Marijuana is now legal in 36 countries for medical use, while Canada, Uruguay and 11 US states also permit its recreational consumption. With beer companies investing heavily in cannabis producers, will weed replace booze as society’s acceptable way of unwinding?

In a world where legal marijuana is becoming widely adopted by US states and countries from Canada to Uruguay to Portugal, Michael Thompson is still rotting in prison for selling marijuana.

In 1994, Thompson was caught in a ‘buy-bust’ when a police informant in Michigan, USA, scored three pounds of marijuana from him. Even though Michigan legalized weed in 2018, Thompson, 68, is clueless to why he is still behind bars.

Though the severity of Thompson’s 40-60 year sentence was compounded by his possession of unlicensed firearms, his stiff tariff was applied during the mid-1990s, when lawmakers were obsessed to be seen to be ‘tough on crime’ – especially regarding drug offences. It’s a very different world today.

Several of the world’s biggest alcohol and consumer goods companies are piling into the business of making cannabis-related products. According to Euromonitor, a market research firm, the legal market for recreational cannabis use could grow from $12 billion in 2018 to $166 billion globally by 2025. This huge rise is set to be propelled by the uptake in ‘wellness trends’, according to the firm.

Marijuana is now legal for either medical or recreational use in 36 countries and 33 US states, as well as the District of Columbia. But it is still illegal at a federal level in the US, classified in the same category as heroin.

As state-level marijuana legalisation expands, big booze, big tobacco and big pharma companies are joining forces with, primarily, Canadian cannabis start-ups. Take Constellation Brands – the parent of Corona beer and a member of the Fortune 500. Constellation invested $4 billion in Canadian cannabis producer Canopy Growth last August – ticker symbol WEED – branding the latter the alcohol maker’s ‘exclusive global cannabis partner’.

Or there’s Molson Coors. The same month as Constellation’s 37% stake in Canopy, Molson entered into a joint venture with HEXO Corp of Quebec. HEXO owns medical marijuana brand Hydropothecary to create non-alcoholic cannabis beverages.

Last December, Tilray of Vancouver, Canada sealed a comparable deal with drinks behemoth AB InBev – producers of Budweiser – to look into THC and CBD-infused beverages. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a derivative of the hemp plant, while THC is the part of the plant that gets users high. Tilray also partnered with Sandoz, a division of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis to treat epilepsy, narcolepsy and PTSD using cannabis oils and pills.

Meanwhile, perhaps a natural fit is for global tobacco companies to strike deals. Altria, makers of Marlboro, acquired a 45% stake in Canada’s Cronos Group for $1.8 billion. The aim for Altria is to make and sell cannabis vape products.

Nelson Peltz, the darling of activist investors, became a strategic adviser to Aurora, another Canadian cannabis producer, in March, while last month, Anthony Scaramucci, Donald Trump’s former communications director, ran cannabis sessions at the SALT conference in Las Vegas.

Analysts and investors see the 2020 U.S. presidential election featuring the legalisation of cannabis as a central campaign issue. Aurora’s chief corporate officer, Cam Battley, describes a ‘sea change in attitude’ towards the drug.

As with any contentious issue, legalisation of marijuana has its vocal opponents. The fear is the vast expansion of recreational marijuana is liable to its misuse, too.
By allowing ‘Big Marijuana’ to aggressively make, market and sell cannabis, to pot-dependent users, the nascent industry could emulate the trail of misery left in the wake of the legal, regulated alcohol and tobacco industries. Here, it is estimated that companies make the lion’s share of their profits from addicts: among alcohol users, for instance, some 10 drinks a day are consumed by the industries top 10 percent of customer.

A Colorado study by the Marijuana Policy Group for the state’s Department of Revenue, revealed the heaviest users are the most lucrative customer, with the top 29.9 percent heaviest marijuana users creating 87.1 percent of demand for the drug. U.S. anti-legalisation group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, whose tagline reads “Preventing another big tobacco”, claims past experience sends a salutary lesson to the future trajectory of marijuana abuse.

Spokesman Ken Sabet explains, “If we were a country with a history of being able to promote moderation in our consumer use of products, or promote responsible corporate advertising or no advertising, or if we had a history of being able to take taxes gained from a vice and redirect them into some positive areas, I might be less concerned about what I see happening in this country. But I think we have a horrible history of dealing with these kinds of things.”

Portugal is often cited as a paradigm of success where it comes to decriminalising marijuana. A 2009 Cato Institute report found that, since the country decriminalised all drugs (and lifted the fear of arrest for possession) more people with drug abuse issues sought treatment. As for Michael Thompson, the irony of weed’s legitimisation by big business and crowd-pleasing politicians is not lost on him. “You know after 25 years, you don’t feel nothing no more. You just feel numb.”