Aug 18, 2016 6:05 PM

Alcohol Wholesaler Advises Congress to Worry About Marijuana

The recent WikiLeaks release of hacked email from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) shows not only that the party leaders that were supposed to stay neutral supported the candidacy of Hillary Clinton over that of her primary rival Bernie Sanders from the very beginning of the primaries. In the disclosed emails, there is also proof of how the U.S. alcohol industry lobby is trying to impede the legalization of marijuana by pouring marketing funds into a campaign aimed at getting federal lawmakers to back legislation designed to combat drugged driving.

What Is It About?

It all comes down to one message sent to DNC Finance Director John Kaplan. The May 24, 2016 edition of a daily Politico newsletter for Capitol Hill insiders, Huddle, contained paid advertisement of Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA), a national trade organization, charged with protecting the interests of the wine and spirits industry. It shows that the alcohol industry is spending funds to get the members of Congress to pay attention to marijuana-impaired driving:

“While neutral on the issue of legalization, WSWA believes states that legalized marijuana need to ensure appropriate and effective regulations are enacted to protect the public from the dangers associated with the abuse and misuse of marijuana.”

Furthermore, the alcohol manufacturers list the states with legal medical and/or recreational cannabis and state that, for instance, since Colorado legalized medicinal use, there has been a significant increase in traffic fatalities involving drivers who, as tests showed, used marijuana.

Therefore, WSWA urges Congress to “fully fund” the implementation of the FAST Act (the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act) adopted last year which, inter alia, requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to study the increase in the number of cases of marijuana-impaired driving in those states that have legalized the drug, as well as to develop standards for detecting and dealing with stoned drivers.

In the United States, alcohol manufacturers and sellers have long been concerned over the marijuana policy reform movement’s increasing success and the competition that the legal drug creates for their products. And not in vain: a recent survey showed that most American students prefer smoking weed to drinking alcohol beverages. At the same time, clinical studies found that marijuana might successfully substitute not only alcohol but also other most common drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

No wonder the WSWA chose marijuana policy as one of the “key issues” for the alcohol industry for its 2015 annual conference. WSWA organized a whole discussion panel titled “Everything you need to know about the marijuana legalization.” The group that considers cannabis a “key issue” and, at the same time, claims that it does not have a position on the drug is concerned about the way legalization will impact the alcohol trade.

So far, there has been no scientific consensus regarding the level of marijuana that impairs drivers as well as no effective way to measure this impairment in the field, as WSWA wrote in a press release. The association members believe that it creates certain problems for law enforcement while when it comes to alcohol, they can quickly and effectively determine the impairment level and establish a maximum allowable limit for a driver.

Why Is It Important?

Given the fact that driving under the influence of marijuana is already illegal, and the existing studies show that marijuana’s effect on the driving ability is significantly smaller than that of alcohol, it is quite hard to see a legitimate reason for the alcohol industry to be taking up this issue, thinks Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). So, it would be more reasonable to think how to decrease drunk driving.

By the way, in 2011, researchers from the universities of Colorado and Montana conducted a study and found that states with medical marijuana laws demonstrated a nearly 9 percent decrease in traffic deaths. The researchers linked the result with the fact that young people in those states currently consume less alcohol in favor of cannabis.

What About Other Cases of Anti-Marijuana Alcohol Lobbying in the United States?

Previously, alcohol wholesalers have already been caught in anti-marijuana alcohol lobbying in the United States. For example, earlier this year, the Arizona Wine and Spirits Association contributed $10,000 to the campaign against a medical marijuana legalization initiative in the state. The initiative to end prohibition in Arizona is expected to appear on Arizona’s November ballot. Marijuana activists urged Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy that received a donation to return the money immediately and urged cannabis proponents not to take money from alcohol wholesalers.

Last year, Alaska’s marijuana advocates publicly blamed the major local opponent of the drug legalization Patrick Kennedy for receiving more than $9,000 from the liquor and beer lobby while in office. Former Rep. Kennedy is a founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). After Project SAM had begun organizing the opposition to the state’s legislation initiative, demonstrators in Anchorage paraded a giant check with the figure $9,015. Many also pointed that out that the group's board represented many of the interests groups that stand to profit from cannabis prohibition.

In Florida, the state sheriffs’ association has become the public face of opposition to a medical marijuana referendum on the ballot this fall. Its leader, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, deployed numerous arguments against the referendum, including the dangers of drug-impaired driving, increased respiratory illnesses, teenage addiction, and increased workers’ compensation claims. But the real reasons are rooted in other things. Seizures from marijuana grow houses is the main revenue source for Judd’s department. Due to a lack of funds, he had to cut 17 deputy sheriff positions. Furthermore, Florida marijuana eradication program is “an excellent return on investment” that brought in an average of $900,000 last year in forfeitures and nearly $1 million in previous years.

Back in 2010, one independent distributor of the California Beer and Beverage Distributors contributed $10,000 to Public Safety First, an organization opposing California’s Prop 19. Since 2009, the Beer, Wine and Liquor industry has spent nearly $20 million annually on lobbying efforts, most of which have been related to alcohol taxes and regulations, as well as have gone toward opposing the loosening of cannabis laws. In the 2012 campaign cycle, the industry “donated” $17.8 million to federal parties, committees, and candidates.

What Drives Marijuana Prohibition Lobbying?

The answer is evident—money. Today, law enforcement get its money through various legitimate programs run by the federal government. So, there is nothing surprising in the fact that some officials use their lobbying organizations to block “inconvenient” reforms.

As far as the U.S. alcoholic beverage industry sees it, legal marijuana would compete for the money people devote to leisure pursuits. While in a free market businesses need to innovate in order to compete with their rivals, large corporations prefer to pay for political favors so that law enforcement can suppress their competitors with regressive laws.

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