Today’s national debate about U.S. marijuana policy resembles a castle siege, with legalization advocates hurling slogans, statistics, and poll data at a stalwart Obama administration that refuses to reshape strict prohibitionist strategies begun under Nixon.
Yet amidst the battle cries of the legalization hawks is a growing chorus of skeptical voices that seek reform, yet question the sensibility of allowing a potentially harmful new drug to enter the mainstream. Concerned that legalization will give rise to billion-dollar conglomerates that aggressively push pot at young demographics, these advocates call for Americans to place cautious analysis before legalization.
Dubbed the “quarterback” of the new anti-drug movement by Salon Magazine, Dr. Sabet is a leading critic of marijuana legalization in the United States. At age 34, he already has 18 years of experience working on drug policy, having served in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) under three presidents. Most recently, Sabet worked under the Obama Administration as a Senior Advisor to Gil Kerlikowske, the outgoing director of the ONDCP, from 2009 to 2011.
Sabet is the Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and an Assistant Professor in the College of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry. With Patrick J. Kennedy, former Congressman and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, Sabet co-founded Project SAM (Smarter Approaches to Marijuana), a bipartisan group that seeks a middle road between drug legalization and prohibition.
Recently, Sabet spoke with PolicyMic Fellow Gabe Grand about the marijuana policy movement, explaining why the younger generation, in particular, shouldn’t be so quick to embrace legalization.
Gabe Grand: You’ve been passionate about drug policy since you were a kid. How did you get your start on the issue?
Dr. Sabet: I grew up in an upper-middle class neighborhood and saw the effects of drugs and alcohol on that population. Many parents wanted to sweep these issues under the rug. They only had to deal with them when there was a real problem like a car accident. When I saw some of my friends get into trouble with drugs and alcohol, that woke me up.
I volunteered to be part of a local coalition of treatment and prevention providers that came together to deal with drug-related issues on a community level. We would put on holiday parties for drug-exposed children and their mothers, who were in rehab. We did anti-gang activities as well. We also had a newspaper that dealt with a lot of these issues and went to every high school student in the county. When I was a kid, I really liked to write, so I started writing for that newspaper, and I just got more and more involved.
Later, I was lucky enough to get a summer job as a research assistant in the Clinton administration. I went to the University of California, Berkeley, where I honed my policy analysis skills and studied the political science issues around drug policy. I also founded a group called Citizens for a Drug-Free Berkeley and was involved with it for four years. (The group, Sabet jokes, was about as popular as the Coalition for a Wine-Free France.)
Also, the issue of MDMA and ecstasy was big in the late 90s, and I saw people around me die and have real problems with it. I started doing drug education at raves and other club venues. That opened my eyes to the stark realities of drug addiction and casual drug use as well.
Were people at raves receptive to your message?
(Laughs) I guess you could say I was a bit of a buzzkill. I would show them pictures of what their brains looked like on ecstasy… while they were on ecstasy. But there were a lot of people that took my message under the table, unspoken, and they said thank you even though they felt that they didn’t want to expose their enthusiasm for what I was doing because it went against the majority view.
Source: "Your Brain on MDMA," courtesy of Palm Partners Drug Recovery Center
And I’ve sort of dealt with that my entire career; I’ve had a lot of quiet people thank me for what I’m doing, although publicly they were not ready to speak because of fear of retaliation.
Fear of retaliation by whom?
From people who are very loud, pro-drugs, legalization advocates. If you went through my email and saw the level of ferocious hate mail [I’ve received], you’d be pretty surprised.
Does it feel like you’re an unpopular voice?
I don’t think so. For every unpleasant email I get, I actually get a few more from people thanking me for doing what I’m doing to expose the gravity of addiction—and I try to do so in a nuanced way.
What’s your position on the marijuana legalization debate?
It’s not about prohibition or legalization, which is the dichotomy that’s often set up by the legalization movement. Instead, it’s really about health and about what policies best serve health and safety. Drug policy is often a set of trade-offs, and I’m not here to say that everything we do in our drug effort is working or perfect. It isn’t. However, the alternative that’s been presented as of late will, in my view, make matters worse.
I grew up in the era of big tobacco. I remember the 80s and 90s when we essentially had tobacco ads in our faces and a tobacco industry that was lying through its teeth about the harms of tobacco. We’re now seeing that again with marijuana. We don’t want to create another industry that’s going to take advantage of us. The only way an industry can make money is if it focuses on use and getting users addicted.
Right now, the marijuana industry is employing the exact same tactics as the tobacco industry in terms of denying the research of the scientific community and funding their own science. It really started with medical marijuana, which was used as a way of giving marijuana a good name. I’d like to hire their PR person, because they’ve been extremely successful at re-framing this issue. But once we open it up to corporate conglomerates, Madison Avenue, and the madmen of advertising, good luck with trying to reverse the tide. We don’t have to open up this pandora’s box of mass promotion.
What can we learn from the problems created by the alcohol and tobacco industries in the U.S.?
Because of the First Amendment, which allows for free speech, the U.S. has to rely on volunteer advertising bans. We can learn that these industries will disregard volunteer bans. There was a volunteer liquor advertising ban for a while, but now that’s over. The tobacco industry claims that they’re no longer targeting youth, but you still see a lot of the same tactics that were used in the 80s. These industries lie through their teeth—it’s very difficult to trust them.
Can state governments avoid the creation of an entrenched marijuana industry by controlling all aspects of marijuana production and distribution themselves?
Unless we’re ready to re-examine the capitalist structure of our country and the history of free speech, I don’t think so. I also think that if you do that, you’re going to have a lot of the things you were trying to get rid of by legalizing, like an underground market, with that scenario.
Doesn’t Big Marijuana already exist in the form of drug cartels that operate under the law?
Drug cartels don’t promote and advertise their wares. They also don’t make most of their money from marijuana. We know that 15 to 25 percent of their revenues come from marijuana. If we wanted to put them out of business, we couldn’t legalize just marijuana; we’d have to legalize every single other drug, including cocaine, heroin, and meth—but also things like human sex trafficking. It’s ridiculous to think that if we legalized marijuana, we’d also get through to these cartels.
We also know that the illegal market for marijuana is much more tame than the illegal market for other drugs. It’s not fine and dandy, but it’s much less violent than that of other drugs. Compared to the alternative of national marijuana conglomerates supplying a growing number of users, I would rather have a black market supplying a small number of users. The choice isn’t between big, violent cartels and Big Marijuana; it’s a question of keeping drug use down, accessibility low, and promotion low.
You're a millennial. Is there anything that you want other millennials who support marijuana legalization to be aware of?
The future of public health in America is in our hands. We will be deciding whether or not we want our kids to go down the road of early marijuana exposure. It’s one thing to say that we don’t want kids in their college dorms to be criminalized their whole lives for smoking a joint; it’s a very different thing to say that we support legalization, which is tantamount to creating the next Big Tobacco industry in America.
This article is part one of a three-part interview with Dr. Kevin Sabet of Project SAM on drug policy in the United States. Part two appeared on PolicyMic on Friday, November 22.
To hear the perspective of marijuana legalization advocate, read Gabe Grand’s interview with Dr. Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, titled, “Why Marijuana Legalization is About So Much More than Smoking Weed.”