When cannabis was celebrating its renaissance in the USA and Europe in the late 1960s, all tobacco companies were interested in making the move to the cannabusiness. What about today?
The rumour, and the truth
Since the 1950s, there have been rumours in the cannabis movement that the tobacco giants have strategies in place, and even trade names up their sleeve, in anticipation of the legalisation of cannabis at federal level in the USA. To date, the rumours have not been substantiated by sources, although in 1969, Business Week did report that such a link existed. Recently, the US Federal Government published the “Tobacco archives”, which provide insight into the activities of the tobacco lobby, including actual and alleged overtures by the cigarette industry towards cannabis under various presidents. In the late 1960s and early 1970s in particular, there was great interest in cannabis, which now seems to have been slightly naive based on the documents that have become available. At present, none of the leading tobacco producers in the world are seriously considering entering into the ‘cannabusiness’, even if two of the largest companies have registered domain names that would suggest otherwise. We can attribute that to the legalisation movement, but the same cannot be said of the rumours. But let’s start at the beginning.
In the Business Week article published in 1969, it is reported that all large tobacco companies had already reserved trade names for cannabis cigarettes. No sources were given for the claims, but the tobacco companies did not deny them either. It wasn’t until years later that Rolling Stone magazine decided to investigate the matter further. In 1971, the magazine published statements from all tobacco companies, each and every one denying the claims. The director of the US Patent Office, Mr Wendt, told Rolling Stone in 1977 that US patent law does not even permit such, and that no tobacco company had made any registration whatsoever relating to cannabis.
British-American Tobacco, Philip Morris and Reynolds all interested
While nothing may have come of the apparent registrations, the newly published archive is certainly worth a look. Large companies most definitely did play with the idea of earning legal money with cannabis. In fact, the documents show that they were very interested to do so. In 1970 Sir Charles Ellis of BAT wrote to Sir Harry Greenfield, suggesting research projects into cannabis cigarettes. Greenfield, who worked as an advisor to BAT on the side, was chair of the International Narcotic Control Board (INCB) of the UN and had therefore played a role in the worldwide cannabis ban in 1961. At the time, Greenfield took the letter very seriously, and was prepared to raise the topic on the INCB.
I would like to discuss with you the great efforts on the part of the tobacco industry to invest in cannabis research. The British tobacco industry has indicated that this possibility could be discussed by scientists from both camps (pro and anti-cannabis). I have consulted Sir Charles Ellis on the matter, who gives advice on technical matters to BAT and us (the INCB). He was so taken by the idea that he was kind enough to provide me with a short statement. Please find the statement attached. I hope you have will time to read it before we see each other on Tuesday.”
Nothing came of Ellis’ idea. After all, Nixon had just become president and even the strongest tobacco lobby couldn’t legalise cannabis in the face of his declaration of the war on drugs. Nonetheless, the interrelations are evident. Both men worked for a tobacco company and a drugs authority. Philip Morris even contacted the Home Office in 1969 directly to ask for cannabis for research purposes, asking for confidentiality in the letter. While cannabis wasn’t provided directly, tips were given on how to legally obtain cannabis through the official channels of IRS, the American tax authority, without drawing attention to the matter. Camel producer Reynolds was interested in the consumer habits of young black men and wanted to know how popular its Kool brand was among cannabis smokers and whether Kool would also taste good in a joint.
The U-turn in the mid-1970s Cannabis as competition
With increasing criticism regarding the health warnings associated with nicotine consumption, since the mid-1970s, cannabis was seen as a threat to the cigarette industry more and more, as evidenced by an internal memo of the British tobacco lobby of 1976:
The acceptance of cannabis is to a certain extent a threat to the industry. […] There is a campaign for the legalisation of cannabis in this country (the USA) and elsewhere. In the USA in particular, there is real cause for concern: Should tobacco be regulated more strictly, and cannabis consumption become more popular, the amount of people trying to escape this neurotic world [with cannabis] will increase. Cannabis supporters would interpret this as a victory for health.”
Since then, the tobacco lobby hasn’t shown much interest in moving into the cannabusiness. In the repressive Reagan era, the cigarette industry didn’t think of cannabis at all. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the cigarette producers tentatively started making overtures to the forbidden plant, which nevertheless never got any further than internal plans.
Today, the alleged attempts by the tobacco companies “to enter the business ever since the 1950s” is used as one of the main arguments of the prohibitionists. In their view, the tobacco companies have wanted to do Big Cannabusiness since the 1950s. They use the prospect of huge cannabis companies as an argument against regulation. The most prominent prohibitionist in the USA, Patrick Kennedy, chair of SAM (Smart Approaches on Marijuana) claims in an article that all major tobacco companies have already registered domains for the sale of cannabis. A statement that has as little truth to it as the rumour in Business Week of 1969. It is only true of Philip Morris’ successor Altria, which owns “AltriaMarijuana.com” and “AltriaCannabis.com”, and the company didn’t even register the domain names itself. An individual from Washington D.C. registered the names, and the company took him to court. After the hearing, the domains were awarded to the company, as is quite common under copyright law.
Meanwhile Altria has even issued a statement on the weed rumours.
We are a US tobacco company. We strive to provide our adult consumers with the best tobacco products. We do not sell cannabis and never will.”
Following the latest claims by SAM, both companies have reiterated their official anti-cannabis policy.
When cannabis was celebrating its renaissance in the USA and Europe in the late 1960s, all tobacco companies were interested in making the move to the cannabusiness. However, following the war on drugs, which was declared during the same period, the political resistance was too strong, even for the influential tobacco lobby. As the government stepped up its criticism of tobacco, cannabis was increasingly seen as a threat and competition for tobacco, as such jeopardizing tobacco sales. If the tobacco industry really does sell cannabis cigarettes one day, it will not be because it was a pioneer in the regulation or creation of the market. The companies will be seen as upstarts with plenty of capital, not as trailblazers. It would seem that since the mid-1970s, the tobacco industry has considered cannabis more of a threat than a new market, and continues to do so today.