Big Tobacco Wanted To Sell Pot?

By Shawn Dwyer 06/03/14

Newly discovered documents dating back to the 1970s reveal that tobacco companies sought to profit from weed if and when it became legal.

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According to new documents unearthed by a wide-ranging research study, Big Tobacco has been eager to enter the marijuana business the moment weed became legal since the 1970s. The news came as something of a surprise given decades of public pronouncements from tobacco companies decrying the potential for legalized marijuana.

Published in The Milbank Quarterly, the investigation titled Waiting for the Opportune Moment: The Tobacco Industry and Marijuana Legalization was conducted by the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, and the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco.

Using the standard snowball technique, researchers scanned some 80 million digitized documents using such keywords as “cannabis,” “weed,” “marijuana,” and “spliffs” in order to learn the behind the scenes attitudes of tobacco companies toward legal marijuana. They found that “[s]ince at least the1970s, tobacco companies have been interested in marijuana and marijuana legalization as both a potential and a rival product.”

Even as far back as 1969, Dr. Alfred Burger, a chemistry professor who worked in a supervisory capacity for Philip Morris, saw a trend towards increased use of marijuana, and wrote the company’s manager of chemical and biological research describing his vision of the future.

“I can predict that marihuana [sic] smoking will have grown to immense proportions within a decade and will probably be legalized,” Burger wrote. “The company that will bring out the first marihuana smoking devices, be it cigarette or some other form, will capture the market and be in a better position than its competitors to satisfy the legal demands for such products.”

Though his letter went unanswered, tobacco companies did begin to see just a few years later that marijuana was only increasing in popularity and that it might be high time to capitalize on the trend. While it’s true that Big Tobacco did feel threatened by the competition posed by weed, company leaders like Philip Morris president George Weissman recognized that legalization was an eventual reality.

“While I am opposed to its use, I recognize that it may be legalized in the near future,” Weissman wrote in a hand-written letter to parties unknown. “Thus, with these great auspices, we should be in a position to examine: 1. A potential competition, 2. A possible product, 3. At this time, cooperate with the government.”

Fast forward four decades, both attitudes and state laws have changed dramatically, with the potential for marijuana legalization on a national level becoming a distinct reality for the first time. Because of the changing times, there’s no doubt that Big Tobacco is angling to profit and researchers sounded a warning to policymakers of the potential consequences.

“In order to prevent domination of the market by companies seeking to maximize market size and profits,” researchers said. “Policymakers should learn from their successes and failures in regulating tobacco.”

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Shawn Dwyer is a writer, editor and content producer living in Los Angeles. You can find him on Linkedin.