Big Beer Takes on Little Weed at the Ballot Box

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Photo: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

November 8 could be a high point for marijuana in America. On that day, five states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada — will hold ballot initiatives on the legalization of recreational cannabis. Should each state’s electorate prove 420-friendly, nearly one-fifth of the country will soon have access to over-the-counter ganja.

Big Beer is not stoked about that prospect. In Massachusetts, the Beer Distributors PAC has donated $25,000 to the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts, making it the third-largest contributor to the anti-pot organization, the Intercept reports. Meanwhile, in the Grand Canyon State, Arizona Wine and Spirits Wholesale Association has given $10,000 to an anti-legalization group.

The alcohol industry’s opposition to legal weed is rooted in the concern that, given the opportunity, many of their law-abiding customers would substitute joints for lagers. In an SEC filling flagged by the Intercept’s Lee Fang, the parent company of Sam Adams warned investors that the “sale and distribution of marijuana” could “adversely impact the demand” for its beer.

Ironically, if Big Alcohol is right about the effect legal marijuana will have on its business, then the anti-pot organizations they’re funding are almost certainly wrong: Opposition to legal weed is premised on the idea that it will undermine public health. But if a significant number of people substitute legal weed for alcohol — rather than using the substances in tandem — that would likely be a boon to our collective well-being.

Research has shown that marijuana is less addictive, less fatal, and less likely to cause traffic accidents than alcohol is. If large numbers of heavy drinkers abandoned their six-packs for greener pastimes, it would probably save some lives.

Which doesn’t mean that the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts is necessarily wrong that legalization would hurt public health. But if it’s right, the Beer Distributors PAC has little reason to fund it. And, in fact, Fang notes that several craft-brewing firms welcome legalization, betting that their customers’ appetite for fancy malt beverages will actually increase when marijuana becomes more widely available.

Colorado’s experiment with legal weed suggests that November’s referendums may actually have little impact on consumer demand for alcohol — tax revenues in the state indicate that Coloradans are drinking roughly as much today as they did prior to legalization in 2012.

Still, there’s evidence that the availability of legal marijuana can produce even more beneficial substitution effects: Deaths from prescription painkillers have fallen sharply in states that have legalized medical cannabis.