vested interest in federal legalization? Why hasn’t their considerable political weight changed the tide in Washington? Is politics really what’s holding back federal legalization?
Yes and no. The answer is complicated, but I believe the ugly side of extreme capitalism bears most of the blame: The Big Three are trying to squeeze as much proverbial milk as possible from their existing cash cows before they lose a chunk of their markets to cannabis companies they don’t control.
Big Pharma lost a lot of money when the feds clamped down on opioids, but manufactured medicines still represent billions of dollars in profits annually for the industry … even though cannabis offers a plethora of alternative, natural solutions. Although Big Tobacco’s influence in the U.S. has waned, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 12.5 percent of Americans still smoke—about 30.8 million people. And there’s a huge market for American-grown tobacco overseas. A whopping 26.6 percent of people aged fifteen or older in China smoke, according to the World Health Organization. That’s more than 300 million people, just 31 million less than the entire population of the U.S. A total of 19.7 percent of Europeans smoke—more than 150 million people. Our World in Data reports 23 percent of the world’s adults aged fifteen or older smoke tobacco on a regular basis.
And we can’t forget the most socially acceptable vice of them all: alcohol. After I opted to go “Cali-sober” in 2019, I began to notice alcohol is everywhere. You don’t realize how socially acceptable the drug is until you remove it from your lifestyle. Planes, trains, games, movie theaters… Everywhere I go in Asia, the U.S., Europe, and South America, there it is. A study published in the Journal of Cannabis Research revealed that in Colorado alone, households decreased their average monthly alcohol purchases by 13 percent after recreational use was legalized. Fortunately for the alcohol industry, the substance remains popular with consumers. According to Statista, the global market for alcoholic beverages in 2021 totaled $1.45 trillion.
A very plausible reason why cannabis isn’t legal yet? Timing. Those with the most control in Washington D.C. are throttling reform. While public acceptance has the U.S. in a position to legalize tomorrow, those who stand to profit just aren’t ready to downsize their legacy businesses. To paraphrase prospectors during the California Gold Rush, “There’s still gold in them there hills,” no matter whether the figurative hill is sales of patentable drugs, tobacco, or alcohol. The powers that be in D.C. will move on legalization when the powers behind them are ready. In the meantime, we will remain in low gear, chugging along one legal state at a time.
Meanwhile, the U.S., a historical leader in the culture and craft of cannabis, will fall behind internationally. Germany, the Czech Republic, and Switzerland are on the cusp of joining Uruguay, Canada, and Thailand in federal legalization. Let’s just hope the U.S. makes it to the federally legal space in time to remain relevant on the international stage.
Lance C. Lambert spent years cultivating brands and telling stories in the digital-media and marketing spaces prior to shifting his expertise to the legal cannabis industry in 2013. In 2022, he was named chief marketing officer at Grove Bags, where he’s tasked with growing the company’s footprint at home and abroad. A cancer survivor, he embraces and actively advocates for the plant.