The session was titled “Is Big Marijuana the Next Big Tobacco?” at the Aspen Ideas Festival’s focus on health Thursday night, but the two featured speakers insisted there is no question.
Ben Cort, of the Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation in Denver, and Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, predicted that Colorado will rue the day it approved Amendment 64 to legalize marijuana use.
They contended before a crowd at Belly Up that big business already is moving in on Colorado’s marijuana business, and its marketing expertise will get kids and young adults hooked on pot.
Sabet hammered on the point that big-time investors are establishing themselves and funding lobbying efforts that are pushing for relaxed marijuana laws in other states.
“The values of the flower children are being replaced by the values of Wall Street,” Sabet said. Yale and Harvard graduates see opportunity in what he labeled the “green rush.”
The speakers contended that many Colorado voters didn’t realize what they were voting for when they approved legalization. They didn’t foresee the big money flooding the industry nor the proliferation of edible candies, sodas and baked goods infused with THC. The pot industry is no longer the domain of happy hippies that listened to the Grateful Dead in the 1960s and ’70s, Sabet said.
“The pigtails and tie-dye shirts have been traded in for Nordstrom suits,” he later added.
Cort said smokeable marijuana now has 20 percent to 30 percent THC content in Colorado, much higher than in the past. Edibles have even higher concentrations, he said.
Both speakers contended that time will show that legal marijuana is making it easier for children to get their hands on pot — even if pot shops are careful to card customers and the state strictly enforces regulations.
Sabet said kids and young adults just find someone older than 21 to buy for them.
“We have the shoulder tap market — ‘Hey, you’re my brother and you’re over 21,’” he said.
Sabet went on to accuse manufacturers and retailers of targeting kids to establish long-term customers to fuel profits. The advertising and packaging of edible candies is a flagrant effort to reel in youth, he claimed.
“If this isn’t about targeting kids, why do you have this look like a Gummy Bear or Jolly Rancher?” he asked.
Cort said two Colorado companies will produce revenues in excess of $1 billion from the manufacture of infused-soda and edible products.
The men alleged that Colorado’s marijuana sales are too new to properly gauge the effects. In a few more months, they predicted that data will show an increased connection between fatalities in car crashes and marijuana ingestion and a greater connection between marijuana use and behavioral problems with school-age kids.
James Hamblin, a senior editor with The Atlantic, moderated the discussion, but he did little to challenge the assertions by the speakers. The panel lacked a speaker to present an alternative view that the marijuana industry can be responsible. Instead, Cort and Sabet said coalitions must be built to fight the easing of marijuana laws and that the federal government cannot bow to states on the issue.