By RJ Wolcott, Published: November 20, 2014 at 11:00 AM
MIDLAND, MI — Two weeks after voters in Saginaw and several other Michigan cities decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, one of pot’s most prominent critic’s visited Midland to discuss the substance’s safety.
Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser for the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, was invited by The Legacy Center for Community Success to speak at Midland’s H Hotel Tuesday, Nov. 18. As part of the group’s Community Alliance for Youth Success program, Sabet spoke to more than 100 people about what scientists and researchers have to say about marijuana.
“Legalization’s biggest enemy”
A Google search of Kevin Sabet turns up a number of articles, videos and blog entries concerning the polarizing figure. After leaving his position as a senior policy adviser for the Obama administration in 2011, Sabet co-founded SAM, Smart Approaches to Marijuana with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy.
Advocating a more cautious approach to marijuana policy, SAM and Sabet represent one of the most research-supported efforts against the legalization of cannabis in the United States. In 2013, Rolling Stone named Sabet the No. 1 enemy to legalization, and High Times Magazine titled an article about him “Meeting the Devil Himself.”
In authoring the 2013 book “Reefer Sanity“, Sabet said he aimed to address the widening distance between the public’s knowledge of marijuana and the research being done on the plant.
“I don’t want to see people locked up for small amounts of marijuana,” Sabet prefaced, noting that the occasional adult user isn’t his group’s primary concern. However, Sabet said he does support the United States’ prohibition of marijuana, though he would like to see a reduced criminal penalty for small amounts of cannabis.
Instead of debating legalization, Sabet wants to focus on the research done on marijuana’s effect on the brain, particularly the adolescent brain.
In his presentation to the crowd inside the H Hotel, Sabet cited a study finding 1 in 6 teens who try marijuana become addicted to the substance, far higher than the 9 percent addiction rate among adult users. The same study Sabet cited noted that tobacco far exceeds the addiction rate of marijuana, standing just shy of 1 in 3 users becoming addicted.
Looking at public opinion polls concerning marijuana, Sabet said it’s clear public opinion has shifted against treating users as hardened criminals. However, he added that many in Michigan may be unaware of the potential commercial consequences of legalizing pot.
“I don’t think Michigan is ready to embrace a new big tobacco industry,” he said.
Beyond the ‘madness’
To open Tuesday evening’s event, Sabet and the Legacy Center played a few minutes from the infamous 1936 film “Reefer Madness.” In the film, the narrator pontificates on the destructive nature of drugs, including the deadliest killer of them all, marijuana. Taking the stage, Sabet said he didn’t intend to address the crowd in such dramatic terms.
“We’re trying to get away us away from the all or nothing mentality,” Sabet told the crowd of school teachers, law enforcement officers and community members.
Whether it was the typical joint or the latest edible treats, Sabet said those looking to get high are having an experience several times more profound than those who smoked during the “Woodstock days”, as he put it. According to Sabet, marijuana today contains more than 10 times the amount of THC, the active ingredient in the plant.
Much of the medical industry, including the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Society has come out against the legalization of marijuana, Sabet noted during the presentation. While researchers have found potential medical uses for chemicals within marijuana, Sabet said the medical community at-large doesn’t support smoking marijuana as a means to treat any ailment.
Reversing the tide
According to the General Social Survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans opposed legalizing marijuana in 2000. Fourteen years later, support for legalization now stands at 52-45 percent in favor, manifesting in four states legalizing the drug and 14 states decriminalizing some form of marijuana possession.
The reason for this, as well as the renewed interest in legalizing marijuana in recent years, is money, Sabet stated. In the most recent election where voters in Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., were given the opinion to vote on the issue, around $9 million was spent by pro-legalization proponents, dwarfing the funds raised by SAM and other marijuana opponents.
Describing the phenomena as the rise of a new tobacco industry, Sabet went to great length to attempt to establish a link between cigarette manufacturers and marijuana supporters.
In places like Colorado and Washington, shops selling marijuana candy, soda and ice cream sandwiches have SAM members concerned that the industry is attempting to target children; those Sabet claims are most susceptible to marijuana addiction and potential mental health repercussions. States with legal marijuana do impose a 21 or older restriction on marijuana products, though Sabet contends states with legal marijuana have a higher rate of use and addiction than states without.
Though marijuana proponents argue legal substances, such as alcohol and tobacco, cause equal if not more harm to users than pot, Sabet said cannabis requires additional research before making any policy changes. Nearly 7 out of 10 American believe alcohol is more harmful to users than marijuana, according to a recent polling from Pew Research.
“I wouldn’t say marijuana is better or worse than alcohol or tobacco, they have very different effects,” Sabet stated.
Currently, the FDA places marijuana within the Schedule 1 controlled substances category, meaning they hold the substance holds no accepted medical use and has a high potential for abuse. Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, LSD and ecstasy.
Following the presentation, attendees Michelle Baker and Katie Talcott said they learned a lot about marijuana and its potential impact. Though neither women said they themselves would be more likely to try marijuana if it were legalized, both said it posed a personal health issue.
“I think kids will get it no matter what,” Baker said.
Talcott said she was most interested in the money behind marijuana, and said products like marijuana candies are concerning to her.