Pot legalization activists are running into an unexpected and ironic opponent in their efforts to make cannabis legal: Big Marijuana.
Medical marijuana is a billion-dollar industry — legal in 18 states, including California, Nevada, Oregon and Maine — and like any entrenched business, it’s fighting to keep what it has and shut out competitors. Dispensary owners, trade associations and groups representing the industry are deeply concerned — and in some cases actively fighting — ballot initiatives and legislation that could wreck their business model.
For a student of history the storyline is not new. The same thing existed with alcohol prohibition. It was called “bootleggers and baptists”, because the groups most opposed to ending prohibition were the true believers and the bootleggers getting rich off the black market. Many alcohol sellers during prohibition were even pharmacies selling “medicinal whiskey.”
While I’ve seen a fair amount written about this narrative, the actual scale of this problem for cannabis legalization so far appears to be small.
There were a few individuals in the medical marijuana community who very publicly spoke against Amendment 64 or Initiative 502 last year, but there is no sign they had a noticeable impact or represented more than a incredibly tiny minority. In neither Colorado nor Washington State did the medical marijuana community spend big or strongly organize against legalization. For example, in Washington State medical marijuana groups opposed to I-502 raised less than $20,000 and even this limited opposition may have been more driven by legitimate criticism with the DUI provision than a selfish attempt to reduce competition.
The one part of the medical marijuana industry actually hurting full legalization comes from California’s Proposition 19 in 2010 and that may have been a unique case. Roughly 2.5 percent of people who thought marijuana should be legal voted against it. The initiative also actually lost in Humboldt county, even though Humboldt has long been a bastion of marijuana growers.
While some in Humboldt may have opposed Prop 19 simply to keep prices high, it more likely concerns about poor drafting or being the first state to legalize would spark a new wave of federal crackdowns on all marijuana business were far more important. Post election polling found seven percent opposed the initiative because it conflicted with federal law and seven percent opposed it for being poorly written.
These problems with Prop 19 either no longer apply or are easily addressed. Amendment 64 was better written and had input from stakeholders. By simply giving established medical marijuana businesses some special permitting considerations the Amendment 64 campaign effectively nullified opposition from the industry.
The important takeaway is that, on net, the established medical marijuana industry has been supportive of all the recent big legalization initiatives and that any real opposition from it has been minimal.