Issue #16 September 2022
I will start by reframing the title of this issue: What does more harm – cannabis or corporations? This is a critical question in the current world-wide interest in cannabis law reform.
To address this question, we must look further than just the cannabis industry. Wealthy and powerful corporations control our alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical industries. Many of these companies are engaged in an indiscriminate pursuit of revenue that sometimes approaches ruthlessness in its indifference to the protection of public health. I have covered these topics in DPA Newsletter Issues #6 and #8 through #11. (For recent subscribers, there is an announcement at the end of this newsletter about accessing previous issues.)
In February 2017, I released a report “Cannabis Law Reform in Canada: Pretense & Perils”. I raised the high likelihood that cannabis would follow the same path as its elder drug industry siblings. For the most part, it has – through regulatory non-compliance, compromised product integrity, securities fraud, corporate crime, and collaboration with the illegal trade that it was supposed to replace. All this occurred with mostly permissive government regulation – about which I also warned. However, there was one aspect of this new legal drug industry that I did not anticipate. From a financial perspective, the largest cannabis corporations have been a dismal failure. With an unfathomable dearth of basic business acumen and due diligence, they have lost $billions of investors’ money and have yet to have a year in which they turned a profit. Production facilities have been shuttered and sold at enormous loss and thousands of employees laid off. But the cannabis executives have walked away with $millions in salaries, bonuses, and severances. The industry is desperately scrambling to right the mess, and it has several strategies in play.
One strategy is corporate – to get help from its more mature drug industry siblings. There have been large investments and increased membership on the boards of directors of some of Canada’s largest cannabis producers by alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies. This is a yellow flag flapping wildly in the winds of change. It deserves our diligent surveillance. But our governments, federal and otherwise, mesmerized by cannabis tax revenues, do not seem concerned. Insufficient attention to the emerging drug industry consortium of pharmaceutical, alcohol, cannabis, and tobacco (Big PACT) may cost us dearly down the road when this multi-headed corporate hydra becomes too big and politically powerful to effectively regulate. We are already a substantial distance down that road.
Another strategy borrows from the alcohol and tobacco playbooks – to engage in public disinformation and intense lobbying of government. Cannabis Council of Canada, the country’s foremost cannabis industry lobbyist, has secured the services of George Smitherman, a former Liberal Ontario Deputy Premier and Health Minister.
As CCC’s President and CEO, Mr. Smitherman has been an ardent advocate for the industry. He has traded on his often-provocative political past to attract and make effective use of media coverage. He has also publicly declared his intent to heavily lobby government on behalf of the industry. He has complained bitterly of “nanny-state regulation” as a major cause of the industry’s woes. Most recently, Mr. Smitherman took offence to a meeting between Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau and Germany’s Chancellor Scholz because it did not include any discussion on how Germany might help Canada’s failing cannabis corporations.
Really? World leaders are grappling with increasing public alarm over global warming, global warring, runaway inflation, poverty, housing crises, debt, and a pandemic of drug overdoses. Add to that the stresses of the covid pandemic that not only mutates into new viral strains, but also into new ways to divide us and set us upon each other. This global pandemic has been an unprecedented, miserable experience for the people of nations around the world and has shone a spotlight on so many serious social and economic inequalities.
But Mr. Smitherman, undaunted by these international challenges, apparently expected to elbow his way to the negotiation table and push those issues aside so that Germany and Canada’s leaders can discuss how to save Canada’s cannabis industry from itself. Domestically, Mr. Smitherman and his Council want more permissive regulation and government hand-outs in the form of tax avoidance – for an industry that has been the architect of its own misery. Now the Council proposes to export Canada’s failed attempt at legalization to other countries such as Germany. Should any further enabling of the cannabis industry be a priority for world leaders in these unsettled and perilous times? I think that would be difficult to defend – within any political ideology.
And yet, Cannabis Council of Canada may get its way as evidenced by another strategy – a political-economic one. Canada’s 2022 Budget proposed “…launching a new cannabis strategy table that will support an ongoing dialogue with businesses and stakeholders in the cannabis sector. The Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development will lead this, and will provide an opportunity for the government to hear from industry leaders and identify ways to work together to grow the legal cannabis sector in Canada.” We can expect this strategy table to be a priority for the Liberal Party of Canada. Many of the Party’s elite members invested in the cannabis industry and are likely to be eager to resuscitate their faltering stock values.
To better address the question that I introduced at the beginning of this newsletter issue – what does more harm: cannabis or corporations? – we might also briefly consider corporations beyond drug industries. To do so in any depth is beyond the comfortable scope of Drug Policy Alternatives. But others have addressed the larger context of corporate malfeasance that extends far beyond drug industries. The curious or skeptical reader might begin with Joel Bakan’s early book “The Corporation” and explore contemporary sources such as the website “Corporate Watch” or “The Journal of White Collar and Corporate Crime.”
I was recently asked to be an interviewee in a study by The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) “…to develop a greater understanding of the role of cannabis companies and how they influence the mental health of individuals and communities.” I was flattered to be invited and delighted to participate. I was impressed with the pertinence of the questions asked and I look forward to seeing the results. It is reassuring to encounter investigators who not only resist the siren song of corporate largesse but are also willing to explore the conduct and impacts of corporations.
So, what is the role of corporations in drug problems? Decades of data have shown that the great majority of drug problems and economic costs arise from our legal, regulated drug industries – alcohol and tobacco (Issue #6). A related, contextual point in drug law reform is that any drug can be used safely, and any drug can be used in a manner that is harmful. It is not just about a drug’s intrinsic properties. It is just as much about us – what we believe about a drug, and the decisions we make in how we use it. Anyone familiar with the experimental clinical psychology literature on reinforcement expectancies will appreciate this. So will anyone who understands a placebo effect.
So, what affects what we believe about a drug? Well, corporations do – in their often seductive, deceptive, and sometimes exploitive, advertising and marketing. Corporations also influence social norms through their lobbying – both in private with legislators and in public with the media.
I know that at least some readers of this newsletter will acknowledge that corporations can be harmful but will also raise the harms of cannabis. Rightly so. Despite the claims of cannabis enthusiasts, cannabis use is not the entirely benign pastime they allege it to be. Every year in Canada’s province of Ontario, approximately 20,000 people, who are in an addiction treatment program, identify cannabis as one of their problem substances. That is in just one year and one province. Only alcohol is higher at about 40,000. For both cannabis and alcohol, it is important to acknowledge that the majority of those who use them do so in a safe and responsible way. But in both cases, many people do not, especially with alcohol. Cannabis enthusiasts might want to reconsider their frequently issued call for cannabis to be regulated as permissively as is alcohol. The equitable solution from a public health pespective would be to regulate alcohol more strictly than it currently is – not to lighten up on the regulation of the cannabis industry. More generally, it is important to reform government’s milquetoast regulation of many forms of corporate chicanery. The criminalization of drug use has been inhumane and ineffective, but the corporate legalization of drug trades only replaces one serious social problem with another.
What does more harm: cannabis or corporations? I believe it is corporations.
I once considered styling this newsletter as one that shifts the war on drugs and drug users to a war on drug corporations. I considered naming this newsletter Dispatches from the War on Drug Corporations. But I think we have enough war and its metaphors in our lives. So, let’s just think of it as the pursuit of social justice and protection of public health – not by criminalizing those who use drugs, but by holding accountable the corporations ushering us into pandemics of harm for profit. We must also hold to account the governments that permit and sometimes even enable the pandemics of harm.
This is not an easy mission. Drug policy reform academics, practitioners, advocates, and activists of all persuasions must put aside the competitions and the differences of semantics that foster counterproductive divisiveness. The path forward will be one of common ground.
One of my indictments of corporate cannabis on social media received responses from both Jodie Emery & Kevin Sabat. Many of you will know Dr. Sabat and Ms. Emery as high-profile individuals who passionately, and steadfastly, occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of enthusiasm for cannabis as a consumer pastime. They both “liked” my post. That is the seemingly unlikely common ground I am talking about. It is not as elusive as we might think.
Social justice, public health protection and common ground, are the necessary forces against corporate greed and criminality, and regulatory accommodation – which I call the industrial-regulatory complex. This will continue to be a principal rallying theme of future DPA newsletters. It is also a prominent theme for a new website I have just launched, with the same name as this newsletter – Drug Policy Alternatives. As subscribers to this newsletter, you can be among the first to explore the site at: www.drugpolicyalt.ca.
I appreciate that subscribers to this newsletter continue to grow in the hundreds and now span 17 countries in all six populated continents. (There is no one in Antarctica yet. If you know someone stationed there, perhaps studying the impact of global warming, please feel free to share this newsletter.) Some of you who are more recent subscribers have asked about past issues. They are available on the site, as are other resources I have created to support the adoption of drug policy alternatives. I hope you will visit the site, share impressions, and become a part of its ongoing evolution, and hopefully its improvement, as another contribution to the world-wide movement to reform the historically unjust and ineffective approaches to drug policy.
Leonard Cohen sang to us that there is a crack in everything and that is how the light gets in.
Hamilton Ontario Canada
September 12 2022