In the marijuana industry, size doesn’t always matter

marijuana and money

In the marijuana reform conversation, one of the grandest boogeymen is “Big Marijuana.” Reform advocates, opponents of marijuana legalization, patients, consumers, media, and many others worry openly that the marijuana industry will consolidate into a corporate beast and a bad market actor reminiscent of Big Tobacco companies.

In a paper released earlier this month entitled, “Worry about bad marijuana—not Big Marijuana,” Jonathan Rauch and I engage the likelihood and risks of the emergence of such a corporate entity. Although the paper makes several points, we begin with a discussion of exactly what “Big Marijuana” means. What we find is that the concept is tossed around so frequently, assigned to so many different types of market actors, that it has ultimately lost meaning.

Often, the term is used to describe any large corporate entity or consolidation effort within the marijuana industry. In reality, standard corporate consolidation or the existence of large companies in an industry are basic aspects in capitalism. What’s more there are huge differences between marijuana industry actors today and Big Tobacco companies of the middle of the 20th century—in terms of size, scope, and market power to name a few. It should be expected that an industry that is young, fractured, and rapidly maturing will endure periods of consolidation and in the process, large and successful corporate entities will emerge. One should not assume, however, that such behaviors are sinister, suspect, or intent on engaging in immoral or illegal activities.

Nor should one assume that only large corporate entities can engage in bad behaviors. They surely can, but other market actors may as well. The policy conversation around marijuana industry structure often holds Big Marijuana up as the actor who will bring problems for enforcement, diversion, sale to minors, sale to problem users, etc. The reality is that a marijuana entity of any size can behave in many of those behaviors. The problem with an unending focus on industry structure or corporate size is that policymakers and regulators can give a pass to smaller actors who may engage in the types of behaviors people inside and outside of industry seek to avoid—those same types of behaviors we saw from the tobacco industry.

We argue there is a more sensible, safer step forward that begins with a simple premise. There are certain outcomes that the marijuana industry must avoid, and policy and regulation should preferably ban, but at least disincentivize those outcomes. We mention a few in the paper: antisocial marketing (marketing to children or problem users), regulatory capture, outcomes that hurt medical marijuana patients, and increasing barriers to entry and corporate crowd out—but others like diversion, illegal sales, and more must (and do) concern policy makers. In some cases, certain behaviors are more likely to come from larger corporate entities, but many behaviors can happen, independent of firm size.

There are a variety of ways to avoid some of these outcomes beyond a focus on firm size and corporate consolidation. Some of those options are highlighted by the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center. In “Options and Issues Regarding Marijuana Legalization,” the authors argue a shift away from the corporate model—either through the use of non-profit entities or government operation of whole portions of the market (supply, retail, or both) can have real benefit. These approaches can allow regulators greater control over negative market actions and induce incentives focused on public health and good governance, rather than profit maximization. Those arguments are quite convincing, but as states continue to construct medical and recreational marijuana programs using the corporate model, it is important to consider policy approaches within that existing framework.

Thus, we recommend that regulators and policy makers not primarily focus on firm size, corporate consolidation, or the corporatization of the marijuana industry. Instead, they should work to avoid specific outcomes they see as unwanted or bad and pass laws, promulgate regulations, conduct information and education campaigns, and take whatever actions are necessary to stop them in their tracks. At the end of the day, one thing is clear: no one wants “Bad Marijuana” regardless of whether it comes from Big, Small, or Otherwise-Sized Marijuana.

Click through to read the full report, “Worry about bad marijuana—not Big Marijuana.”

Click through to watch the public event and paper release “Big Marijuana: How corporations and lobbies will shape the legalization landscape.”