SAM's Kevin Sabet.
SAM's Kevin Sabet.
Courtesy of Smart Approaches to Marijuana

Meet Kevin Sabet, USA's Most Influential Critic of Marijuana Legalization

Kevin Sabet, the president and CEO of Virginia-based Smart Approaches to Marijuana, has become arguably the most influential critic of marijuana legalization in the United States. But in an extended interview on view below, he fights against the perception that he's a one-dimensional prohibitionist along the lines of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sabet stresses that he and his organization, shorthanded as SAM, take what he sees as a sensible approach to cannabis by arguing in favor of treatment rather than jail time for users in trouble and advocating for greater study of the substance to determine the best ways to utilize it medically.

We first spoke to Sabet in January 2013, just prior to SAM's launch in Denver, when he appeared alongside co-founder Patrick Kennedy, a former congressman from Rhode Island and a member of the Kennedy political dynasty. Sabet's background is similarly stocked with connections to heavyweights. The author of Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana, he served stints in the Clinton and Bush administrations and spent two years as senior adviser to President Barack Obama's drug-control director before taking on the SAM cause. In the more than four years since then, he's made countless media appearances while lobbying behind the scenes to try and stop the momentum generated by the pot legalization bandwagon.

Sabet, who says SAM's funding mainly comes from small donors and grants as opposed to hard-core drug-war groups or Big Pharma, doesn't think it's too late to accomplish this goal, in part because only a relatively small percentage of the populace actually uses marijuana. Moreover, he feels that plenty of those who abstain will more actively fight against pot's normalization if public use (and its attendant smoke and scent) becomes more prevalent in cities such as Denver, which he sees as having been demonstrably harmed by legalization. He blames cannabis for turning the 16th Street Mall into a homeless haven that visitors actively avoid and suspects that in his heart of hearts, Governor John Hicklenlooper knows legalization was a terrible mistake but can't admit it publicly because the right to toke is enshrined in the state constitution.

Likewise, Sabet considers it inarguable that the marijuana industry is targeting young people with colorfully packaged pot edibles and argues that simply keeping cannabis away from kids isn't enough. He cites studies showing that the brains of 25-30 year olds are still developing — and can still be harmed by weed.

Continue to learn more about Sabet's cause and the arguments he makes to support it.

Westword: SAM recently put out a release about the amount of tax revenue Colorado has collected as a result of the marijuana industry [in reference to a VS Strategies report estimating that the state has generated more than $500 million in cannabis revenue since legalization]. In it, you talk about how drug use and its consequences cost taxpayers $193 billion per year, with Colorado's annual share being approximately $3.3 billion. But that's for all drugs, correct?

Kevin Sabet: Oh, yeah, absolutely. But you need to look at the fact that marijuana is used far more than any of the other drugs, and look at the costs associated with driving, crashing, mental illness — and long-term costs we're not able to account for. Marijuana isn't correlated with mental illness overnight. If often takes time. And so the cost of that can't be calculated in any way. There was a study done a few weeks ago by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction finding that just in Canada alone, a much smaller country than the U.S. in population, marijuana-related car crashes cost a billion dollars. That's just the car crashes, and those were directly related to marijuana. And the report came from a government think tank, not any kind of anti-drug group.

I honestly think it isn't surprising coming from this group [VS Strategies]. It's an industry group that wants to basically make money from marijuana — much more money than the State of Colorado will make after you account for costs. When you look at the actual number and context of just education alone, the marijuana revenue is barely newsworthy. The Department of Education in Colorado says they need $18 billion in capital construction funds alone. The reality is, the Colorado budget deficit is actually rising, not falling. This isn't plugging a hole in the deficit. It's actually costing money. There's one area where I'd agree with [former Colorado Director of Marijuana Coordination] Andrew Freedman: You don't do this for the money. But it's a great talking point, and it polls well, just like the talking point of it being safer than alcohol polls well. This polls well, too, so you're going to have an industry group that thrives off commercialization touting the numbers. That's not surprising at all.

Kevin Sabet, lower left, with SAM forces from Ohio and Kentucky circa 2015.
Kevin Sabet, lower left, with SAM forces from Ohio and Kentucky circa 2015.
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SAM is usually described as an anti-marijuana organization. Is that an accurate description from your viewpoint? Or is it pejorative in some way?

I wouldn't necessarily say it's pejorative, but I think it's overly simplistic. It's true that we don't want to see the legalization of another illegal substance. We think that our experience with pharmaceuticals, which are, of course, legal, as well as alcohol and tobacco, has been an utter disaster from a public cost and public-policy point of view. We've never regulated those drugs in a responsible way. Lobbyists and special interests own the rule-making when it comes to these drugs. And what we're saying is, do we really want to repeat history once again? It just happens to be marijuana. It really could have been any substance. And we will be talking about the legalization of other drugs if marijuana goes through. Because it doesn't stop with marijuana in terms of the policy goals of many of these organizations. So I think it is overly simplistic. And we're very concerned about commercialization.

Also, we don't want to see a return to an enforcement-heavy policy that throws everybody behind bars or saddles young people, especially, with criminal records that prevent them from getting a job or being able to access public benefits or being able to go to school. We want to see people given another chance. But we also want to see this treated as a health issue, and you don't treat marijuana as a health issue by ignoring it or facilitating its use. You do brief interventions if they're needed, treatment if it's needed. I don't think everyone who uses marijuana needs treatment, just like everyone who drinks or uses other drugs doesn't need treatment. But some people are using it in a way that is problematic, and they need an early intervention, perhaps, to prevent them from moving on to a substance-use disorder — or they need more intense treatment. It really just depends.

We also want to see research into components of marijuana that may have therapeutic value. We don't want to see people needlessly suffering. But if Perdue Pharma or Pfizer said tomorrow that they have a new blockbuster drug but they don't want it to go through the FDA and instead want to put it up to a vote, we'd be up in arms. And rightfully so. Everybody would be up in arms. And we don't think marijuana should get a free pass because there are stories of it helping people. I don't doubt that it helps some people — things like cannabidiol oil, etc., or even smoking marijuana to relieve pain. I don't doubt that it helps some people. But we don't want to turn back the clock to pre-FDA days, where we had snake-oil salesmen and wild claims about drugs. We want to put it through the same system, and if that system is problematic and difficult, then let's look at what those barriers are and resolve them.

So I think we are a sensible organization that takes our cues from science. That's why, on our board, you don't see people benefiting from the policy position that we take. If anything, people like the doctors from Boston Children's Hospital who are on our advisory board, or Harvard professors, they're going to have more business if marijuana is legal, because they're going to have people with more problems. We're working counter to their self-benefit, if you think about it. That's why we're led by the science. And the reason we started this.... I left the White House and saw there was a huge disconnect between the public's understanding of marijuana and what was being told to them by various sources, and we're trying to bridge that gap.

Many of the things you just touched upon are on the four items in the "What We Do" section of your website. But some things, such as "To promote research on marijuana in order to obtain FDA-approved, pharmacy-based cannabis medications," we don't hear your organization talking about very often. Is that the fault of the media, because they're only focusing on the legalization-is-bad angle? Are you giving equal weight to some of these other goals?

I think that's just people looking through the glasses they want to look through. I think the legalization groups are threatened by a sensible organization led by Harvard doctors that doesn't want to put people in prison, so they want to paint us as the most irrational dinosaurs from the Stone Age on these issues. The reality is, we spend a lot of our time on all of these issues. In fact, we have released the most comprehensive document that any policy organization has released, I think, on the hurdles of medical marijuana research. That's right on our website — the six-point plan. And we've also done a CBD guide — everything you need to know about CBD. After the guide to everything you need to know about CBD, we did a report on research barriers, and we got a lot of people from both extremes that didn't like it. John Walters, my former boss, wrote a scathing editorial, saying we were off the mark in calling for more research. When we get criticized from multiple angles, I think people can decide for themselves whether that's credible or not....

Another portrait of Kevin Sabet.
Another portrait of Kevin Sabet.
Courtesy of Smart Approaches to Marijuana

It's just not sexy, though. I can't remember the last time that someone from USA Today or Huffington Post said, "Oh, we want to cover the fact that you released a wonky policy document aimed at FDA senior scientists with ten letters after their name." They're not banging on the door to get that story. Instead, they're banging on the door to say, "The governor of Nevada has just declared a state of emergency on pot. What do you think?"

I'm not going to say it's the fault of the media. I think that's overused these days. But we're doing our best, and whether it's noticed by USA Today or the Huffington Post or the Washington Post or not, that doesn't matter as much. We're getting it out there, and I know that hundreds of lawmakers have read it. In fact, three out of our six recommendations have been adopted since we released that report. I don't think we're the only reason they've been adopted, but I think us pushing and prodding and putting it down on paper gave some political cover to some people who may not have supported it in the past, and I'm very proud of that. I know it doesn't satisfy Medical Marijuana Inc. or these hundreds of CBD manufacturers who are selling God knows what because they don't get it looked at by the FDA; they're not going to be happy about that. But I think the science speaks for itself, and scientists and others have noticed. That's why they've asked to join my advisory board — top researchers who want to be part of this team not because we're zealots, but because we look at the science and are able to get it out there....

Another of the talking points on your website says, "Alcohol is legal. Why shouldn't marijuana be legal?" How do you answer that question?

To me, saying, "Alcohol is bad and it's legal, so why shouldn't marijuana be legal?" is like saying, "My headlights are broken, so why don't we break the taillights, too?" It doesn't make much sense. First of all, alcohol and marijuana are apples and oranges in many ways. They're different just because of their biology and their pharmacology, but they're also different in their cultural acceptance and prevalence in Western society. Alcohol has been a fixed part in Western civilization since before the Old Testament. The reason alcohol prohibition didn't work — and that's debatable....

What's the debate?

If you look at scholars who studied Prohibition much more than I have, there is a vigorous debate. Alcohol use fell during Prohibition, harm fell as well. Cirrhosis of the liver, which is a top-ten killer of white men, wasn't a top-ten killer. Organized crime had been in place, and obviously it was strengthened from Prohibition, although it isn't like it caused it, and it certainly didn't go away when Prohibition ended.... But it's very difficult to prohibit something that 60 to 70 percent of the population are doing on a regular basis. Marijuana is still used by fewer than 10 percent of the population monthly, and so the idea that it's the same in terms of acceptance is wrong. Right now, those 10 percent of users have convinced 55 percent of Americans that this is a good idea.

That also points to the fact that I think support for marijuana is very soft. I think the industry has overplayed its hand about things like public nuisance, public use, secondhand smoke, car crashes. Once these things become greater in prevalence, which they inevitably will if more states legalize and commercialize, then I think you're going to have the backlash I think will come, and it will come because of the increased problems....

Alcohol is such an accepted part of society. We accept the negative consequences. Alcohol is not legal because it's safe. Alcohol isn't legal because it's so good for you. Alcohol is legal because it's been a fixed part of Western civilization for millennia. Marijuana has not been. Of course it was used thousands of years ago. Was it used by certain cultures? Absolutely. But there's no comparison, complete apples and oranges, when it comes to alcohol's culture acceptability. So that's why alcohol is legal — not because we love the effects it has on society. No parent, no teacher, no police officer, says, "I'd be better if I was drinking all the time." No police officer says, "Man, I wish more people drank." No parent says, "I wish my kid drank more." That's not why it's legal, because it's so great.

And alcohol has done very little for our tax base. One of the reasons Prohibition was repealed was because the industrialists were convinced that it would help eliminate or mitigate the corporate tax or even the personal income tax. That's laughable today. It doesn't do that at all. Instead it costs us way more money than any revenue we bring in. I think marijuana would be the same story. It affects our bodies differently. Alcohol affects the liver, marijuana affects the lungs. Alcohol is in and out of your system quite rapidly, but marijuana lingers in the system longer, and according to studies, the effects also linger for longer. They affect different parts of the brain. So they're different in many ways, but in some respects, they're the same. They're both intoxicants, and unlike tobacco, they specifically cause changes in behavior. And that's a difference with tobacco, another legal drug. Tobacco isn't correlated with paranoia or obsessiveness or mental illness and car crashes, and obviously, marijuana is. In some ways, legal drugs offer an interesting example. I think they offer an example of the sort of social and financial consequences that would come with legalizing other drugs.

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