Private Prisons and Pharmaceutical Industry Fight against Marijuana Legalization

by Vins
Published: Updated:

During the 2016 election season, private prisons and pharmaceutical companies made a number of donations towards anti-marijuana legalization campaigns across the United States in hopes of furthering their agendas. In November 2016, the legalization of recreational marijuana was put up to a vote on the five states’ ballots, California, Nevada, Arizona, Massachusetts and Maine. Among those opposed to the legalization of recreational marijuana, the private prison and pharmaceutical industry made it clear with their large donations that they stand to lose the most.

A 2014 study published in JAMA looked at states where medical marijuana is legal, the number of deaths from prescription drug overdoses is, on average, 25 percent lower than in states where medical marijuana remains illegal. This explains why Big Pharma fears the legalization of recreational and medical marijuana in more states. As a line of defense, major pharmaceutical companies like Insys Therapeutics Inc. dished out hefty donations to anti-legalization campaigns. Insys Therapeutics—which markets the painkiller, Fentanyl—donated $500,000 to the largest anti-marijuana campaign in Arizona in 2016. Fentanyl, a deadly opioid drug, is said to be up to 50 times more potent than heroin. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of deaths caused by Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids increased by 72.2% from 2014 to 2015. Other Big Pharma companies that profit from the sale of opioids made similar donations to anti-marijuana legalization efforts in other states.

Pharmaceutical companies are in the business of selling as many pills as possible, with little to no regard for human health and well-being. And similarly, the United States’ private prison companies work to incarcerate as many citizens as their facilitates can fit, and then some. The growing legalization of recreational and medical marijuana poses a threat to private prisons that are going to see more and more beds empty, as marijuana drug sentences will most likely decline. According to an annual report from the Human Rights Watch, law enforcement made 574,641 arrests for small quantities of marijuana intended for personal use in 2015, making up almost half of all drug possession arrests. Even more astonishing, the number of marijuana possession arrests was about 13.6 percent higher than the number of arrests made for all violent crimes combined, including murder, rape and serious assaults.

Private prisons typically must reach a required quota of inmates per year to be profitable and fulfill contracts, and the legalization of marijuana jeopardizes their entire business. This is why the two largest for-profit private prison companies in the country–GEO Group and CoreCivic (formerly the Corrections Corporation of America)–have spent millions of dollars lobbying politicians since 1989. In 2016, The Obama Administration made an effort to end the government’s dependence on unreliable private prisons by putting in place a plan to phase out current contracts. The U.S. Justice Department found that, “a pool of 14 privately contracted prisons reported more incidents of inmate contraband, higher rates of assaults and more uses of force than facilities run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.” With the inauguration of the Trump Administration in 2017, newly appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he is rescinding the Obama Administration’s private prison rollback plan. This means the use of contracted private prisons will continue in the United States, and the lobbying efforts of such companies were a success.

While opioid abuse, the privatization of prisons and marijuana legalization all received a fair share of corporate media coverage separately, there is minimal establishment reporting on how Big Pharma and private prison companies oppose marijuana legalization. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and NPR all produced stories about each of the separate issues mentioned, but failed to establish the connections between opioid abuse, private prisons, and legalization. Independent news sources, such as High Times, reported on how major lobbying efforts directly opposed to marijuana legalization served to benefit these industries’ economic interests.


David Bienenstock, “Trump’s War On Weed Will Boost Big Pharma, Private Prisons and Mexican Drug Cartels,” High Times, February 24, 2017

Alfonso Serrano, “Inside Big Pharma’s Fight to Block Recreational Marijuana,” Guardian, October 22, 2016,

Student Researcher: Meghan Nanan (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)