Who’s Trying To Keep Weed Illegal In America?

The wave of marijuana legalization is set to continue this year, with data showing that sales of recreational pot have a strong chance of being legalized in Oregon and Alaska. Legislators in other states are burning up the phone lines to Colorado governor John Hickenlooper’s office for information on how legal and state-regulated weed could mean tens of millions of dollars in new tax revenue. But marijuana advocates are sharing the lines with a voice representing the powerful interests of drug enforcement agencies and private companies that profit from marijuana prohibition: Kevin Sabet.

When Hickenlooper came out publicly against legalizing the drug for profit, saying he’ll channel his state’s funds to programs that study cannabis and others that will keep it out of the hands of children, it seemed like a sensible policy. Let consenting adults enjoy a relatively-benign drug that shouldn’t be abused by children, and come up with sensible policies to lessen the chance that they will.

Kevin Sabet - Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida
Kevin Sabet – Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida

To Kevin Sabet, it just isn’t enough. Kevin Sabet is really thinking about the children.

Sabet is an anti-marijuana campaigner who tours the US as the opposition voice to marijuana law liberalization, the go-to guy for state legislative hearings, debates in the media and other denunciations of that devil-weed.

He is a lifetime anti-drug campaigner who has worked as an adviser in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, mostly in the Obama administration. He runs has a drug policy consulting firm out of Massachusetts.

Sabet debuted his Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) project last year, which he co-founded with Patrick Kennedy (whose family fortune was made during Prohibition, running hooch, but whatever). As social acceptance has softened towards marijuana in the past few decades, with a Gallup poll last year showing 58% of Americans favored legalizing marijuana, his message deviates from the tried-and-true racist yarns and other claims about how weed makes you a crazed, jazz-loving rapist, or a maniacally-laughing murderer, to more modern claims detailed on the SAM website, such as marijuana being more potent than the shit Baby Boomers smoked, how it stunts development in children, is addicting, and that it will lead to another “Big Tobacco” public health nightmare, as fomented by the imagined future Big Weed.

Sabet is not a traditional anti-weed campaigner who is advocating for more-severe laws; America already enjoys a metastasized incarceration rate, 2.5 million, the highest prison population in the world per capita, so a “throw ‘em all in jail” message, which would just mirror current drug policy, wouldn’t suffice. Sabet stresses that there are ways to decrease prison populations without legalization, differentiating him from mustachioed, anti-weed proto-cop spokespeople of the past. He’s also not opposed to cannabis-related medicine, although he likens weed smoke to opium in his analogy, saying morphine is a medicine derived from opium and we don’t smoke opium, a cute point, but an analogy you’d have to be really high to go for.

His strategy seems to be approaching the realpolitik of public attitudes about marijuana, and covering all the bases with interest groups enough to chip into public support. While he’s certainly favored by law enforcement groups that don’t want to see decreased drug arrests eat into their budget, his message of the specter of weed being taken over by large conglomerates and made more-addicting has the potential to scare the bejesus out of health-conscious marijuana users, and growers in Northern California, America’s cannabis heartland, heavily opposed legalization in 2012, as a wider marketplace would cut into their profits, starting first with Mom-and-Pop growers and dealers.

Sabet’s claims aren’t difficult to refute, either. His statements are backed up with cherry-picked science, the same that legislators, enforcement advocacy groups, and others used to trot out before popular sentiment turned in favor of weed.

Kevin Sabet
Kevin Sabet on his anti-legalization crusade

All this made Rolling Stone declare Sabet “Legalization Enemy #1,” but if that’s true, the champion is fighting a losing battle. Alaska put a legalization initiative on their 2014 ballot in February for an August vote, with polls showing 55% majority support, and Oregon has trended at over 60% support of legalization, with a few initiatives still vying for the ballot in November. A New York Times story on marijuana legalization on February 27 also cited 14 states where groups are preparing to put medical marijuana on the ballot, including Florida, which already has, and 12 others contemplating decriminalization.

Sabet was quoted as saying in that story: “We feel that if Oregon or Alaska could be stopped, it would disrupt the whole narrative these groups have that legalization is inevitable. We could stop that momentum.”

Well, good luck. All of these ballot measures won’t pass. California, for instance, has delayed a ballot measure to fully legalize until 2016, a presidential election year where there may be more voter turnout.

Federally, marijuana remains illegal as a Schedule 1 drug like heroin, meaning it has a high potential for abuse as defined under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, and has no medicinal value, as determined by researchers at the Department of Health and Human Services. However, the Obama administration has said it won’t interfere with states where marijuana is legalized, and the Treasury Department has released rules for banks who were hesitant to hand money from dispensaries, clearing the way for marijuana retailers to stop storing millions of dollars in shoeboxes.

It seems that marijuana prohibition, which, along with other policies in the War on Drugs, destroyed so many lives, is on a glacial pace toward something more just and those standing in the way of progress may have their hands full.