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American lawmakers are about to be bombarded by lobbyists pushing for marijuana legalization in the United States now that big tobacco has embraced cannabis.

Cronos Group, the Canadian cannabis producer that sold a 45-per-cent stake of its business to Marlboro maker Altria Group for $2.4-billion, said when the deal was announced last week the two companies would focus on jointly pursuing product innovation. While the investment does give Cronos access to substantial intellectual property, it also provides the marijuana producer with access to one of the most powerful group of policy influencers in modern political history: the tobacco lobby.

“Altria Group was the top political contributor in the tobacco industry over the 2017-18 electoral cycle and has been a K-Street power player for decades,” said Francesco Trebbi, an economics professor at the University of British Columbia with expertise in campaign finance and lobbying, referencing “K-Street” as the area of Washington, D.C. where the largest and most influential lobby groups can be found.

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Now that Altria owns nearly half of a major cannabis grower, with the option of becoming the majority shareholder, “you can expect it to absolutely lever its lobbying machine to push for cannabis legalization,” Prof. Trebbi said. “Altria and its hired guns will probably begin by targeting progressive Democratic members of the new House majority and more libertarian-oriented Republicans… then build legislative momentum from there.”

Lobbying resources devoted to the U.S. cannabis industry have grown substantially in recent years as an increasingly number of states have moved to legalize the drug for medical or recreational use. The industry as a whole spent US$1.6-million on professional lobbyists from the start of 2018 through the end of October, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-profit research group that tracks money in politics.

That is a dramatic increase from the US$430,000 spent on cannabis-related lobbying efforts as recently as 2016, yet it pales in comparison to the lobbyist cash laid out by big tobacco. Cigarette makers gave US$16.8-million to American lobbyist groups in the first ten months of 2018, with Altria being responsible for nearly half of that total.

Despite being ten times the amount of money spent on cannabis lobbying, that figure is barely a quarter as much as the tobacco lobby made in its heyday. As recently as 1998, American tobacco lobbyists made nearly US$73-million from the cigarette companies and Allan Brandt warns pivoting to pot may herald an opportunity for big tobacco to reassert itself.

“The tobacco industry and its lobby had become considerably more compromised by the public attitudes towards smoking,” said Prof. Brandt, Harvard University’s Amalie Moses Kass Professor of The History of Medicine and author of The Cigarette Century. “But I do think in this current context, the resurgence of these tobacco companies reconstituted as nicotine and other substance delivery companies is going to, perhaps, reinvigorate the lobby and the popularity of the legalization of marijuana is something I think [their lobbyists] will work very hard to exploit.”

“It is quite likely we will see the emergence of a much-expanded tobacco lobby [and] it seems pretty clear to me that marijuana will be the first real test case for that,” Prof. Brandt said.

The National Cannabis Industry Association, which represents cannabis businesses in Washington, D.C. and spent US$355,000 on lobbying efforts during the first ten months of 2018, says it has not received any money from tobacco companies. If big tobacco does start to throw its political weight behind cannabis, NCIA spokesperson Morgan Fox says its support would only be welcome if the tobacco lobby agreed to do things differently than it had in the past.

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“It would obviously be really bad optics if they continued along their previous courses,” Mr. Fox said. “The cannabis industry is one that is not only coming from an entirely different place than the tobacco industry, but one that has very much taken the lessons of the tobacco industry to heart, in terms of being honest about scientific data, public safety issues and being honest with consumers and the general public.”

Regardless of the strategy they take, Prof. Brandt believes tobacco lobbyists and cannabis lobbyists will inevitably join forces.

“This industry, the tobacco industry, and their lobby, they know how to do this,” he said. “And I think they see [cannabis] as their future.”

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