Sample from
Buzz Kill: The Corporatization of Cannabis

Issue #18 December 2022

Legal industries for alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical products are older than any of us. We have known them only as mature, adult industries and must read about their birth and early development. The legalization of cannabis—the creation of a new legal drug industry—is an unprecedented experience for Canadians, and increasingly, for the people of other nations.

For the licensed cannabis industry, we have witnessed, in real time, the courtship, conception and birth. The legalization for therapeutic (medical) use survived an unsteady infancy and childhood. Legalization for recreational use has been a stormy adolescence. The challenges of adulthood await. Its elder drug industry siblings watch with curiosity and knowing opportunism. This is an experiment and not the controlled kind.
To understand a new drug industry, the biggest mistake we could make would be to think about it as a strictly contemporary and solitary phenomenon. If we want to understand the likely results of the legalization and corporatization of cannabis, we must understand how our other legal drug corporations selling alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical products operate within a societal context. And we must understand the forces—commercial, cultural, political and otherwise—that shape that societal context and how that context shapes how we think about and use drugs.

The prevailing societal narratives about various types of drugs, spanning decades and continents, comprise a confusing mosaic of contradictions. Drugs are deified and demonized. Their use is promoted, enabled and rewarded. Drug use is also discouraged, restricted, banned, and punished—sometimes severely.

Drugs calm us and energize us. They bring us together to bond, laugh, celebrate, make love and to worship. Drugs save lives and make many types of discomfort, including pain, stress and trauma, easier to endure. They also injure us, make us sick and disable us—sometimes before we are even born. We also use drugs to amuse ourselves, usually harmlessly. But some of us gradually amuse ourselves to death. Drugs can also end lives suddenly—by carelessness or hopelessness. They are also used to end lives as a questionable attempt at justice—perhaps more accurately described as societal vengeance. Other times drugs are used to end lives with compassion—but not without controversy.

In the realm of drug policy and politics, provocation, controversy and divisiveness are the norm.  This is not new. In 1967 members of the United Kingdom Young Communists League referred to cannabis legalization as “a capitalist plot” (Seddon 2020). A half century later, a Canadian United Conservative Party Member of the Legislative Assembly in Alberta warned that cannabis legalization “could lead to a communist revolution” (Kornik and Ramsay 2017). What might a dispassionate anthropologist in a distant future write about all this?

Beneath the surface mosaic of contradiction is a foundation of evidence that helps to make sense of it all. Some of the evidence is deeply disturbing and challenges our fondest beliefs about who we are as a species and what kind of society we have made. We should not shy away from this evidence and its disquieting implications.

To fully appreciate the longer term implications of the establishment of a new drug industry requires an indispensable understanding of foundational concepts concerning drugs and society. This foundation includes why people use drugs and how we, often deceptively, talk about drugs. It also includes how we use drugs to bond with each other. Then there is the complex matter of why some people develop problems from their use of drugs (while most do not) and what we, as a society, have tried to do about that. Attempted solutions have ranged from evidenced-based and humanitarian to ill-conceived, exploitive and destructive. We must also consider how drug use affects the economy (and vice-versa). Our legal drug businesses have been allowed, to varying degrees, to promote their products, sometimes to vulnerable populations, in ways that are manipulative, duplicitous and profoundly harmful. At the same time fabrication and hyperbole have been deployed to demonize some unlicensed drug trades and their customers, providing a strategic distraction from the often unethical and sometimes illegal conduct of legal drug businesses.

The world has three long-established, legal, commercial drug industries—alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical; and we have three international public health crises associated with the products of these industries. This is chronically the case for the recreational drugs tobacco and alcohol (Oxford Martin School, n.d.). What are the implications of this for cannabis as it continues to make its historic transformation from an illegal, demonized drug to a glamourous and celebrated, commercialized pastime?

To further broaden your understanding of the place and role of drugs in society, I would recommend Drugs and Society, by Andrew Hathway, at the University of Guelph’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

In the new year, Drug Policy Alternatives will return with more samples from Buzz Kill: The Corporatization of Cannabis. I hope 2023 will provide us with a diminished viral scourge and the confidence to spend more time in each other’s company so I can meet more of you in person.

Mike DeVillaer
Hamilton Ontario Canada
December 16 2022