Marijuana legalization's biggest enemies -- and their Colorado ties

This week, Rolling Stone published its list of marijuana legalization's biggest enemies. And by coincidence, all five of those who made the RS roster have been recently featured in this space.

And in the case of the top dog, Kevin Sabet, very recently.

The University of Florida's Sabet, a former drug-abuse consultant for the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, was in Denver last week for the launch of Project SAM, an organization whose members include former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy and Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist David Frum -- number five on the Rolling Stone enemies list.

Project SAM's acronym stands for "Smart Approach to Marijuana," but Sabet told us in a preview to the outfit's launch that he considers the group to represent a middle ground between those arguing for across-the-board legalization and drug warriors who continue to think the criminal-justice system is the best way to deal with those who buy and sell pot.

"We don't want our ideas to be able to fit on a bumper sticker," he said. "'Legalize Pot' and 'Lock 'Em Up' both fit on a bumper sticker, but what we're doing doesn't.

"We're trying to have a rational conversation about marijuana in this country led by public health in a bipartisan way that learns from mistakes we made with alcohol and tobacco and also corrects the mistakes our current policy has."

As for Frum, his featured quote on the Project SAM merges a class argument with a de facto admission that legal substances such as alcohol and tobacco may well be riskier for users than is cannabis. In his words, "A world of legal drugs will be a world in which the fates of the top one third of Americans and the lower two thirds will diverge even more than they already do. We have opened more roads to self-harm. Must we now open another?"

Rolling Stone's number two slot is shared by Mel and Betty Sembler, the Florida couple behind Save Our Society From Drugs. That entity was the single biggest funder of Smart Colorado, the main opponent to Amendment 64, which legalized small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use. The more than $150,000 SOSFD had given to Smart Colorado by the publication date of a September post on the fight for and against A64 represented approximately 78 percent of total donations received.

Critics argue that Save Our Society From Drugs carries plenty of problematic baggage. Here's an excerpt from a Nation piece about the Semblers that we shared last fall:

The Semblers have been waging a war on marijuana for decades.

Before they led Save Our Society from Drugs, and its sister nonprofit, the Drug Free America Foundation, the Semblers were at the helm of STRAIGHT, Inc., which operated drug abuse treatment centers, mostly for teenagers, from 1976 through 1993.

Former clients of the rehab center recount episodes of brutal beatings, rape and systematic psychological abuse.

At one facility in Yorba Linda, California, state investigators found that STRAIGHT Inc. subjected children to "unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, mental abuse...and interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping and toileting." Samantha Monroe, who was placed into a STRAIGHT Inc clinic in Tampa at age 13, says she was locked in a room, and forced to wear a clothes stained with urine, feces and menstrual blood -- a punishment her counselors called "humble pants."

Richard Bradbury, a former STRAIGHT patient and counselor-turned-whistleblower, told the St. Petersburg Times that Monroe's experiences weren't unique. "It was pure child abuse," Bradbury told reporters. "Torture."

Continue for more about the Rolling Stone list of marijuana legalization's biggest enemies. The other two individuals in the Rolling Stone top five are both current members of the Obama administration. Coming in at number three is Michele Leonhart, chief administrator of the DEA. Back in June, we shared a dust-up between Leonhart and Colorado Representative Jared Polis that was caught on video. During a Congressional hearing, Polis tried his damnedest to coax Leonhart into admitting that marijuana is not nearly as dangerous to the public as crack, meth or even heroin. But she adamantly, hilariously refused to do so.

Here's that clip.

And the fifth member of the quintet? Obama administration drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, who once said, "Legalization is not in my vocabulary and it's not in the president's," and has been quoted as saying that medical marijuana "sends a terrible message" to the youth of America.

Still, Kerlikowske's statement that the country is "in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana," made in response to a petition calling for legalization, heartened Tom Angell, chairman of the organization Marijuana Majority and a close follower of events in Colorado.

In another post published last week, Angell wrote, "From 'legalization is not in my vocabulary and it's not in the president's,' as Gil Kerlikowske often used to say, to 'it is clear that we're in the midst of a serious national conversation about marijuana' is a pretty stark shift.

"Of course, what really matters is to what extent the administration actually shifts enforcement priorities and budgets," he added. "But I sure do like hearing the U.S. drug czar acknowledge the fact that marijuana legalization is a mainstream discussion that is happening whether he likes it or not."

Has Kerlikowske seen the light? Clearly, Rolling Stone has some serious doubts.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana: Project SAM touts public-health approach to pot in fighting legalization."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts