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Ethical Lobbying Is An Oxymoron, Especially For Big Pharma

Matt Weeks
ethical lobbying, Big Pharma, medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, opioids, opioid prescriptions, opiates, big money, government funding

Big Pharma financially supports anti-legalization efforts and ethical lobbying is not on tap.

While many people feel that ethical lobbying is an oxymoron, many lobbyists actually represent real interests that need to get into the ears of politicians. Then there are Big Pharma lobbyists. And well … They’re about as far away from representing the common good as you can be.

The latest anti-patient move by drug companies is to bankroll anti-cannabis legislation. Or, barring that, to donate big dollars to prevent legalization. The Supreme Court has long-held that cash is considered political speech in many cases, and that corporations have many of the same rights as people. But the Court has also codified “Separate but Equal,” so not all of their decisions are infallible. 

And while many lawsuits have sought to limit corporate donations to political causes, such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, what we’re dealing with today isn’t about the legality of the issue. We’re discussing the morality of political influence of Big Pharma on cannabis legislation; i.e. ethical lobbying. Or, lack thereof.

Why Cannabis Needs Ethical Lobbying

We are living through a time of upheaval, as far as cannabis laws go. So, there’s never been a time like the present to influence how society regards cannabis. 

At its core, lobbying is an attempt to influence political decisions on behalf of a specific entity. Ethical lobbyists try to tip the political scales by providing fact-based messages to elected representatives. Unethical lobbyists pay kickbacks, and often distort the truth, falsify polls, spread misinformation, etc. 

But cannabis advocates need representatives to receive unbiased, evidence-based information. Big Pharma, on the other hands, has an interest in keeping weed illegal. It relies on a campaign of obfuscation and misinformation to turn political minds against legal cannabis

ethical lobbying, Big Pharma, medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, opioids, opioid prescriptions, opiates, big money, government funding

The Big Pharma Angle

Such is the case for Insys Therapeutics Inc., which is in the opioid business. You know, the one that’s causing addiction and deaths throughout the country at a steadily rising rate

It turns out that paying doctors to prescribe the opioid wasn’t garnering enough profits (maybe because the patients kept dying). So the industry turned to another outside-the-box money-making idea: Keeping cannabis off of pharmacy shelves.

Let’s be clear: Insys is not in the business of being ethical. In addition to having two big status employees on trial for bribing doctors, the company is being sued by the attorney general of Illinois for a bevy of unethical, illegal behaviors. This is the opponent of Arizona’s legal cannabis legislation. They’re not the good guys. 

Insys markets only one product. Just one. It’s a sublingual fentanyl spray called Subsys. Fentanyl is an addictive opioid that has been linked to deaths across America. And a sublingual spray, which is held under the tongue, sounds an awful lot like many cannabis-based pain relievers. Clearly, Insys isn’t donating to the anti-cannabis push out of some moral desire to keep dangerous drugs away from patients. They gave $500,000 to the cause to prevent a competitor (one which is safer than Subsys) from coming to market. 

Insys wouldn’t have done that if cannabis posed no threat. Whatever else the company may be, it’s not stupid.

How to Accomplish Ethical Lobbying

According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, we can achieve ethical lobbying in a variety of ways. The first and foremost among these solutions is transparency.  

Transparency means ensuring that everything lobbyists do is open to the public. The government should register lobbyists (no paying spokespeople to advocate for your side on the news without admitting to it, etc.). Politicians should also have easily accessible appointment books, so constituents know who their representatives are meeting with and how often. And, of course, donations must be disclosed.

So far, we’re mostly good on transparency, but no one really pays attention. 

ethical lobbying, Big Pharma, medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, opioids, opioid prescriptions, opiates, big money, government funding

The second pillar of ethical lobbying is fairness. Fairness means that lobbyists should not “buy” votes. It means that politicians shouldn’t give one side more time than another just because a fancy dinner comes attached — or because they’re friends with the lobbyist. Of course, these insider connections are exactly why firms hire well-connected people to lobby for their causes in the first place. Fairness means limiting donations so that corporations cannot “buy” time, attention, and loyalty. 

This, clearly, is where America needs help. While corporations have lobbyists, “the people” do not. They have representatives, who, thus far, have been easily bought by unethical lobbyists. That’s why cannabis legalization has faced such an uphill battle. Lots of moneyed interests want to keep it illegal, while the medically needy cannot afford to bend the ear of politicians. 

What Can We Do (Realistically)?

In an ideal world, we’d have laws that promote and ensure ethical lobbying practices. Sadly, in twenty-first century America, moneyed interests have out-manoeuvred the rest of us. 

Lobbyists will continue to behave unethically until better laws are passed or a higher code of ethics is enforced. The only way to cull the cult of unethical lobbying for cannabis is to take on the mantle ourselves. In a young industry, like cannabis, companies don’t often have the spare change to spend on changing political winds — at least not on the same levels as Big Pharma. 

So it’s something that cannabis activists and patients must do themselves. Write your representatives; give them a call; go to a town hall meeting and share your story. It may not seem like much, but there’s power in numbers and the truth is on our side. 

Matt Weeks

A writer living and working in Athens, GA, Matt's work has appeared in various newspapers, books, magazines and online publications over the last 15 years. When he's not writing, he hosts bar trivia, plays in local bands, and makes a mean guacamole. He holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master's degree in organizational theory. His favorite movie is "Fletch."

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