Guerrilla Marketing Makes Prohibition Counterproductive

Project Sam (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) may be the most successful side hustle in marijuana prohibition. They have evolved from opposing medical marijuana to supporting the medical use of cannabinoids as developed by the pharmaceutical industry and approved by the FDA. They have also evolved so that they are opposed to jailing marijuana users, so long as they comply with mandatory treatment.

Right now SAM has a new campaign aimed at the African American community called “Decriminalize Don’t Legalize,” which is done “In Partnership with the NAACP of Illinois.”

It was founded by a longtime Drug Czar employee, Kevin Sabet, Ph.D., who now pretends to be ever so moderate, and claims to be in favor of “decriminalizing” marijuana and just opposed to “commercialization.” Was that what he believed when he worked for the Drug Czar? Was he lying then? Or now?

Even better, they urge conservative Americans to oppose marijuana legalization by demonizing business and attacking the free market, saying that cannabis should remain in the contraband markets with crack, etc. Plus, they patronize African Americans by claiming that legalizing marijuana would destroy African American neighborhoods.

The argument is very simple. Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol want to take over the cannabis business and market cannabis as cynically as they have marketed cigarettes and alcohol to African Americans … and everyone else. And it is a very obvious problem in Black neighborhoods.

Consequently, I can understand how African Americans might be conned by that argument. However, first and foremost, cannabis is not alcohol or tobacco. According to the Institute on Alcohol Abuse Alcoholism, “An estimated 88,005 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States … . In 2012, 3.3 million deaths, or 5.9 percent of all global deaths (7.6 percent for men and 4.0 percent for women), were attributable to alcohol consumption.”

Tobacco was the leading preventable cause of death.

According to the CDC, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

“Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. This is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day. On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers.”

There is no possible lethal dose of cannabis, but that does not necessarily mean that it is “harmless,” but nothing is harmless for everyone under all circumstances and all doses.

According to Injury and Death – The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids – NCBI Bookshelf:

“The Institute of Medicine (IOM) report Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base states that ‘epidemiological data indicate that in the general population marijuana use is not associated with increased mortality’ (IOM, 1999, p. 109). More recently, modeling studies have estimated that a substantial disease burden — and the associated decrements in the quality and length of life — can be attributed to cannabis use (Degenhardt et al., 2013; Imtiaz et al., 2016). By contrast, a recent systematic review informed by epidemiological data did not report a statistically significant association between cannabis use and  mortality (Calabria et al., 2010).”

Perhaps the key to mass marketing both alcohol and tobacco is that they are both highly addictive.

According to Nicotine Addiction and Abuse:

“There are approximately 50 million people in America who are addicted to some type of tobacco product, including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and snuff. Nicotine addiction is the most common addiction in America.”

Alcohol is so addictive that withdrawal can be fatal without immediate medical intervention. However, that is not the leading cause of death among alcoholics.

See: Alcohol-Related Deaths Have Increased Over 50%

Also See: Mixing Alcohol & Cannabis (CBD/THC)

“The journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research published a study on January 7, 2020 that analyzed the number of Americans who died from alcohol-related problems between 1999 and 2017. The researchers looked at death certificates for each year and found some concerning statistics. The number of alcohol-related deaths has increased 50.9% from 1999 to 2017. In 1999, 35,914 people died from an alcohol-related problem, while in 2017, 72,558 people died. Of the 2.8 million people that died in 2017, 2.6% of those deaths were because of alcohol.

Some of the top reasons for death were liver disease and overdose (from alcohol or alcohol mixed with other drugs). Looking at deaths caused by alcohol from 2006 to 2010, over 14 thousand deaths were from liver disease, followed by over 12 thousand deaths from motor-vehicle traffic crashes. Rates of death have increased for almost all age groups, besides ages 16 to 20 and people over 75. The highest rates of alcohol-related deaths are in males, but the number of women is rapidly increasing.”

Consequently, saying that marijuana has to remain contraband along with heroin and cocaine, because of the cynical advertising of alcohol and tobacco products, is a total non sequitur.

Another of the prohibitionists’ favorite arguments is that marijuana today is “so much stronger today than it was back in the 60s, when we all thought it was harmless.” Or as Trump’s Surgeon General Jerome Adams recently argued, “This ain’t your mother’s marijuana.”


The subject of increases in THC in marijuana is complicated, but it is actually a reason for legalization. Only by legalizing marijuana and treating it like alcohol with accurate potency on the packaging can we know what we are getting. Most alcohol consumers don’t buy the highest “proof” alcohol. Most people drink beer and wine, the “weakest” forms of alcohol. On the other hand, if we have to buy on the black market, we will tend to buy the strongest product available. Rational economics.

However, their basic argument against legalization is focused on mass marketing, as exemplified by the tobacco and alcohol industries, and their marketing to young people, as with Joe Camel and Spuds MacKenzie.

First, consider the fact that when marijuana first became illegal, almost no Americans had ever even heard of it. But in a July 2019 Gallup poll, “12 percent of U.S. adults said they smoke marijuana.”

Millions of arrests and many decades of a massive reefer madness prohibitionist propaganda campaign did not stop it. Indeed, it seems to have been counterproductive. Maybe if we arrest another 20 million Americans???

And as for advertising … Have you ever heard of Acapulco Gold? I may have smoked some back in the 60s (when we all thought it was harmless), but there may never have been any such thing. No way of knowing. But the “name” became famous and retains a mythical status, without a single dollar (or peso) ever having been spent on advertising it. “Skunk” and “Kush” are other examples of “brands” that became famous under prohibition.

Banned in Boston” was another type of prohibitionism (aimed at “dirty books”) that — back in the day — was used as a marketing strategy by publishers to sell risqué (a French word, of course) SMUT!!! What red blooded young American could resist that?

So there are many ways that marijuana prohibition really is counterproductive. Another example, urine testing encourages hard drug use because marijuana metabolites show up in urine for weeks after use, but heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines are gone in a day or two.

Under prohibition marijuana is sold in the same markets as hard drugs. The Dutch have “tolerated” marijuana sales in “coffeeshops” for more than forty years because they don’t want marijuana sold on the “streets” with hard drugs. They call it “Separation of the Markets,” and they have a much lower rate of hard drug use than we do, and still a lower rate of marijuana use than in the U.S. or in their prohibitionist neighbors.

Of course, “Just Say No!” was predictably counterproductive. And it undermined the credibility of real drug education. I have been told many times, “When I found out that they had lied to me about marijuana I thought they had lied about hard drugs.”

I have spent decades demonstrating the lying that has been the foundation of marijuana prohibition. I am not talking about abstractions, but very specific programmatic lying in which the mass media, right, left and center (with very few honorable exceptions) have been complicit. Our educational system has been corrupted by the so-called D.A.R.E. program. Reefer Madness has become the ideology that justifies police violence in the Drug War.

See: DARE: The Anti-Drug Program That Never Actually Worked

So let’s stop the lying. Truth is best of all that is good.

Richard Cowan is a former NORML National Director and author of the syndicated column, Marijuana Weekly News

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