Will the tobacco industry turn to cannabis?


Starting today, registered Minnesota residents with any of nine qualifying conditions will be able to access medical cannabis in pill, oil, or liquid form. Of the 23 states which have loosened restrictions on medical cannabis, Minnesota’s program is considered extremely narrow.

As cannabis regulation evolves, the tobacco industry’s relationship with the drug has received a great deal of attention. This Minnpost article by Susan Perry covers a study published last year in which the authors reviewed the tobacco industry documents for references to cannabis. The study concludes:

Policymakers and public health advocates must be aware that the tobacco industry or comparable multinational organizations (eg, food and beverage industries) are prepared to enter the marijuana market with the intention of increasing its already widespread use. In order to prevent domination of the market by companies seeking to maximize market size and profits, policymakers should learn from their successes and failures in regulating tobacco.

As fewer and fewer Minnesotans smoke tobacco, it’s natural to assume that the tobacco industry is waiting to jump into the increasingly liberalized cannabis market. In fact, the tobacco industry already has deep ties to Minnesota’s legal, illegal, and gray cannabis markets through the sale of tobacco-related devices.

First, let’s review the the definition of tobacco-related devices in Minnesota statute 609.685:

The tobacco and cannabis industries are  closely linked
The tobacco and cannabis industries are closely linked

(b) “Tobacco-related devices” means cigarette papers or pipes for smoking or other devices intentionally designed or intended to be used in a manner which enables the chewing, sniffing, smoking, or inhalation of vapors of tobacco or tobacco products. Tobacco-related devices include components of tobacco-related devices which may be marketed or sold separately.

This definition includes products that can be used to chew, sniff, or inhale tobacco. Such products include rolling papers, cigars, blunt wraps, pipes, hookahs, herbal vaporizers, and electronic cigarettes. According to state statute, these products must be sold under the same conditions as tobacco products even if they don’t contain any tobacco.

Tobacco vendors licensed by Minnesota’s cities and counties are the most public overlap of the tobacco and illicit cannabis industries. Gas stations, convenience stores, tobacco product shops, head shops, liquor stores, pipe stores, and other tobacco vendors often sell tobacco products which can be used to smoke or otherwise ingest cannabis. These tobacco vendors also typically sell products made or derived from tobacco leaf, such as cigarettes, cigars, electronic cigarette juice, pipe tobacco, and smokeless tobacco.

The Products

Blunt wraps are specifically marketed by the tobacco industry for cannabis use

Blunts are small cigars – common brands are Swisher, White Owl, Black and Mild, and Phillies. They can be smoked or emptied out and refilled with cannabis. Blunt wraps remove that step entirely, and are just a tobacco leaf wrapper meant to be filled with cannabis. These cheap, youth-oriented, colorfully packaged products come in fruit and candy flavors. Both also serve as drug paraphernalia – the term “blunt” can refer to either product when rolled with cannabis.

Products not made from tobacco may also serve as drug paraphernalia. Rolling papers, for example, are a tobacco industry product linked to cannabis. Marketed as a method to roll tobacco cigarettes, the papers can also be used to roll joints, which are entirely cannabis, or spliffs, which can refer to a mixture of cannabis and tobacco.

Electronic cigarettes are an emerging product in both worlds, and there is significant overlap between the two. Unlike the other products mentioned, electronic cigarettes and similar devices play a role in Minnesota’s burgeoning medical cannabis industry. Patients on the registry in Minnesota can only purchase product in pill, liquid, and oil form. Since the more common method of delivery – smoking – is not permitted under statute, this is one case where the two industries are embracing and developing the same technology simultaneously.

zigzagsFrom the perspective of the industry, it may be that the market is too volatile – cannabis is still considered an illegal substance by the federal government, and the patchwork of laws across individual states may be too daunting. Additionally, the medicinal aspect of cannabis would be a completely new business model. For the time being, the big players in the industry – Altria and the recently-merged Reynolds-Lorillard – have not directly stepped in to the market. Industry documents show that they were monitoring cannabis deregulation more than forty years ago – we can assume they’re still watching.

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