Justice

Meet Kevin Sabet, the Marijuana Industry's Public Enemy No. 1

If you want to understand what drives marijuana legalization opponents today, look no further than Kevin Sabet.

Kevin Sabet

Sabet is a drug policy analyst and consultant who served in three presidential administrations, most recently as a senior advisor to President Obama's drug control director at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He's also one of the most active and vocal critics of the legalization movement in America, advancing his policy agenda through the nonprofit organization Project SAM.

Almost half of the states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, and polls show that a majority of American adults support legalization. In spite of these statistics, Sabet stands defiant, critical of an industry that he considers to be a growing threat to public health and safety.

ATTN: spoke to Sabet about his stance on legalization, his policy proposals, and how challenging marijuana reform efforts has become a central tenet of his career. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Kevin Sabet

ATTN: In your view, what is the strongest argument against marijuana legalization?

KS: Do we really want to create Big Tobacco 2.0? Do we really want the inevitable rise of corporate cannabis to be a major political force making public health policy? Throughout our history, we don't do a good job regulating a lot of things. I don't remember the last time we put public health ahead of private profit. And what I see with this move to legalize marijuana is nothing short of the mass commercialization of marijuana and Big Tobacco 2.0.

Big Marijuana is using the same tactics that Big Tobacco used for a century: By downplaying the harms of their product, pushing their product to a younger and younger population, pushing heavy use — because, remember, addictive industries only make money from heavy users. They don't make money from occasional users. So I really couldn't care less if a 50-year-old is smoking a joint in their basement and goes to sleep on a Friday night. I don't want to arrest that person. This isn't about wanting to wage a war on drugs. But what this is about is really nothing short of the mass commercialization of marijuana, targeting young people, and, frankly, targeting marginalized, underprivileged communities more than others.

ATTN: Do you think that it's possible to separate marijuana legalization from corporatization?

KS: I think in theory it is. I think in practice it is not. Not in the United States, and not now. A lot of my good friends in academia have opined and written extensively about ways to legalize that are less harmful than others. God bless them, but they are not relevant when it comes to actually how the laws are formulated. If they were, we wouldn't see the disastrous way that the five initiatives that are going to qualify in November ... , we wouldn't see them written the way that they were. Yes, there are better ways to do a lot of things, including better ways to do marijuana — I'm not in denial — but the reality is, they're not relevant.

ATTN: You say you're against criminal penalties for marijuana users. Do you support state efforts to decriminalize the substance?

KS: The devil is in the details. I don't like the word "decriminalize." It's usually used interchangeably with "legalization." Very confusing word. I'm absolutely in favor of removing criminal penalties for low-level use and focusing on prevention, early intervention, discouraging people to use, research.

I have yet to meet somebody that tells me — maybe from 30 years ago, but in the last couple of years — that they've been behind bars for smoking marijuana, and that's their only crime. And I have never met a law enforcement officer that told me that they had a case like that. Now, it doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. It doesn't mean that in the South, or some place, it doesn't happen. It does happen. And in those cases, we want make sure that we have proportionate sentencing and we don't criminalize them. But the problem is, in a lot of states, these efforts to decriminalize are really a wolf in sheep's clothing toward legalization, and they're promoted by the people who want to make money and legalize, but they know they can't go straight to legalization, so they do this as the first step.

ATTN: Does it make sense to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug under federal law — in the same category as heroin and LSD?

KS: I think the scheduling system is greatly misunderstood. Folks think that because marijuana is scheduled with heroin, it means the government thinks marijuana is as harmful as heroin, and that's not true. Folks also think that because marijuana is with heroin, and cocaine Schedule 2, that marijuana is treated more harshly than cocaine. That's also not true. So I think there's a lot of misunderstanding around what scheduling is.

What I do want to see is much more research on the components and the plant itself and extracts, etc., to create FDA-approved medication. I think that we need to do more research into the plant. But the reality is most medical marijuana laws have no resemblance to actually doing that research and moving on the science. My answer to that is: I don't see the justification to remove marijuana off Schedule 1 because it's defined as something with no medical use. And the plant material has not proven to have medical use. Now the components have, and, of course, some people swear by the plant material by anecdote. But we need to do more research.

People think that the clouds will part if marijuana is rescheduled — that there's going to be a total change. There's going to be no change. The only change is going to be a headline that says, "Marijuana Rescheduled by Government," which is going give kids — even more than they have now — the idea that we think this isn't a big deal. And I don't think that's a good thing to do that, so I think we need to do what we need to do for the research. But that's very different than rescheduling.

ATTN: Are you compelled by research showing that marijuana serves as an effective treatment option for disorders such as epilepsy and PTSD?

KS: I actually think THC and the other component, CBD, and many, many, many others may provide us with a suite of different medications. But that is so different than saying that the marijuana plant itself and smoking pot or vaporizing it or whatever is medicinal or good for you. We have many very, very highly effective drugs from plants — digitalis, for example; opium, for example — that's good. We want to encourage that. And, frankly, I think marijuana is right up there with them. But, at the same time, we don't smoke or vaporize opium to get the effects of morphine; we don't eat the digitalis plant to get the good effects on the heart, right? We do it in ways that science guides us.

I'm 100 percent in favor of that. I frankly think that we need to separate these issues of the medical components and the medical research and the legalization. They're so different. They're two totally different issues, and yet it's in the legalizers' interest actually to conflate them, because they're able to say, "Oh, my God, look at this poor kid with epilepsy, this is why need to legalize marijuana." Or "This is why we need to legalize anything that anyone says is called CBD and not do any research or really have any oversight, but we should just allow it, because look at these poor kids." I think that's unfortunate the way that has transpired. We need to do the research, and we need to separate the issue.

ATTN: Do you ever feel like a voice for the minority when it comes to your stance on drug policy in America?

KS: No, I don't think so, actually. It's an interesting question, because I know that less than 10 percent of people use marijuana. It's not like alcohol, where 50 to 70 percent of people use. So the 10 percent have convinced about 50 percent that we should allow more marijuana use: that it's better to legalize it for a lot of reasons. I frankly think that support is temporary and that support erodes so quickly when you start talking about a few things.

One, the rise of Big Marijuana. People don't want that. Two, pot shops in their communities. Honestly, people — even if they think marijuana legalizing ... is OK — they don't want a pot shop in their community. And three, I think people are horrified by these edibles, these candies, and the things that are being promoted that are, frankly, very kid-friendly. I don't think it's just me; I'm not saying it's me that does it. I think it's these arguments. I've seen other people very much effectively deliver them as well. I don't think that I'm a voice for the minority at all. Maybe the minority of rich white guys who want to smoke pot and think it's no big deal — like, rich, white, liberal guys. Maybe I'm in that minority.

ATTN: The U.S. is in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Why, then, do you choose to focus your time and resources on marijuana?

KS: To be honest, for every one person that's talking about marijuana, there's about 50 talking about opioids. So I actually think there's more of a need right now.

I research all drugs. My dissertation at Oxford was looking at heroin users in Baltimore. I'm very interested in all kinds of drug policy. But when I left the Obama administration in 2011, I really could see the writing on the wall and how the debate had changed and how this rise of corporatization — how we were seeing that in this country. I don't want to make it sound like no one else is working on this. There are a lot of people that are, and they're doing very good work, but I felt like there needed to be another voice. I felt like there needed to be a voice that was more to the middle politically that emphasized not "Reefer Madness" — not saying that you're going to become a heroin users tomorrow if you use pot today or [that] every pot user drops out of school or anyone who ever tries marijuana is going to have a health problem and be addicted. I don't say any of that.

But I also think that these issues are inextricably linked. I think you cannot talk about heroin and ignore marijuana. And I think, so often right now, marijuana is ignored. It's actually ignored in these policy conversations. It's the elephant in the room. It's seen as a lose-lose political situation for political action. They just do not see this as anything to win, but, of course, when they talk about heroin — find me someone who's in favor of heroin. I mean, there are some, but they're totally fringe. So it's a safer issue, and, you know, frankly, I think it's a huge issue.

I am not by any means downplaying the heroin epidemic. It's tragic. But, also, remember, [it] was perpetuated initially by a legal industry that wanted to make money off of their "regulated" commodity. And this is what I worry about with marijuana is that we're going to see this again. So I think these are inextricably linked issues, actually, and I have never met a mom or dad who lost a son or daughter to heroin where marijuana didn't play an early role in that person's drug using career. I won't use the word "gateway." I like to use the word "pathway" for some people. It's not for everybody. The majority of people who use marijuana will never use drugs like heroin or cocaine, but the vast majority of heroin users did use marijuana initially. And they used other drugs, too. I get that. But this is something that is linked. We need to do more research on why that link is there.