comscore Column: Big Pharma, Big Tobacco betting big on marijuana legalization | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Editorial | Insight | Island Voices

Column: Big Pharma, Big Tobacco betting big on marijuana legalization

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has made marijuana legalization a top talking point during her career in office. As the Hawaii Democrat gears up to run for president, she has doubled down on her promotion of the marijuana industry — but that position runs counter to the science on public health.

In fact, it contrasts with the vast majority of medical, public health and safety associations around the country. It is also based on a false dichotomy that says we only have two choices in policy: legalization or criminalization.

Promoters of Big Pot — an industry that markets gummies, candies and lollipops in kid-friendly, colorful labels that find their way into the hands of children — often claim the illegal status of marijuana keeps our prisons stocked with low-level, non-violent offenders. In reality, this is simply not true.

Many people currently incarcerated have no drug charges. Around 42 percent of people in prison are there for violent crime, while about 21 percent are in prison on drug charges. At the federal prison level, less than half-a-percent of persons sentenced for a drug charge in 2017 were put behind bars for possession of marijuana. Moreover, marijuana legalization has led to a decrease in exactly zero states in which it has been enacted. In fact, prison populations in those states increased following legalization. The idea that legalization will somehow solve mass incarnation is folly and misguided.

Of course, it is true that a criminal record can be damaging even if incarceration doesn’t happen, and we agree we shouldn’t lock people up or give records to marijuana users. But legalization is the wrong remedy.

Legalization leads to commercialization, which in turn leads to heavy use and a host of other ill consequences.

Colorado holds the top ranking for first-time marijuana use among youth in the country. Marijuana-related ER visits are skyrocketing. Studies are showing mental health issues are on the rise in legal states. Marijuana stores are recommending their potent products to pregnant women. Drugged-driving fatalities have increased and even doubled in legalized states. And black markets are thriving.

By decriminalizing, instead of legalizing, marijuana, we can clear criminal records and end harmful policing trends while also not encouraging use and creating an industry that will create ill consequences.

Gabbard promotes legalization while lambasting pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma for their contribution to the opioid epidemic. Her calling out of Purdue is warranted as it is complicit in the epidemic — but the ultimate irony is that John Stewart, former CEO of Purdue, is now heading up a marijuana company.

And Big Pharma aren’t the only ones betting large on legalization.

Recently, Altria, one of the largest producers of tobacco products, announced it’s investing $12.8 billion in vaping giant, JUUL, a company that controls 68 percent of the e-cigarette market. This came a week after the Marlboro maker announced it was pumping $1.8 billion into Canadian marijuana grower, Cronos. It also came a week after we learned that marijuana vaping has risen significantly, up more than 50 percent among all age groups.

Big Tobacco and Big Pharma are officially going all in with the marijuana industry now. The men in suits who once told America that nicotine is not addictive are now doing the same with marijuana — and laughing all the way to the bank.

Let’s stop with the false dichotomy of legalization versus incarceration, and put public health ahead of private profits.

Kevin Sabet, a former senior drug policy adviser to President Barack Obama, is president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

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