Altria, one of the world’s biggest tobacco companies, is well on its way to also being one of the world’s biggest and most influential cannabis companies.
After spending $1.8 billion to buy a stake in a multi-national cannabis company in 2018, Altria is now applying pressure in the halls of Congress and at the state level to push cannabis-friendly laws, filings show.
Whispers of a power play from Big Tobacco to capture the cannabis industry have swirled for years in marijuana legalization and cannabis-industry circles.
And now it appears to be happening, albeit slowly, out in the open, and in form similar to other big-business techniques: acquisition, intellectual property, and lobbying for friendly regulation.
Altria spent $1.8 billion in December 2018 for a 45 percent stake in Cronos Group, one of the first major multinational cannabis firms based in Canada.
Since then, Altria has moved on multiple fronts to protect its investment.
As Forbes first reported, Altria has quietly added cannabis technology to its portfolio, acquiring patented marijuana vaporizers and filing new patent applications for proprietary devices.
And in a sign of both the maturation of cannabis as a serious business—and in a clear indication of how the cannabis industry is using the same tactics employed by Silicon Valley, alcohol, and other big business sectors to secure favorable regulation—Altria is also covering its bases politically, at both the state and federal levels.
To woo members of Congress, Altria in 2020 hired Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck, one of the nation’s top cannabis and hemp law firms, on policies related to CBD and “non-tobacco excise taxes,” federal disclosure filings show.
Altria paid three lobbyists from the firm a total of $30,000 in the fourth quarter of 2020 to lobby the House on tax issues, according to filings.
In the Senate, Altria shelled out $50,000 to two lobbyists from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, another lobbying firm with an active cannabis policy shop, to leverage lawmakers on “issues related to hemp-based cannabidiol (CBD)” as well as a proposal to raise the legal age for tobacco use to 21, filings show.
And as Cannabis Wire reported on Sunday, Altria is also pushing marijuana legalization at the state level.
Altria last month registered to lobby for “Equitable Regulation of Cannabis Sales in Virginia,” the web site reported.
And you could argue that Altria is already reaping results.
Both houses of the Virginia General Assembly last week passed bills that would legalize adult-use cannabis use and sales in the state. If the bills are approved by Gov. Ralph Northam, sales in Virginia, where Altria maintains corporate headquarters in the state capital of Richmond, would begin in 2023.
By then, it’s quite possible that federal law will have changed in Altria’s favor.
Last week, Democratic Senate leadership, including Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, said that legalization would be a priority for the current Congress.
And that’s something that Altria also very clearly favors—and may have a direct hand in influencing.
“Altria supports the federal legalization of cannabis under an appropriate regulatory framework,” George Parman, an Altria spokesman, told Cannabis Wire.
“As a stakeholder in this industry we intend to work with policy makers and regulators in support of a transparent, responsible, and equitable operating environment for the sale of cannabis,” he added.
Exactly what that “appropriate framework” looks like in Altria’s eyes remains to be seen.
Several bills that would reschedule cannabis and allow for federal sales have been introduced in both houses of Congress. Only in the House has cannabis reform come up for a vote—and it passed. Efforts in the Senate have been blocked by past Republican leadership.
Under Schumer, it seems likely that the Senate will vote eventually on cannabis reform. And with Altria, Big Tobacco—now also Big Marijuana—is poised to have a seat at the table.