Is There a Coming War Between Big Tobacco and Marijuana?

July 2nd 2015

Kyle Jaeger

As the tobacco industry struggles to maintain its influence in Congress, a new challenger has emerged in recent years with growing public support and endorsements from a wide range of bipartisan lawmakers. Big Marijuana might not have the financial muscle of multi-billion dollar companies like Phillip Morris or R.J. Reynolds, but between declining cigarette sales and tougher anti-smoking regulations, corporate lobbyists might soon find themselves competing with the nation's first special-interest groups for cannabis. 

According to OpenSecrets.org, a nonprofit research group that tracks political spending, Big Tobacco contributed $22 million to federal candidates and political committees last year. And now that presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has started courting marijuana executives for support in 2016, tobacco executives could be spending more this campaign season. 

The Kentucky senator spoke at a closed-door fundraiser at the Cannabis Business Summit in Denver, Colorado, on Tuesday. One of three congressional sponsors who introduced a measure to loosen federal restrictions on medical marijuana earlier this year, Paul has been a particularly vocal proponent of drug reform efforts—but he's by no means the only voice calling for change on the Hill these days. President Obama recently suggested his support for medical marijuana reform in an interview with CNN's Sanjay Gupta, insisting that "we should follow the science as opposed to the ideology on this issue." 

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

It remains to be seen how conflicts between tobacco and marijuana interests will play out in the long-term, but organizations like the National Cannabis Industry Association have been working steadily to even the playing field. Last year, the Denver-based trade association hired Michael Correia, a longtime conservative lobbyist who previously helped draft strict drug sentencing legislation to head its government relations department in Washington. 

"It would be impossible to mistake Correia for a 'true believer.' Even today he won't say whether he supports the legalization of marijuana," The Washington Post's Ben Terris reported in a profile piece. "Correia is a hired gun, someone who understands how to get things done in Washington more than he cares about whether people get high."

If the tobacco industry is getting nervous, they're certainly not showing it. In fact, some speculate that larger corporations might try to move in on the marijuana market pending national legalization. 

As USA Today's Trevor Hughes writes: "Many fear that tobacco companies, with their deep pockets, longstanding experience dealing with heavy government regulation, and relationships with generations of farmers will jump into the burgeoning marijuana market. At marijuana business conventions and in private conversations, it sometimes seems like everybody has heard a rumor about Big Tobacco getting in."