Big Tobacco & The Future of Legal Marijuana in VA: An Unlikely Alliance

   By William Desvallees

    Legislators across the United States are increasingly voting to decriminalize Marijuana. In the context of Virginia, there is a clear, if surprising link between the decriminalization of marijuana and the still-thriving tobacco industry within the state. Recent studies show that a majority of marijuana users also are users of nicotine products. This raises the following question: to what extent is the marijuana industry working in collaboration with the tobacco industry? 

   In Virginia, the tobacco industry has boomed and dominated economic production for centuries. Tobacco production has been the bedrock of the state’s economy since the early 17th century. John Rolfe came to Jamestown Virginia with a few tobacco seeds, and in 1612 had what is considered to be the first yield of tobacco as a cash crop in the Americas. Enslaved laborers provided white colonialists throughout the Americas and specifically Virginia with the labor needed to produce tobacco as a valuable commodity in the Americas. The history of tobacco in Virginia is intertwined with the history of slavery in America. Today, tobacco remains essential to Virginia’s economy. 

    According to a report from the USDA’s 2017 National Agricultural Statistics Service, Virginia is the third largest producer of tobacco leaves among all U.S. states. Naturally, the future of the tobacco industry in Virginia will be affected by the legalization of marijuana. As a consequence, Big Tobacco within the state is actively supporting lawmakers to craft and pass a bill that makes legal Marijuana in the state of Virginia as unrestrictive as possible. In 2019, the state received $304.4 million in tax revenue from Virginia’s tobacco industry. Tobacco is an integral part of the Virginian economy, leaving tobacco companies interested in where they stand in regards to the legalization of marijuana and the prospects of this new industry for the state’s future.

    It may sound surprising for a competitor like the tobacco industry to advocate for legal Marijuana, but perhaps contrary to popular belief, recent studies suggest the two may benefit from an alliance rather than a rivalry. A study published in the journal Marketing Science in late 2019 suggests that marijuana legalization in the U.S. will specifically threaten the alcohol industry. In fact, this study’s research established strong statistically significant evidence suggesting that “tobacco companies may need to re-examine their presumption and that anti-cannabis legalization is not in their best interest.” If the findings of this research study are true, then legal marijuana would benefit as opposed to jeopardize the tobacco industry in the U.S.

    This might help to explain why lobbying initiatives on the behalf of Tobacco empires largely producing their crops in Virginia, are funding lawmakers to ease restrictions of legal marijuana in Virginia. Altria, the group in control of Philip Morris USA & JUUL Laabs, is lobbying lawmakers in the state of Virginia to vote on a policy that would benefit their interests: “Altria has paid $30,000 to lobby the House and $50,000 to lobby the Senate on cannabis tax and CBD issues, the filings show.” Such efforts reveal that the tobacco industry is highly focused and perhaps dependent on the well-being, sustainability, and growth of marijuana production in Virginia once the state legalizes the crop. 

    The Altria lobby in Virginia is just one example of what could become a set of financially-driven political relationships between multinational tobacco empires and the rapidly growing marijuana industry. In this case, private corporations are actively investing in lobbying on the behalf of their interests to convince their representatives to vote for or against the latter’s interests.

    Identifying this collusion is one thing; interpreting the driving incentives behind it is a far more complex challenge. Notably, ambiguous and substance-free statements from Altria’s lobbyists demonstrate that these companies are attempting to conceal their intentions in funding lawmakers: “Altria spokesperson George Parman told Cannabis Wire that the company plans ‘to work with policy makers and regulators in support of a transparent, responsible, and equitable operating environment for the sale of cannabis.’” 

  Parman made a more explicit statement on February 9th, stating: “Altria supports the federal legalization of cannabis under appropriate regulatory framework…” While this statement is certainly more concise, it fails to be candid about the Altria group’s interests and their specific vision of the legalization of marijuana in the tobacco powerhouse state of the East Coast. 

  Altria seems to be supporting the legalization of marijuana in the state of Virginia, and advocating on the behalf of the interests of the marijuana industry within the state. This might shed light on where multinational tobacco firms stand when it comes to the legalization of cannabis, and the interests of Big Tobacco. 

  As opposed to enemies competing against one another, it seems the tobacco industry in Virginia will seek to establish an alliance with the growing marijuana industry within the state, which is expected to grow forcefully in the years to come.