By Rosa Goldensohn
08/31/2018 06:21 AM EDT
A national marijuana policy activist is seeking to stem budding legalization efforts in New York, with high hopes of smoking out an industry that he says is bogarting the conversation.
Kevin Sabet, who founded the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana with former Rep. Patrick Kennedy after Colorado legalized cannabis, opened up an office on West 4th Street this summer. From there, he will launch a lobbying effort in Albany and an awareness campaign against marijuana use in the city as the slow march to legalization seems increasingly inevitable in the Empire State.
No, he hasn’t tried it. Sabet, 39, was raised and remains a member of the Bahá’í faith, which prohibits the recreational use of drugs or alcohol. His anti-pot work is not a religious mission, though — Bahá’ísm does not encourage followers to press its laws on others, he said.
“And that’s why it was kind of weird to get involved in this,” he said. “My parents were like, ‘We’ve never even had wine in our house.'”
But Sabet has been on an anti-drug bender since age 14, he said. In Southern California, where he grew up, he invited the coroner to visit his high school to warn his peers of the dangers of drugs, which “freaked them out.”
“And I wouldn’t have told you then that 25 years later I’d be doing the same thing in New York — that kind of amazes me, but here we are,” he said.
In college in the late ’90s, he started Citizens for a Drug-Free Berkeley, and would attend raves with postcards that showed the ill effects of ecstasy.
In the years since, Sabet has enhanced those early impulses with sterling academic and professional credentials. He earned his doctorate from Oxford and was a senior adviser in the Obama administration’s White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He is an adjunct professor at Yale. He lives on Perry Street, near the light-filled Greenwich Village office where, in a pink button-down and jeans, he looks the picture of downtown casual.
But when it comes to weed, he is anything but. He aims to block marijuana legalization at the state level. In the city, the plan is to educate the public about what he considers the harms of marijuana and remind people that is not legal to use it in public.
Sabet is particularly concerned about the effects of heavy marijuana smoking, which he argues are overlooked. His website cites statistics on academic performance, bronchitis and impact on intelligence. A SAM report on legalization also warns of potential damage to the environment and businesses.
The CDC says the impact of marijuana is largely dependent on how it is used and at what age it is consumed.
Sabet does not, he wants made clear, support criminal penalties or think anyone should go to jail or get a record for the drug. What he wants, essentially, is decriminalization. His policy prescription seems not so far from what New York City already has on the books. But low-level marijuana offenses still resulted in nearly 18,000 arrests in the city last year, as POLITICO reported, and people of color were 10 times as likely to be arrested as whites.
Sabet plans to organize against legalization with African-American church leaders, who he thinks are more closely aligned with him than left-wing Democrats realize.
“The minute those pastors that I talked to on Convent Avenue get to ask Cynthia Nixon a question, that’s not going to be a good visual for her,” he said.
He denounces the rise of white, wealthy cannabis entrepreneurs, a sentiment shared by many legalization supporters.
“This whole movement is about money for a small number of — and I know who they are — a small number of the white guys I went to college with, who are down on Wall Street now, who see this as a way to make money,” he said.
He warns that pot shops will be on “125th and Malcolm X” (of course, they would have to outbid Whole Foods and Marcus Samuelsson), not the West Village.
More than 15 varieties of bongs and pipes are currently sold within a few blocks of the office, an informal POLITICO survey revealed. But Sabet feels his operation fits in with the once-bohemian neighborhood.
“We have a great view, Stonewall Park,” he said, pointing out the window to the site of the famous anti-NYPD riot led by black and Latina transgender activists fighting back against police raids. “We are the resistance in many ways. We’re fighting an uphill battle, which I like personally and I’ve always liked.”