Public health experts have been questioning the lax regulations on the marijuana industry ever since the legalization tide began sweeping across this country. Edibles, for example, pose a substantial risk to children because they often come in a form and packaging that is very appealing to kids — gummy bears, cotton candy, lollipops, even “Pot Tarts.”
Now, it appears there’s a very questionable coziness with private industry.
A number of regulators recently left their jobs to make big money as consultants for marijuana companies. It began with Bob Morgan in 2013, whom the Illinois governor appointed as director for medical marijuana oversight. Morgan stayed in his post for two years, then left to work for the Illinois Cannabis Bar Association. His successor, 32-year-old Joseph Wright, had an even shorter term. Wright left the director post — where he made just over $50,000 a year — to become a private sector consultant for the marijuana industry. Consultants are known to charge clients more than $100,000 for various services.
More recently, Laura Harris retired from her Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) post and accepted a position at the Colorado Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, known as C4. Also in Colorado, Andrew Freedman, who has been serving as the director of marijuana coordination, announced he co-founded a marijuana consultancy firm with his coworker, Lewis Koski — who had also held a position at MED.
Follow the Money
The tendency of these individuals to jump ship calls into question the work they did when they were regulators. These are the “first symptoms of a developing disease,” said Jeffrey Zinsmeister, vice president and director of government relations at Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), based in Washington, D.C.
People who use their contacts to create a lucrative job for themselves are “going to treat that industry in a particular way to avoid making enemies,” said a marijuana opponent.
People who use their contacts to create a lucrative future job for themselves are “going to treat that industry in a particular way to avoid making enemies,” Zinsmeister told LifeZette. “It’s telling that you’re seeing this first crop of regulators take flight and follow the money. It’s a taste of things to come, unfortunately.”
“Regulators are seeing what kind of money they can make in the private industry, and that will start influencing the way they treat that industry,” he continued. “They consider their own careers and their own futures.”
Perhaps it is only human, some might argue. But the whole point of a regulatory agency is to prevent human error. And the agencies have proven ineffective at self-regulation, according to Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of SAM. There’s a closed loop in the marijuana regulation industry: The regulators are in charge of implementing the laws, but they’re also in charge of reporting how well that implementation is going.
“When you’re able to create child-friendly candies; when you’re able to advertise relentlessly; when you’re able to ignore data about negative consequences and massage that data to make it look like you’re doing a great job — I do think that is problematic,” Sabet said. “As much as we like to think bureaucrats are unbiased, they have an interest in showing their program is doing well. They do not have an interest in showing any negative impacts of legalization because it might imply they did their job wrong.”
Sabet says he has attended many panel discussions in which regulators sit side-by-side with industry head honchos, touting the benefits of legalization to other states and even to other countries in the U.N. Previously, Sabet worked on drug policy during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, and he notes there were strict rules against setting oneself up to gain financially from the connections made while being paid by taxpayers. He said he’s concerned about “regulators using connections and contacts made while on the public dime for private gain later on.”
We’ve Seen This Story Before
In the 1990s, the tobacco industry launched an aggressive effort to sell its products with the least amount of regulation. It allied itself with state representatives in legislatures nationwide to counteract clean indoor air legislation, decrease taxes, and advertise its products.
The marijuana industry looks eerily similar. “This addiction-for-profit model is destined to become another Big Tobacco,” Zinsmeister explained. “We are powering a for-profit industry to sell an addictive substance where the vast majority of the revenue comes from the heavy user, the addicted user.”
To prevent history from repeating itself, Sabet recommends a clear line of demarcation between private industry and public officers: “Anybody working in a government office dealing with marijuana legalization should be barred from being a consultant or lobbyist for the industry for at least five years,” he said.
Maybe then regulators could focus on getting their jobs right.