Frank DeFilippo: Maryland’s Efforts to Curb Smoking May Go to Pot

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The tobacco industry may thank you for smoking pot. It could lead to a craving for traditional cigarettes.

Nobody but the most moralistic prude would deny a buzz-seeker an occasional recreational toke. And no reasonable person would demand prosecution and conviction for inhaling a mildly euphoric smoke, or possessing a stash of weed the size of a Sweet‘N Low packet.

To provide that state of evanescent bliss, or so it’s advertised, Maryland might be headed to a nether land of unintended consequences.

Frank A. DeFilippo

By declaration and self-admission, House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D), of Baltimore County, finds herself at the intersection of politics and public health, prison or the emergency room.

“While I have personal concerns about encouraging marijuana use, particularly among children and young adults, the disparate criminal justice impact leads me to believe that the voters should have a say in the future of legalization,” Jones said in a statement, as reported.

It used to be an article of faith, and in some benighted corners still is, that marijuana was a gateway drug to the hard stuff such as heroin, cocaine and hashish.

Now it’s possible that relaxing the prohibitions on marijuana may lead to the lethal habit of cigarette smoking after governments have won billions in settlements from tobacco companies and spent equal amounts over decades educating the public on the dangers of smoking.

Jones stated that the House of Delegates will pass legislation next year to allow voters to decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana in Maryland. Jones made her intentions clear – to reduce the number of prosecutions and incarcerations for use or possession of small amounts of cannabis.

The way the wind blows, a recent Goucher Poll showed that 67 percent of Maryland adults, including a majority from both major political parties, approved the legalization of cannabis.

Jones’ pursuit of the issue appears to be a continuation of the police reform effort that began during the last General Assembly session. And while Jones’ proposal does not deal directly with policing, it would allow changes in the law that would relieve cops of an area in dispute and ease police practices in minority communities.

Sending the question directly to the voters usually carries with it strategic undertones: (1) Jones and lawmakers are ducking the issue by passing it off to voters; (2) Legislators want to avoid being spotted; (3) The direct route to the ballot will avoid ugly debate that involves racial issues; (4) It bypasses Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and goes directly to the ballot; (5) As a ballot question, it cloaks a criminal issue as a social concern; and (6) Next year is an election year.

Maryland legalized medical pot in 2013, which had a rocky launch and several false starts, but both Virginia and the District have since legalized possession and use of small amounts of weed, leaving Maryland an island unto itself.

The issue of legalizing pot is especially sensitive in minority communities where penalties for drug abuse are enforced far more rigorously and numerically than in other areas.

In Baltimore City, for example, State’s Attorney Marylin Mosby is at a protocol standoff with police. Mosby has announced, repeatedly, that her office will not prosecute minor drug infractions even though police continue to make arrests. (A federal judge recently questioned whether Mosby’s policy is at odds with Baltimore’s consent-decree agreement with the Justice Department over policing practices.)

There is a dispute over whether smoke from tobacco and marijuana contain the same pungent toxins. The American Lung Association argues that smoke is smoke, whether it’s caused by wood, cigarette tobacco or marijuana, and that smoke from marijuana contains many of the same toxins, irritants and carcinogens as smoke from tobacco.

Another study concludes that tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, about 70 of them carcinogenic. Most studies show that smoke from both marijuana and tobacco is getting stronger and likely more addictive.

Most recently, anti-smoking campaigns turned their attention to e-cigarettes and their innocently addictive perfumed flavors, especially among young people, many of them seduced by corporate messages that they lack the poisonous effect of the real thing and that “vaping” is simply sport. The sale of e-products has been banned in some places, and the sale of liquid containing nicotine in others.

For years, minority groups have been waging a verbal duel with tobacco companies over their saturation advertising within their communities, to the exclusion of others, pointedly aiming their advertising at minorities.

Especially singled out for protest were billboards promoting brands of menthol cigarettes. Studies have shown that smoking mentholated products is more dangerous because of their addictive nature and singular damage to the lungs.

Tobacco companies shifted their advertising to other forms, notably billboards in urban areas, when Congress banned cigarette advertising on television on April 1, 1970. They were the single largest product advertisers on TV. Surgeon Generals’ tobacco warnings were first added to cigarette packages in 1966.

Tobacco firms also segued their marketing to foreign countries when sales and smoking began to decline in the United States under pressure from government and public health organizations. A sampling of cigarette advertising slogans by brands:

Tipalet – “Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere.”

Camel – “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

Viceroy – “As your dentist, I would recommend Viceroys.”

Lucky Strike – “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” And, “It’s toasted.”

Marlboro (before the Marlboro Man appeared) – “Before you scold me, mom, maybe you’d better light up a Marlboro.”

Eve (way before the #Me Too movement) – “The first truly feminine cigarette – almost as pretty as you are.”

It is estimated that in Maryland 13.9 percent of adults smoke, well below the 17.1 percent nationally, and that 8.2 percent of high school students either smoke or have tried it.

The cost of a pack of cigarettes in Maryland averages $7.75, including $2.37 in taxes, the 17th highest in the nation. New York has the highest per pack cost at $12.75. The average smoker is said to light up 15 cigarettes a day that, if true, is far below the inexpensive habit of two or three packs a day of 40 years ago.

It’s an ironic twist that government turned on an industry that was once among its strong silent partners and a major source of tax revenue in the days when it actually sanctioned, if not encouraged, smoking.

In the heyday of smoking during and following World War II, it was considered “cool” to smoke, as was exhibited by male stars in macho movies and battle-weary soldiers on the march, cigarettes dangling from their lips.

Members of the military were regularly given cartons of cigarettes, the starting point for many habitual smokers of the era. During the Korean War period, cigarettes were 70 cents a carton at the Post Exchange stores on every military base, and given free at entertainment venues called “smokers.”

Sample-size packets of cigarettes were distributed regularly on the street corners of major cities, including Baltimore, and those same sample packs appeared on every in-flight airline meal tray when smoking was allowed — in fact, encouraged — on airliners.

America got hooked, thanks in part to lawmakers from tobacco-producing states, including Southern Maryland and its sotweed plantations. A program to phase out tobacco growing in Maryland began in 2000 wherein farmers are paid to grow alternative crops, in many instances, grapes.

Then the reversal of fortunes arrived. Governments, and plaintiffs law firms, realized a lucrative source of revenue, and legal fees, especially in class-action lawsuits. So far, according to postings, tobacco companies have paid more than $100 billion to state governments as part of a 25-year, $246 billion settlement. Maryland’s settlement payments have totaled $2.56 billion, or 2.26 percent of the cumulative settlement.

Maryland’s share of the payout was supposed to be used for smoking cessation and prevention programs as well as cancer prevention and anti-smoking education.

The Marlboro Man could soon be back in the saddle if cannabis is accepted as a legal form of recreation and stimulates a renewed interest in cigarettes as Maryland lights up and inhales. Cannabis and tobacco could become unintended partners.

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.