WASHINGTON — Richard Nixon was in the White House, his “war on drugs” was in full swing, yet Big Tobacco was secretly exploring the possibility of becoming Big Pot.
Newly discovered documents from tobacco company archives at the University of California, San Francisco, show that major companies in the cigarette industry investigated joining the marijuana business in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The companies were driven then by the same shift in public attitudes that is now pushing legalization around the country.
One company even asked a federal counternarcotics official to secretly secure marijuana from the government for research.
“We request that there be no publicity whatsoever,” a Philip Morris vice president wrote in late 1969 to Milton Joffee, drug sciences chief at the Justice Department’s narcotics bureau. “We will provide the results to you on a confidential basis, and request that you not identify in the form of any public announcement where the work has been done.”
Joffee responded that Philip Morris could skip Food and Drug Administration review of its application for government pot. “I do not feel there is any bar to maintaining the confidentiality you request,” he wrote.
The documents, discovered by public health researchers, were disclosed Tuesday in the Milbank Quarterly, a health policy journal. They not only shed new light on the Nixon era, but appear when some Wall Street analysts and health advocates say tobacco companies may again be considering the expanding market for legalized weed.
“The issues the tobacco companies were exploring are all still there today,” said Stanton Glantz, director of the UC San Francisco Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education. “The only thing they were wrong on is they thought legalization would happen a lot sooner.”
Legalization seemed in the air in the 1970s, though Nixon staunchly opposed it. He ignored a presidential commission’s recommendation in 1972 to decriminalize possession for personal use.
But 11 states would do just that between 1973 and 1977. Jimmy Carter was elected to the White House in 1976 on a platform that included marijuana decriminalization. Views shifted dramatically in the 1980s, however, and President Ronald Reagan oversaw a harsh crackdown that included imprisonment for thousands of nonviolent offenders.
The tobacco companies say the newly unearthed documents are no longer relevant.
“Our companies have no plans to sell marijuana-based products,” said David Sylvia, a spokesman for Altria Group Inc., the parent company of Philip Morris. “We don’t do anything related to marijuana at all.”
Company denials were also emphatic in 1971 when Joseph Cullman, chairman of the board at Philip Morris, declared that marijuana was nowhere on its corporate radar. A handwritten note from the company president at the time, George Weissman, suggests otherwise.
The Philip Morris marijuana collaboration with the Justice Department, he wrote, was meant to explore “potential competition” and “a potential product.”
Another Philip Morris memo, this one unsigned, laid out to executives the rationale for the marijuana research.
“We are in the business of relaxing people who are tense and providing a pickup for people who are bored or depressed,” it said. “The only real threat to our business is that society will find other means of satisfying those needs.”
Company officials say they do not know what ultimately came of the project. Nor do staff at the Justice Department or National Institute for Drug Abuse. No files could be found at the National Archives.
But the project clearly rattled other tobacco firms.
An internal memo from an executive at the American Tobacco Co. reported that his team had learned from a “reliable source” that Philip Morris “was granted a special permit to grow, cultivate and make marijuana extracts … and that Philip Morris urged the State agency people to secrecy.”
Over at British American Tobacco, the world’s second-largest tobacco firm, documents show that a confidential research effort labeled the “Pot Project” was launched in Britain.
The firm’s head science adviser, Charles Ellis, also drafted a detailed research plan to position British American Tobacco to produce “cannabis-loaded cigarettes.”
Cigarettes mixed with marijuana, Ellis wrote in the 1970 document, were a “natural expansion of current smoking habits” and if pot became legal, such cigarettes would be “a change in habit much like moving to cigars.”
He suggested that the firm “learn how to produce in quantity cigarettes loaded uniformly with a known amount of either ground cannabis or dried and cut cannabis rag.”
It is unclear if any of the research was ever carried out.
“The 1970s were a long time ago,” British American Tobacco said in statement. “Today, we have no interest whatsoever in participating in the marijuana market.”
Big Tobacco’s attraction to pot appeared to drop off in the 1980s. But the companies were intrigued again by the early 1990s, documents show, when R.J. Reynolds launched into research on the chemistry of marijuana.
The project was triggered by reports — later proved false — that a French competitor was manufacturing marijuana-laden smokes. An R.J. Reynolds executive also explained in an internal memo that the company needed to better acquaint itself with marijuana “in view of the possibility of its future more frequent use in certain European countries.”
“I cannot begin to speculate on the thinking of management more than 20 years ago,” said David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. “Regarding the current cannabis market, we are not pondering any expansion or involvement in that market, nor do we conduct any research into marijuana.”
Anti-smoking activists are skeptical. And some investors are betting that their suspicions are well-founded.
“The tobacco companies may deny even thinking about it, but they have to think about it,” said Gerry Sullivan, portfolio manager of the Vice Fund, a $300 million mutual fund made up of alcohol, tobacco, gambling and defense company stocks.
“It is an opportunity to diversify their business and help benefit shareholders,” Sullivan said. “That is what management is most likely pursuing in the dark corners of some research lab in Virginia.”