January 16, 2014
The country’s most high-profile anti-marijuana spokesman brought his message to Oregon this week, warning that legalizing the drug will boost addiction rates, hook young people and enrich a powerful marijuana lobby.
Kevin Sabet is scheduled to appear at 2 p.m. Friday before the Oregon Senate and House interim judiciary committees. Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, wants the Oregon Legislature to refer a legalization initiative to voters in November.
In appearances this week before drug addiction treatment professionals, prosecutors, police and social service providers, the 34-year-old Sabet dispelled what he called common “myths” about marijuana and raised the specter of an influential marijuana industry dependent not on casual marijuana smokers but on young addicts.
“Folks think they are voting for allowing otherwise responsible adults to grow a little bit of pot in their backyard and smoke a little weed without having the cops on their back,” said Sabet. “I don’t think we fully realize as a country what we are getting into.
“This is not about your nice neighbor who likes to smoke a joint after work once a week,” he said. “It’s really about creating the next Big Tobacco, an industry that thrives off of addiction.”
Marijuana proponents vigorously dispute Sabet’s claims, calling him a fearmonger who distorts marijuana’s harms.
“The biggest problem with Sabet,” said Russ Belville, a Portland legalization advocate and host of a cannabis radio show, “is he wants to treat all adult marijuana consumers as if they are addicts in need of treatment.”
Sabet counters that Americans don’t realize how potent today’s marijuana is and how it’s increasingly marketed to teens in the form of pot-infused candies, sweets and junk food.
His message resonated with Judy Cushing, executive director of Lines for Life, a drug and suicide prevention agency in Portland. Cushing said parents of high school students need to know the harms associated with marijuana, but she also worries there’s not enough money to fund a well-organized opposition to legalization in Oregon.
“It would have to be a grass-roots effort” among people interested in protecting “the health of Oregon’s youth,” she said.
Sabet pointed to a several studies that show the negative side of a drug that a 2013 study found an estimated 12 to 14 percent of American adults have used in the previous year. Some of the data he presented this week was based on Colorado’s experience with medical marijuana, which voters in that state approved in 2000.
One study, released in August 2013 by the federally funded Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, found marijuana use among 12 to 17-year-olds in Colorado was higher than the national average in 2011. One in four high school students in the Boulder County School District said they were current marijuana users – three times the national rate.
In another district, Colorado Springs, the average number of students testing positive for marijuana increased from 5.6 per year in 2007-2009 to 17.3 in 2010-2012.
Nationally, 6.6 percent of American high seniors reported daily marijuana use in 2011; In Colorado, 7.8 percent of high school seniors said they used the drug 40 or more times a month.
Teens, said Sabet, are especially vulnerable to marijuana’s ill-affects, which, according to one study out of New Zealand, include a long-term decline in IQ. One in six adolescents who consume marijuana are at risk for becoming addicted to the drug, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The institute found that after years of declining marijuana use among American teens, the latest 5-year trend shows a significant spike in use among 10th and 12th graders.
Legalization advocates argue that marijuana is safer than alcohol and should be treated the same way, an argument that Sabet rejects. He said alcohol harms families, leads to violence and other social ills and should be viewed as a cautionary tale.
“When people think about it for more than two seconds,” he said, “they think, ‘Why would we want to follow that same path as a model for public health?'”
He compared that to saying, “Our tail light is broken so we should smash in our headlight so we are consistent.”
Sabet said he doesn’t support the arrest and prosecution of marijuana consumers. Addicts should get “brief intervention and treatment,” and other recreational users should be subject to some type of civil penalty, such as a fine.
“You have to have some sanction if it’s illegal,” he said.
He also said he supports federal research of marijuana, which he acknowledged has medicinal properties.
The American Medical Association also supports research into marijuana. The group last year issued a position statement repeating its opposition to legal marijuana and medical cannabis, but also called on the federal government to review the marijuana’s classification as Schedule I controlled substance with “the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines.”
According to the federal government, drugs that fall under that classification, which include heroin and ecstasy, have no “accepted medical use” and have a “high potential for abuse.”
Sabet describes himself as a non-partisan centrist who founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a non-profit he started with former U.S. Rep Patrick Kennedy. A political appointee who worked on drug issues under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Sabet said he was invited to speak this week at a leadership seminar for the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police. His travel expenses were paid for by the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association.
His visit to the state comes as marijuana advocates ramp up efforts to get a legalization initiative on the fall ballot.
Belville, who debated Sabet in 2012 at Rice University, said legalization would lead to a regulated industry, which would include age limits on who can legally use the drug and public service messages that encourage its “responsible use.”
Belville dismissed Sabet’s argument about the marijuana industry targeting young consumers.
“Big Marijuana is going to want to make money,” he said. “The people they can sell their marijuana to are 21 and older. It doesn’t do them any good to market to a younger customer base.”
Dan Riffle, a former prosecutor in Ohio and lobbyist with the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for legalization, recently debated Sabet on CSPAN. In an interview this week with The Oregonian, Riffle said Mexican cartels, not tax-paying, regulated business owners, already profit from sale of the drug.
“That is who is in control of the marijuana market,” said Riffle. “That is who is selling marijuana to the 80 to 90 percent of high school students who say it’s easy to obtain.”
If legalized, marijuana could be regulated the same way tobacco is: with tough rules on advertising and marketing to young people.
“People shouldn’t be selling marijuana-themed lollipops and candy,” Riffle said.
Riffle called Sabet’s focus on the idea of corporate marijuana and the threat to young people as a “21 Century version of Reefer Madness.”
But Sabet’s said his views shouldn’t be viewed as extreme.
“That is the narrative: We are the old-fashioned worry warts that are relics of the 1930s and 20s.
Said Sabet: “They belittle anybody that who is not in favor if this.”