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Survey Says: No To Letting Big Industry Shape Marijuana Legalization Policies (Op-Ed)



“Will we continue to allow corporate interests to co-opt cannabis reform behind a facade of social justice?”

By Shaleen Title, Parabola Center for Law and Policy

When President Joe Biden announced his administration was moving marijuana to Schedule III, there’s a reason he didn’t lead with “Curaleaf might save more than $150 million in taxes this year!” Instead, despite a lack of factual support, he touted it as a racial justice policy, calling it “an important move towards reversing long-standing inequities.”

The president, like many of us, understands what Americans care about when it comes to legalization. This week, Parabola Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit drug policy think tank where I serve as director, released new survey research on American values and beliefs on marijuana legalization. Conducted in collaboration with RTI International and based on surveys of over 200 respondents from across the country, our research shows that when it comes to cannabis legalization, people care most about social equity and ending arrests.

When we asked who they trusted to create good cannabis policy, respondents trusted people with lived experience most. They did not say the same about executives from tobacco, alcohol or pharmaceutical companies—not surprising, given the widespread harm those industries have caused.

“Will we continue to allow corporate interests to co-opt cannabis reform behind a facade of social justice?”

We also asked who should benefit from making cannabis legal and the results all pointed in the same direction. Respondents overwhelmingly said that the people who should benefit from marijuana legalization are people who use it for medical use, workers in the cannabis industry and people who have been harmed by marijuana laws. They did not think that large corporations should benefit, with less than one-third of respondents believing that the tobacco and alcohol industries should benefit. They did, however, think that people who use cannabis for pleasure, small business owners and locally owned businesses should benefit.

It’s common sense—those most impacted have the most insight and should drive reform.

So why are we doing the opposite and letting corporations lead, using fake promises of equity?

Why is the most frequently discussed marijuana bill in Congress a banking bill—the SAFER Banking Act, often hailed as a game-changer for minority-owned businesses? In reality, while it may incidentally help some small businesses, the bill is a green light for the biggest players to access even more capital and corner the market through consolidation. Or how about the sudden urgency to grant cannabis companies access to stock exchanges? Proponents claim “it’s a huge opportunity to bring equity,” but that logic is a stretch at best.

Don’t get me started on the twisted notion that removing ownership limits for corporations will magically improve social equity. Opening the door to tobacco- and alcohol-style monopolies is the opposite of promoting equity.

Advocacy organizations can’t have it both ways—if they are truly representing the people, then they can’t follow the lead of executives incentivized to maximize profit. As cannabis small business owner Trent Hancock recently pointed out, many organizations rally the grassroots for legalization but intentionally opt out of getting involved in the details of regulation. By leaving that crucial task to corporate lobbyists, they’re enabling a system that pays lip service to equity while preserving the status quo.

If we keep accepting this pattern, we’ll keep getting stuck with policies that tout tangential benefits for marginalized communities as groundbreaking progress while changing little on the ground.

And the pattern will only get worse. I won’t sugarcoat it: Advocates are making a huge mistake letting the industry drive reform. The Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR), which includes the companies behind Marlboro, Newport and Camel cigarettes, spent over $680,000 lobbying on marijuana last year. If you look at their website, they’ll tell you they “strive to be a trusted, science-driven resource for lawmakers.” But last summer, CPEAR held an off-the-record happy hour on Capitol Hill to celebrate a report pushing increased enforcement measures and reviving marijuana tax stamps.

The American people are right not to trust tobacco and alcohol executives to shape marijuana laws. As I’ve covered in previous papers and op-eds, time and again, these industries have prioritized profits over public health, peddling products they know are deadly. Now, they’re funneling massive lobbying cash to do it again, and to drown out the very communities that legalization should lift up. Their scheme relies on a transparent ruse: pretending to be born-again champions of justice and equity. As if anyone’s buying that the Marlboro Man suddenly cares about Black and brown people.

But here’s the good news: We don’t have to play along with this corporate charade. We can demand real change instead.

If the Biden administration truly wanted to address inequities in marijuana policy, there are concrete steps it could take right now. Ending marijuana-related deportations, allowing states to collaborate on social equity initiatives, expanding pardons and commutations to cover all conduct that is now legal—these are the kinds of meaningful actions that would make a real difference in people’s lives, as the United for Marijuana Decriminalization coalition has suggested.

(By the way, prohibitionist groups may use similar rhetoric about justice versus greed, but you won’t see them advocating for these urgently needed reforms.)

If the president really wants to appeal to voters, he should also call on Congress to legalize marijuana in a way that protects public health and workers, and prevents monopolization by the tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical industries.

All of us, including policymakers, face a critical choice: Will we continue to allow corporate interests to co-opt cannabis reform behind a facade of social justice, or will we push real reform that puts people over profits?

Shaleen Title is a former Massachusetts cannabis regulator and the founder and director of Parabola Center for Law and Policy. Register for Parabola Center’s 2024 anti-monopoly cannabis reform crash course and leadership training at

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