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The Weekly Blague

Legal Marijuana and Tobacco Industry Paranoia: A 1979 Time-Capsule of Investigative Journalism

A tin of marijuana cigarettes from the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina.

I wrote the article and sidebar below, about the tobacco industry's efforts to gear up for the legalization of marijuana, on spec for The Nation, in 1979. Since I couldn’t definitively prove that the tobacco industry was gearing up for marijuana legalization, The Nation passed.

A few weeks ago, I read the story for the first time in 38 years and found another flaw: I’d buried the lead. I should have begun with the Philip Morris corporation’s legal action against a small Long Island drug-paraphernalia manufacturer. But who knows if even that would have made a difference?

This time capsule of amateur investigative journalism has never been published. I’m publishing it now, exactly as I wrote it then.

Armies of journalists have invested a great deal of time during the past 15 years attempting to unravel a web of marijuana rumor and misinformation so complex it defies clarification. They’ve met with little success. Chasing bizarre leads into every segment of government and industry, occasionally managing to dispose of some of the more ludicrous rumors, they’ve created a paranoiac atmosphere where new rumors—as absurd and tantalizing as the ones they’ve put to rest—breed like bacteria in a petri dish.

The most widespread, persistent rumors concern the tobacco industry’s plans to gear up for the inevitable legalization of pot. It’s not true, for example, as Time magazine reported on January 11, 1971 that “One of the very biggest cigarette makers is experimenting with pot cigarettes in Puerto Rico.” Nor is it true, as James Ridgeway reported in the April 1971 Ramparts, “Justice Department officials asked Philip Morris to design and make a marijuana cigarette for test purposes.” It’s entirely believable, but probably not true either, as Jack Anderson said in his syndicated column of July 22, 1976, “Tobacco companies have set aside choice southern land for future marijuana harvests, competent sources say.”

No solid evidence has ever been documented linking the tobacco industry to marijuana. Yet, they remain terrified of even the vaguest associations, and vehemently deny everything. Stories like the ones printed in Time and Ramparts have provoked the industry to treat the press with contempt and hostility, an attitude that invariably spawns more rumors.

The trail of every rumor linking the tobacco industry to marijuana always leads to the same place: the Research Triangle in the pine woods near Durham, North Carolina. An industrial park conceived 20 years ago, its purpose was to stop the “brain drain” of PhDs from North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina, and Duke University to greener, out-of-state pastures. The Research Triangle Institute (RTI) is one of the many corporations located within the park. Its research ranges from the “study of catastrophic illness addressing spinal injury” to “data analysis and survey procedures for measuring pupil’s English language proficiency” to clinical studies of marijuana, which have been going on since 1969, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) to the tune of $220,000 per year. It has a reputation of being one of the top research laboratories in the world. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that this is where the government has chosen to set up its joint-rolling factory—in the heart of tobacco country.

The government has chosen to set up its joint-rolling factory in the heart of tobacco country.

Commonly known as Durham’s third cigarette maker (along with American Tobacco and Liggett & Meyers), it’s no secret what’s being manufactured in RTI. Rumors of potential rips offs, hijacked marijuana shipments, kidnapped employees and links to tobacco companies abound.

“Security is a delicate area,” said Dr. Monroe Wall, President of Chemistry and Life Science. “You don’t want the Mafia to come down here and raid the area.”

“Our attitude isn’t one for paranoia, but we have reason to be apprehensive sometimes,” added C.X. Larrabee, Public Relations Director, referring to the rumors.

Three years ago, RTI acquired from one of the local tobacco companies an old cigarette rolling machine and a retired employee familiar with the “Rube Goldberg–like” instrument who helped convert it for the production of marijuana cigarettes. Originally, Dr. Wall said that they appealed directly to the tobacco companies for assistance in setting up the operation, but “paranoid” about any associations with marijuana, they refused. It took several months to get the machine operational.

Now, also under NIDA contract, Columbian, Mexican and Jamaican dope is shipped in 60 kilo barrels and crates marked “First Class Registered Mail” to RTI from the government pot farm at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. There, under the auspices of project director Dr. Carlton Turner (who denied rumors that tobacco companies frequently request information on growing marijuana), about 1,000 kilograms of 50 to 100 varieties of the most potent pot on the planet—some five times stronger than anything you can cop on the street—are growing on 5½ acres or rich, Mississippi topsoil.

The Research Triangle Institute rolls about 100,000 joints per year.

RTI rolls a ton of marijuana per year, about 100,000 joints, and processes some into liquid and pills, which are mostly used for glaucoma research. It’s a five-man operation and two people are needed to run the machine which, churns out 1,000 perfectly rolled 9-gram joints per minute. The size of non-filter cigarettes, stamped at one end with a thin red line and an “M” for marijuana, the carefully monitored THC content (the major psychotropic agent) ranges from 1% to 2.5%. (Average street dope, according to NIDA is .8% THC content.)

“If we sold the 2.5% THC marijuana on the street for $75 an ounce,” Richard Hawks, a chemist in NIDA’s research division commented, “people would be getting a bargain.”

Rolling goes on four or five times a year. Joints are packed 350 to a container the size of a coffee can. Some is stockpiled in a bank vault. The rest is distributed at no expense to researchers in the United States and Europe—provided they’re licensed and involved in legitimate research programs—and to a government pharmacy in Washington DC where Bob Randall, a 28-year-old glaucoma victim, the first and once the only legal pot smoker in the country, fills his prescription for 70 joints per week, which he receives in brown prescription jars with “child-proof” caps.

RTI officials stressed that their research is “legitimate,” “there’s nothing to hide,” and there are no links with the tobacco industry. Yet, they did everything possible to hide two simple, perhaps even trivial facts: Who supplied the rolling machine and who supplies the rolling paper. In tracking down this information, it becomes clear why a cloud of rumor hangs over RTI. Why should it take one month and more than 100 phone calls to ascertain information which in the end seems meaningless? The search for the information, not the information itself, indicates somebody is working very hard to cover up links between RTI and the tobacco industry.

As it turned out, the rolling machine came from the American Tobacco Company via Gonzalez International of Baltimore, a used machinery firm that specializes in tobacco machinery. The rolling paper is supplied by Ecusta Inc., a division of Olin Inc.—hardly astounding information.

Originally, officials at American claimed they knew nothing about one of their cigarette rolling machines being used to roll joints at RTI. Though, after being told his company was identified as the source of the machine, Cleveland Kern, the manufacturing director, recalled the entire transaction and remembered that RTI even asked to borrow one of their employees to set up the machine. But a superior in the corporate hierarchy quickly contradicted him. “We disposed of the machine to Gonzalez,” Robert Stinnette, assistant to the chairman of the board, claimed. “What they did with it after that is their business.” He was not able to explain how Mr. Kern knew the machine was being used at RTI.

The case with Ecusta was more complex. “They are doing a favor for the government and for science,” Dr. Wall explained. “The amount of paper they supply us with is negligible. They make no money off it. They don’t want their name associated with marijuana. If it is, we’re afraid they’ll withdraw the supply. Because of what the paper is used for, it was difficult to find a supply.”

Ecusta, located in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina, the largest of three rolling paper manufacturers in the country, wasn’t difficult to find. A secretary answered the telephone. She thought I was a potential customer referred to them by RTI, whom she recognized as a customer. Then she realized I was a reporter and transferred me to the marketing director who claimed he “wasn’t aware RTI was an account of ours.” Later, though, he confirmed it.

If the amount of paper they supply to RTI is “negligible,” why did a secretary immediately recognize the name? Perhaps the amount isn’t negligible. One of the many rumors flying about suggests RTI manufactures 500,000 joints per year, not 100,000.

RTI felt confident if Ecusta was publicly identified as the source of their rolling paper, the company wouldn’t hesitate to cut off their supply and legitimate marijuana research would be “seriously damaged.”

An Ecusta spokesman said they wouldn’t cut off the supply under any circumstances, but quickly added, “We don’t pander to the marijuana trade,” implying his concern for rumors that they did pander to the marijuana trade. Ecusta supplies paper to US Tobacco, the makers of Zig-Zag, a perennial joint rolling classic.

A lot of people believe a rumor fueled by ex–California Governor Ronald Reagan, who said, in 1972, that 14 tobacco companies have already registered trademarks like Acapulco Gold and Panama Red for use on marijuana products after legalization. Mr. Reagan was apparently unaware it’s impossible to register a trademark for a non-existent, or worse yet, illegal product.

It is true, though, that the General Cigar and Tobacco Company has registered the trademark “Tijuana Smalls” for their commercially successful little cigar. It’s been suggested that this trademark is being used only temporarily. Once marijuana is legalized, General Cigar can switch the trademark from cigars to pot. Though possible it’s unlikely. Switching names is a terrible business practice that only leads to consumer confusion. Imagine the shock of a loyal Tijuana Smalls smoker whose favorite little cigar suddenly appears on the market with a 2% THC content and has him hallucinating long before his fifth puff.

The latest breaking marijuana rumor, though, is the most believable to come along in years. It’s public record that Philip Morris Inc., an international conglomerate with revenues of $6 billion per year, has blocked a trademark application for “The Lid,” by Brasshead Inc., a small Long Island paraphernalia manufacturing company. Philip Morris claims it interferes with its product, Lido cigarettes.

You’ve probably never heard of Lido mentholated cigarettes. Philip Morris originally registered the name in 1957. Test marketing of the product began in 1969, in Venezuela, Costa Rica, and the United States, and still continues today. Though Philip Morris marketing executives prefer the term “diminishing results,” Lido has been a commercial disaster. Twelve hundred packs were sold in the United States in 1978. In Venezuela, sales between 1974 and 1977 dropped from 36.5 million packs to 9.9 million. Clearly, Lido cigarettes are going nowhere fast. Yet, test marketing continues, and in 1975 the trademark was renewed for another 20 years.

Brasshead Inc. of West Babylon, Long Island, a tiny member of the $350 million a year drug paraphernalia industry, was formed in 1970 by Mike Michaels, its 30-year-old president. Michaels, in 1975, came up with a relatively innocuous product called “The Lid,” classic street slang for an ounce of pot. In a zip-lock plastic bag, he packages a small, wooden hash pipe, extra screens, a roach clip, and rolling papers. It retails for $1.99. When he tried to register the trademark “Lid,” Philip Morris formally objected, in part because it said that Lid so resembled Lido that it was deceptive, would cause the consumer to confuse the two products, and would lead to the belief that Philip Morris manufactured both products.

“We’re not interested in marijuana because we can’t make enough money on it,” a Philip Morris spokesman said. “People can’t smoke 20–30 joints a day.”

How anybody can confuse a kit for getting stoned with a pack of mentholated cigarettes known mostly in Venezuela and Costa Rica may very well be one of the more intriguing questions of the day. Philip Morris doesn’t have a particularly good answer. “We’re not interested in marijuana because we can’t make enough money on it,” a spokesman said. “People can’t smoke 20–30 joints a day.” It’s a straightforward trademark case, they claimed, and as always, they’re ever-vigilant in protecting trademarks because they don’t want to see the laws eroded.

Michaels finds the case absurd. “Why should Philip Morris bother us on a trademark they’ve more or less abandoned here?” he wondered. “Maybe they’re trying to save the name in case marijuana is legalized. To me the name isn’t even important. I can call it ‘Bib’ and still sell the same amount. It’s a matter of principle.”

A number of patent lawyers agree the case is “peculiar.” Nobody has ever heard of one quite like it, in which a major conglomerate, protecting a trademark for a doomed product, contests a distantly related trademark by a much smaller company.

It seems entirely possible that when marijuana is legalized, Philip Morris could simply drop the “o” from Lido and call a marijuana product “Lid.” If Lido cigarettes should suddenly vanish from the marketplace, unlike Tijuana Smalls, you can be sure nobody will miss them, not even Philip Morris. A phone call to its Park Avenue headquarters revealed only one person who ever heard of the product. It took several days to locate him.

There’s one provocative rumor that will probably never die no matter what’s proven or disproven: Tobacco companies stand to make the fortune of the century when marijuana is legalized. Pot, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is a $48 billion a year business, the third largest in the country, behind only General Motors and Exxon, which are tied for first at $53 billion. Naturally, like good businessmen, tobacco moguls are gearing up on all fronts—production, advertising, marketing, and agricultural. When legalization hits, they’ll be ready to roll joints within the hour.

Tobacco companies have already made one of the fortunes of the century. In the process of promoting lung cancer, emphysema, and heart disease, they’ve also drawn intense criticism from such people as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joseph Califano, a vigilant anti-smoking campaigner. Companies insist that the last thing they want is more government heat from marijuana, which some studies show is more harmful to the lungs than tobacco because it’s inhaled more deeply and remains in the lungs longer.

“We don’t need marijuana,” tobacco companies say, claiming they’re so rich and diversified, if cigarettes were outlawed tomorrow, they wouldn’t go out of business. Philip Morris, for instance, not only makes Marlboro, Benson and Hedges, Merit, Parliament, Virginia Slims, and Multifilter, but also Miller Beer, Lowenbrau, and 7Up.

Rumor naturally lurks behind the DEA’s claim that pot is a $48-billion industry. The enforcement of marijuana laws, the DEA’s principle obsession, is as much a business as selling marijuana itself. It keeps men working. They claim $48 billion in order to wangle a bigger budget from Congress. Without grass, the agency would be forced to exclusively pursue more dangerous drug criminals, like heroin and cocaine smugglers, who are more difficult to collar because their contraband is trafficked in much smaller quantities.

More realistic estimates from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORMAL) and Penthouse magazine peg marijuana sales somewhere between $4 and $12 billion, which at least holds a respectable position on the Fortune Top 100.

For the time being, at least, it’s possible that tobacco companies really aren’t gearing up for marijuana. Legalization, according to NORMAL—who already has brought about decriminalization in 11 states—is at least 7–15 years off. Before legalization can occur, international treaty obligations, which call for the prosecution of drug criminals, must first be repealed, and then, legalization would still be two years off. The tobacco companies know there’s no reason to stand poised with a finger on the joint-rolling button. If a crash program were invoked, it’s estimated that they could be rolling marijuana cigarettes in six to nine months.

Getting High in the White House

Only God knows how many reporters have been looking for drugs in the White House since Jimmy Carter took office. With a son who was thrown out of the Navy for toking up on board ship, a Rolling Stone endorsement by notorious gonzo journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, who promptly told High Times about snorting cocaine with the White House staff and press corps, and the sudden departure of Drug Advisor Dr. Peter Bourne for writing bogus Quaalude prescriptions for a White House secretary and snorting cocaine with NORMAL Director Keith Stroup, the paranoia there is intense. Just call up the press office and ask about pot. It doesn’t matter what the question is. As soon as they hear “marijuana,” the answer is, “No drugs are used inside the White House and anybody found doing so will be fired.

Former speechwriter for the Secretary of the Air Force, Bob Rosen, a New York based freelance writer, recently completed a book on the Pentagon, Ground Zero Paranoia.

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