Legalizing marijuana

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Up next on The WORLD and Everything In It, the push to legalize marijuana use.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Federal law says it’s illegal. Yet 31 states have legalized medical marijuana, and nine states have legalized recreational marijuana. A big push to legalize pot nationwide has bipartisan support in Congress.

BASHAM: The downsides to marijuana use are well known. The World Health Organization reports that marijuana is harmful and potentially addictive for up to 50 percent of users. Particularly worrisome is the effect of pot on young brains. You’ll hear reference to THC. That’s the main component in marijuana that produces a high.

REICHARD: WORLD’s investigative journalism team, led by former FBI agent Jim Long, followed the money behind the push to legalize pot nationwide. Jim and his team wrote about this in the latest issue of WORLD Magazine, the first in a series. Jim’s here now to talk about it.

Jim, tell us about this investigation, a sort of overview. How did you go about it?

JIM LONG, REPORTER: Yeah, we started by first just looking at the drug itself, its various medical components, trying to get an understanding of the plant itself and how it’s being used both medically and then of course just the status state-by-state and where the legislative tracks are across the nation for both medical approval of the drug and then legalization of it for recreational purposes.

REICHARD: Were there any big surprises you came across during the course of the investigation?

LONG: Yeah, the biggest surprise was really just how quickly this nation is moving towards legalization. We thought that we would kind of see a handful of states moving in a direction, maybe see some people—entrepreneurs—they’re called ‘ganjapreneurs’—moving in that direction. What we’re really finding, to use a cliche, the train’s left the station. There are nine states so far. But it’s so pervasive already and there’s so much momentum in the private sector with so many big industries, big players like big tobacco and big alcohol, even big pharma trying to get a piece of the pot pie we’re calling it, that this nation is pretty much on its way to legalizing it.

The only difference between the United States and Canada is that Canada has legalized it on a federal level. They did that this summer and that takes place October 17th. Our nation, of course, is moving piece by piece, state by state.

REICHARD: Tell us who the big players are in promoting marijuana legalization here in this country.

LONG: Well, lobbyists are going to be the Drug Policy Alliance. That’s going to be George Soros, the hedge fund billionaire in New York City. They’re one of the big players.

The Marijuana Policy Project will probably be the No. 2 based on just the amount of money they’ve put into it by their state-by-state lobbying, plus on K Street in D.C., lobbying for these efforts.

As far as private industry, it’s interesting. I assumed big tobacco would be the biggest player. They seem to be the most natural fit to move into this market and they still are, but big alcohol is actually the biggest player moving into this market, and they’re doing that through the pursuit of THC-infused beers. Both producing their own product line of THC-infused beers, at least what their R&D and early indicators are showing us, and then targeting and acquiring small kind of handcrafted beer and breweries. And they’re doing that by moving into the space in Canada.

REICHARD: OK. And who are the players against it?

LONG: Yeah, Mary, one of the most surprising things was we saw opposition arising from big pharma, especially in states where medical marijuana was legalized. Certain studies were showing that there was a reduction in opioid use and there was reduction in overdose rates and opioid-related addictions through the use of marijuana in those states. And so certain groups, for instance, Abbott Laboratories, which produces Vicodin—they were on board and contributing to measures opposing the legalization of marijuana in certain states. We also had Purdue Pharma, which produces OxyContin—they were opposing measures in states that were seeking to legalize marijuana. So they were viewing these drugs, apparently, as competitors for opioid addiction. That was reducing their market size.

REICHARD: But given those players, what big concerns have arisen in the course of investigating marijuana as an industry?

LONG: You know, there’s really two big concerns. The biggest one for me and I think the entire team, would be the concern for children. We have THC concentrates in gummy candy, in lollipops, in cupcakes, and the controls on these measures are limited. They’re in brightly colored packages. In Colorado they’re actually being marketed in comic books with coupons, with a dollar-off coupon for one joint. 

And then when you think of the tobacco industry and the way that nicotine was being used to addict its consumers and lock-in their market share through addiction. You worry about the same thing with THC. Will there be the same kind of, what I call throttling, where they’re controlling the amount of THC and pushing the thresholds to increase addiction to guarantee their market share regardless of the consequences in the users lives? So, those are two big concerns.

REICHARD: Let’s talk now about how the church might inform the advancement of marijuana legalization and more widespread use of it. What challenges do you think this presents for the church?

LONG: Well, first, I think the church needs to be part of the dialogue. In all the research I’ve done, there was a real absence. The church needs to step in and address the potential addiction issues here. And kind of tied to that along with health risk are the potential for triple addictions. I mean, imagine someone smoking a joint and drinking a beer and, let’s say, they put THC in coffee, which they’re doing. You’ve got now caffeine and THC, then they’re smoking a THC/tobacco-based product, now they’ve got nicotine. You’ve got the top four addictive drugs in our nation that are going to be more accessible and used multiply, affecting people’s health, leading to more addictions. So, I think the church really needs to be preparing to address an increase in addictions and multiple addictions at that.  

REICHARD: Well, what is next in your series on this topic?

LONG: Yeah, so the first installment was really kind of giving the state of the nation on this. The next installment in the series will be focusing on big alcohol, which is really the next big player, how they plan to enter the market, how they’re positioning themselves now. That’ll be followed by big tobacco and then so forth. We’ll eventually kind of wrap it up with looking at big politics, the final status of things because there’s so many things in the works legislatively now that are challenging the way this thing is going down.

Sounds like a fast moving story. Jim Long is an investigative reporter with WORLD. Jim we’re eager to hear the rest of this story, thanks so much for this one.

LONG: Hey, thanks for having me.

(Photo/Jim Long) Employees of Medicine Man dispensary work among a forest of plants in one of the company’s grow rooms near Denver, Colo.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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