Why We Can't Let Capitalist Greed Throttle the Promise of America's Marijuana Industry

Long before it was a thriving industry, marijuana was a a social justice cause.

Young cannabis plants, marijuana leaf in hand
Photo Credit: frank60/Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High by David Bienenstock (Plume, 2016)

Ever since Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize marijuana in 2012, the establishment press has myopically focused on the "green rush" aspect of this societal sea change, beaming out a steady stream of special reports on how a new breed of well-pedigreed professionals and far-sighted entrepreneurs have come riding in like the cavalry to "legitimize" marijuana and reap huge profits in the process. Even the herb's organized detractors have picked up on this new obsession among the media, and so Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, now makes opposition to the emerging cannabis industry his central talking point when shouting down legalization.

"Remember Big Tobacco? Say hello to Big Marijuana," He opines in a typical blog post. "That’s what we’re about to get if we continue to legalize marijuana here in the United States… Legalization is all about the mighty dollar."

Which begs a few questions of Mr. Sabet, like: Since tobacco is highly addictive and kills 5 million people every year (Center for Disease Control), while cannabis has a lower abuse/addiction profile than caffeine (National Institute on Drug Abuse) and has never killed anyone in 10,000 years of human consumption—do you also support dismantling Big Tobacco? (Or Big Coffee for that matter?). If so, what do you imagine will replace Phillip Morris once cigarettes enter the black market? If not, how can you possibly justify allowing tobacco while outlawing marijuana? 

  • And that just covers the surface hypocrisy. The real logical fallacy in Sabet's rhetorical gambit is that Big Marijuana already exists, as Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the pro-legalization Drug Policy Alliance made sure to point out to him during a debate at the National Press Club in 2014.
  • “We already have ‘Big Marijuana,’ they’re called drug cartels, and they chop people’s heads off," Piper noted. "So why let these thugs keep billions of dollars a year if we don’t have to?”
  • Or, put another way, given a choice between Anheuser-Busch and Al Capone, who would you rather have slinging suds? An easy decision. And yet, while I don't give Kevin Sabet credit for anything beyond opportunism, I too harbor serious concerns about Big Marijuana. Mostly because I happen to think it's the War on Weed, and not the plant itself, that's illegitimate—and that Wall Street and Corporate America have a lot more to learn from authentic cannabis culture than the other way around. So why are we about to let the little guys and true believers in the marijuana field get plowed under just so the mercenary, carpet-bagging hedge funders that crashed the economy can get even richer?
  • The way things are heading, Willie Nelson will soon start playing benefit concerts in support of his favorite small farmers, but it doesn't have to go down that way. For while every other segment of the global economy is already tightly controlled by vast capital and deeply entrenched political interests, the pot business remains, for the moment, wide open. Which means cannabis legalization offers a wholly unique opportunity to build a truly progressive industry from the ground up, one that addresses income inequality, labor rights, environmental sustainability, and unchecked corporate power. Best of all, five years from now, when we've established a thriving cannabis industry based on local small businesses that all make a living, instead of a killing, while uplifting workers, communities, consumers and the environment, we can use that example to push every other industry on Earth towards such radical ideas as paying a living wage, marketing responsibly, and not destroying the planet.
  • For starters, since legal marijuana's most enthusiastic supporters and insistent detractors both overtly fear the rise of Big Marijuana, activists on both sides of this debate must immediately start working together to make sure all regulation of the cannabis industry specifically supports small, local, socially-responsible businesses over large, profit-obsessed corporate interests. Personally, after nearly fifteen years of reporting on marijuana, I believe every person working in the cannabis field should make a minimum wage that's at least 50% higher than what the state requires, or better yet, all legal marijuana businesses should be worker-owned. And all pot retailers should be required to supply a significant portion of their inventory for free or at cost to low-income people in their local community with serious ailments who can't otherwise afford the medicine they need (and which insurance will not cover). 

Marijuana advertising and promotion, meanwhile, should be held to a high standard and serve an educational function, rather than following the alcohol and tobacco model of promoting overconsumption. Also, no tax should be imposed on medical marijuana that's not imposed on prescription drugs, and no tax monies collected on cannabis growing, distribution and sales should ever be used to fund law enforcement, anti-marijuana public relations campaigns, or the addiction treatment industry (which for decades has preyed on marijuana users forced into rehab by the criminal justice system).

Most importantly, we need to recognize at all times that long before it was a thriving industry, marijuana was a a social justice cause and a grass roots political movement seeking liberty and justice for all in the face of severe government oppression. The weed heads (and not the greed heads) have been right about cannabis all along, after all, so nobody convicted of a non-violent marijuana offense (for using, growing or selling pot) should ever be barred from working in the legal cannabis industry. Feel free to ban the banksters though.

David Bienenstock is the author of How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High, and Legalized It and a contributor to VICE, VICE News, GQ, Motherboard, Salon, Munchies, Alternet, the Guardian, the Wirecutter, and other publications. He writes about politics, music, culture, technology and travel, while making frequent media appearances, including on CNN, NPR, MSNBC, HBO and Fox News. 

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