Big Alcohol is also sashaying into the marijuana market. Last November, the U.S. distributor of Corona beer, Constellation Brands, invested $191 million in Canada’s largest commercial marijuana business, Canopy Growth Corp. Meanwhile, Molson Coors is “engaging” with Aphria Inc. and Aurora Cannabis, two other major Canadian cannabis companies.
Some of the profits from Coors beer over the years went to fund the conservative Heritage Foundation, but Molson Coors CEO Mark Hunter recently told stock market analysts, “We have a team of people working on” the marijuana market. That’s natural, says High Times: “Cannabis and hops are in the same plant family, [Cannabaceae].” One of Hunter’s star innovators has now staked his own claim in the Green Rush: Keith Villa, who created Molson Coors’ popular orange-garnished Blue Moon beer, will soon launch his own “Ceria” line of THC-infused beers.
Big Alcohol once opposed the legalization of marijuana, seeing it as a rival for those seeking a buzz—but some research suggests cannabis may increase alcohol use. The prospect of creating double highs, combined with the sobering reality that pot seems on the fast track to legalization, has now converted the industry into a “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality. A two-decade study published in 2015 by Forensic Science International showed only 2 percent of car drivers involved in fatal crashes in 1991 had both THC and alcohol in them—but that number jumped fivefold, to 10 percent, by 2008.
BIG BANKING IS STILL ON THE FENCE. The New York Times reported Wells Fargo was one of the first national financial institutions to “fish” for clients at marijuana industry conferences. It was also the “first to abandon the field” when Attorney General Jeff Sessions lifted Obama-era protections. Insurance carrier USAA exhaled after successfully arguing (on appeal in a Hawaii federal court) it need not pay for the loss of stolen marijuana plants grown for medical use, since the drug is still illegal under federal law.
But if President Trump greenlights the weed, banking institutions may no longer fear money laundering charges for accepting deposits from cannabusinesses. Some big insurers may soon be following the suit of small-time brokers who are charging ultra-high premiums for coverage. In 2014 Allstate’s Amy Allmon said the company would cover the loss of marijuana in Colorado, where cannabis is legal for both medicinal and recreational use. Still, studies on the long-term effects of marijuana use raise questions for underwriters assessing marijuana’s impact on life (potential lung cancer), auto (traffic fatalities), homeowners (fair market value of marijuana plant loss), and product liability (defective THC edibles) insurance.
Some companies within Big Pharma have already profited from marijuana’s legalization for medical use in 31 states—or 46 if counting those states allowing the medical use of CBD oils. (Only nine of those states authorize recreational use.) Medical marijuana can be used to reduce muscle spasms, improve appetite in people with HIV/AIDS, and reduce vomiting and nausea during chemotherapy. The FDA has approved three synthetic marijuana-related drugs for prescription use, and on June 25 it for the first time approved a plant-derived one, Epidiolex. That puts pressure on federal authorities to remove marijuana from their list of drugs with “no medical benefit.”
One of the synthetic drugs, Syndros (oral dronabinol), an anti-nausea solution and appetite stimulant, emerged from the laboratories of Insys Therapeutics. Insys, stating its concern for child safety, was the largest contributor ($500,000) to the defeat of a 2016 Arizona measure to legalize marijuana. But an Insys disclosure statement to the Securities and Exchange Commission stated: “If marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids were legalized in the United States, the market for dronabinol product sales would likely be significantly reduced and our ability to generate revenue and our business prospects would be materially adversely affected.”
Other pharmaceutical companies have also fought recreational use of pot. Purdue Pharma, the maker of the highly addictive opioid OxyContin, was a major contributor to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. Vicodin producer Abbott Laboratories was also a big partnership donor. Some within Big Pharma see marijuana as unwelcome competition—especially in states where legalized marijuana and reductions in opioid overdoses are correlated.
Whether moving quickly, slowly, overtly, or covertly, all players are jockeying and politicking for a piece of the pot pie—with eyes on the profits and costs in the periphery. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 30 percent of users will develop some sort of dependence on the drug, with 9 percent becoming addicted. The 2016 World Health Organization report and a 2017 National Academy of Sciences study depict marijuana as harmful and potentially addictive for up to 50 percent of users.
In 2015, 138,000 Americans voluntarily sought treatment for marijuana abuse. Online, a Reddit forum, “r/leaves,” is “a support and recovery community for practical discussions about how to quit pot … or whatever THC-related product you’re using, and support in staying stopped.” It has 66,000 subscribers.
Teenage abuse is perhaps the most worrisome—17 percent of adolescent users turn into addicts, and three-fourths of adolescent admissions to publicly funded addiction treatment centers are marijuana-related. One study of a Colorado children’s hospital found that cannabis-related emergency room admissions for youth ages 13-21 quadrupled between 2005 and 2014, the year the state legalized marijuana for recreational use. Studies show marijuana to be dangerous to the adolescent brain, in some cases leading to permanent reductions in IQ.
The benefits of marijuana in relieving pain are clear, but it’s usually not hard to find a doctor who liberally passes out prescriptions. CNN reported that only 3 percent of Colorado’s medical marijuana prescriptions were for people suffering from cancer or HIV/AIDS. Some 94 percent cited unspecified “pain.”
And, as the Green Rush escalates, some children’s advocates are reminding us of “Joe Camel,” Big Tobacco’s 1987-1997 advertising mascot that attracted children to smoking. THC concentrate is now infused in colorfully packaged sodas, gummy candy, lollipops, and cupcakes. The cannabis industry recently sued and blocked an attempt by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, to have marijuana magazines containing cartoon ads and coupons for $1 joints placed behind counters and out of the reach of children. If government officials can’t withstand the Green Rush, can kids?
—Caleb team members: Charissa Crotts, Juliana Chan Erikson, Jim Long, Marvin and Susan Olasky, Harvest Prude. Our next article in this series will concentrate on Big Alcohol’s marijuana involvement.
Canabis (Marijuana): A flowering plant containing 85-plus chemical compounds called cannabinoids that are unique to the plant.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC): The most abundant cannabinoid in marijuana gives users a psychoactive “high” effect.
Cannabidiol (CBD): The second-most-abundant cannabinoid, often used for medicine, does not produce a “high.”
Hashish (Hash): Concentrated cannabinoid in powder, resin, or oil form that typically contains a potent level of THC.
Hemp: A fiber and seed extract from cannabis used for rope, paper, or cosmetics. Because the extract is not derived from the flowering bud, it has no drug value.