How the Alcohol and Pharmaceutical Industries are Teaming Up to Stop Cannabis Legalisation

With the rapid spread of legalised cannabis – be it medical or recreational – bringing liberalised drug policy to all corners of the world, from Montevideo to Berlin, opponents of reform are getting increasingly short of arguments. One thing they do have, though, is money. Two recent stories from the USA have highlighted the lengths to which those with the most to lose from legalisation will go in order to protect their interests, and how much they will spend.

Both stories are related to the campaign to defeat a ballot initiative in Arizona which would legalise recreational cannabis. The first appeared last week, when it emerged that Insys Therapeutics Inc – who sell the powerful, and often deadly, painkiller fentanyl – had donated half a million dollars to defeating the initiative.

It stands to reason that the producers of a dangerous painkilling medication – one which has been linked to the surge in opiate deaths in the US – would oppose the legalisation of cannabis. Supporters of reform have long maintained that ‘big pharma’ don’t want the competition that legal pot will provide, arguing that cannabis sales will inevitably eat into the profits of these huge companies.

 This may well be true – after all, cannabis is a pretty great painkiller itself, with far fewer and less deadly side effects – but it seemed like there must be more to the story. As it turned out, there was. As reported, despite Insys’ protestations that they were donating money out of concern for the kids, the truth is much more sinister: Insys Therapeutics Inc not only sell fentanyl, they’ve also just received approval for Dronabinol Oral Solution, a synthetic form of THC used to treat nausea and vomiting.

It hardly needs me to explain why a company that produces such a drug might be against the legalisation of cannabis, so I won’t. I’ll let them do it instead. Insys filed a disclosure statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission at an early stage of their new drug’s development, which stated:

“Legalization of marijuana or non-synthetic cannabinoids in the United States could significantly limit the commercial success of any dronabinol product candidate. … 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.”

Their suggest that they’re just thinking of the kids looks a lot more suspect once you’ve read that, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The second story relating to the Arizona ballot initiative concerns the other classic opponent of cannabis law reform – alcohol. The Arizona Wines and Spirits Wholesale Association may not have quite as deep pockets as Insys, but they’re still doing all the can to help defeat legalisation, and have donated $10,000 to the campaign.

They’re not the only ones in the alcohol industry who are making a stand to protect their bottom line. In Massachusetts, the Beer Distributors PAC have given $25,000 to the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, an anti-pot group trying to stop legalisation in the state.

It’s again pretty easy to see why alcohol producers might not be too happy about the prospect of legalised cannabis in their states. It all comes down to money. They worry – probably with very good reason – that legalised cannabis would give consumers another option. Many might make the switch from the dangerous, harmful, and addictive alcoholic beverages they’ve been legally enjoying for years, to the far less harmful and newly legal cannabis that they’ve previously eschewed because of its illegality and social stigma.

In fairness, it seems unlikely that legalised cannabis would actually do the alcohol industry any real damage, but it would eat into their market share. And to the people in charge, who care only about increasing revenue and pleasing shareholders, that can’t be allowed to happen.

It’s easy to presume these days that legalisation of cannabis is inevitable. But these two stories are a timely reminder that even in the USA, where the pace of change has been rapid, there are still many battles to be won before we win the war. And our opponents aren’t going to simply roll over and give up.

Deej Sullivan
Deej Sullivan is a writer and activist from the UK. He regularly writes on drug policy and politics for NORML UK, the UKCSCs, London Real, and his own blog,


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