KEIZER — Kevin Sabet, a prominent voice against marijuana legalization, kicked off a three-day tour of Oregon on Wednesday, warning of pot’s harms, particularly to young people.
It is Sabet’s second trip to Oregon this year. He was originally slated to visit 13 communities as part of a marijuana education series, but that effort was scaled back to seven stops after legalization advocates questioned the use of federal grant dollars on what they saw as political events.
Sabet’s message: Marijuana is more potent than ever, persistent pot use among young people can lead to a significant drop in IQ by midlife, and Americans generally misunderstand the drug’s harms.
He warned of the rise of corporate marijuana targeting young users with infused sweets, candies and other sugary treats. He talked about the popularity of eating marijuana-infused foods and using vaporizer pens, which allow people to get high discreetly.
The audience included law-enforcement officials, drug prevention and treatment experts and others who work with young people. Russ Belville, who hosts a Portland-based radio show on marijuana culture, news and politics, stood outside before the event began, handing out flyers refuting Sabet’s main arguments against marijuana.
Belville said young people who want marijuana don’t have a problem getting it. Legalization won’t lead to increased youth access to pot, he said.
“The people who will be able to get marijuana under legalization are middle-aged guys like me,” said Belville, who started his day at Sabet’s Madras appearance.
Sabet sat down with The Oregonian Wednesday afternoon before speaking to a gathering of about 100 people in Keizer. He began the day at event in Madras. His tour continues Thursday and Friday with stops in Roseburg, Grants Pass, La Grande, Ontario, and Hood River. (This interview has been edited for length.)
Q: What do you want Oregonians to know about marijuana?
Sabet: I am here to educate all Oregonians and really all Americans on the science behind marijuana and what the major medical associations and scientific institutes are saying about a drug that is 10 to 30 times more potent than it was 30 years ago.
There has been a lot of misinformation about marijuana, mainly because people tend to focus on their own experiences or the experiences of others they know. Look, I am not here on a ‘reefer madness’ tour. I am here to talk about the truth, which is most people who try marijuana will not become addicted — just like most drunk drivers won’t get into a fatal car crash and most people who don’t wear helmets won’t get into a bicycle crash.
But still the fact is that it happens and at great cost to society, whether it’s in treatment admissions, health costs, accidents, loss of motivation for young people not realizing their potential. I think it’s something we ought to care about.
I don’t think there has ever been a time when the gap between the public’s understanding about marijuana and the scientific understanding has been so great.
If people actually went and hung out at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association or the American Society of Addiction Medicine or the National Alliance on Mental Illness, they would hear what is the universal message, which is today’s marijuana is highly potent and a cause of concern, especially for young people and we should do everything we can to deter its use. That is not a controversial statement in the corridors of science.
Q: Why aren’t you making one of your stops in Portland?
Sabet: These stops are not about legalization. We have made that very clear. This week is something that has been planned for a very long time, way before we knew the (legalization ballot measure) had been qualified. These are the communities that asked me to speak. I am only coming to the communities that have asked me.
Q: Who is paying for your trip to Oregon?
Sabet: Various private sources, including law enforcement associations, medical associations, Rotary clubs and other private civic associations.
Q: What do you think of how legal marijuana has rolled out in Colorado and Washington?
A: I think it sounds a lot better in theory than it plays out in practice. In theory, it sounds like rainbow and unicorns — tax revenues, getting rid of gangs, and keeping it out of the hands of kids. In reality it means gummy bears and ‘pot tarts’ marketed to 15-year-olds and coupons that allow you to get a one dollar joint if you show your ski pass and more dangerous roads and communities that are all of a sudden in the pocket of special interest marijuana groups.
I don’t think that’s what the soccer mom in Littleton thought about when she voted for (Colorado’s) Amendment 64.
Q: You’ve said you support medical research into cannabis. Do you support reclassifying marijuana from a Schedule I drug? (The federal government views Schedule I drugs, such as heroin and marijuana, as dangerous and lacking medicinal value.)
Sabet: I support rescheduling components of marijuana or medications based on marijuana. That is like saying I support rescheduling morphine but not opium because raw opium is not medicine.
Essentially I think we need to do more research into it. If you are a parent of a child with intractable epilepsy or you have terminal illness, you should have access to medicinal components of marijuana whether that’s cannabidiol or whatever. I don’t think people should be arrested for using marijuana if they have a bonafide condition. I just think we need to treat it like every other medicine and have a standardized product.
Q: Legalization advocates say your message is modern-day ‘reefer madness.’ What do you make of how you and your message are portrayed?
Sabet: I think I am extremely misunderstood and also purposely mischaracterized. It would be a lot better for legalization advocates if I was a modern-day prohibitionist from the ’20s, saying that everybody should go to prison if they smoke a joint and this is a gateway drug.
That would make their lives easier. They could say, ‘This guy is crazy.’ I didn’t say any of that. I go out of my way to say a couple things. One, I go out of my way to say most people who use marijuana won’t become addicted. Two, most people who use marijuana will not go on to use heroin. And three, that this is not the devil’s weed.
But what I do talk about is what every single medical association talks about, which is the drug is more harmful than it used to be, that we underappreciate its harms because its harms aren’t as immediately apparent as other drugs, that we desperately need to understand the connection between mental illness and learning and if we are supposed to create a race to the top for education and a workforce that can compete on the global marketplace, we should think twice before allowing ourselves to be duped by another industry, just like the industry we are beginning to put in its place, which is tobacco.