The people who made a hippie dream come true do not look the part. Instead of tie-dyed T-shirts, the campaigners who masterminded the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Colorado wore dark suits and ties to celebrate the world’s first legal retail pot sales. Instead of talking about the counter-culture, they spoke of regulations, taxes and corporate responsibility. They looked sober, successful and mainstream.
With Washington State poised to follow Colorado later this year and activists in a dozen other states preparing to fight for legalization, the once-illicit cannabis plant is now a legitimate industry, with advocates, interest groups and lobbyists.
The Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Medical Marijuana Industry Group and the National Cannabis Industry Association are just some of the groups now vying to shape public opinion and government policy in the US.
For the likes of Diane Goldstein, a former lieutenant commander with the Los Angeles Police Department who became an activist for the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the groundswell of support for legalization is welcome evidence that society has turned against the drug war.
“It’s no longer dangerous for people to have a rational view about a failed policy,” she said.
Yet for Kevin Sabet of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization, the celebratory scenes in Denver pot shops last week is proof that a Big Tobacco-style campaign of manipulation has prevailed.
He said that many Americans are unaware that cannabis can cause long-term damage to people’s health, especially among young people, and that the American Medical Association opposes legalization.
“It’s Big Tobacco redux,” said Sabet, who also directs the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida’s Department of Psychiatry.
What was a fringe movement four decades ago has evolved into a slick, well-funded network based in Washington, he added.
“It was: ‘We need to cut our ponytails, take off our tie-dye shirts, put on our Macy’s suits, go to [the US] Congress and start lobbying state legislators,’” Sabet said.
In addition, Sabet said that the industry has been mimicking the tobacco playbook in portraying its product as virtually harmless, while using chemistry and marketing to turn consumers into addicts.
According to Sabet, the cannabis industry comprises a vast coalition of lobbyists; billionaire sponsors like George Soros and the late Peter Lewis; and profit-seeking investors like Privateer Holdings and the ArcView Group.
An estimated US$1.43 billion worth of legal marijuana was sold for medicinal purposes last year and that figure is likely to increase exponentially with the advent of legal recreational cannabis.
There is no doubt that the legalization industry has come a long way since Keith Stroup founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in 1970 with US$5,000 from the Playboy Foundation.
Activists say that smartening up their act was a natural step.
A few years ago, Mason Tvert wore scruffy T-shirts while urging Colorado college students to back legalization. After winning that fight with a ballot initiative in the November 2012, he became the Marijuana Policy Project’s communications director and moved to a smart, well-staffed office near the domed State Capitol in Denver.