By Kevin Sabet, Published: April 20, 2015

Kevin Sabet is one of the leading voices opposing the legalization of marijuana in the United States. He has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and in virtually every major media publication and news channel on the subject of drug policy. MercatorNet’s associate editor, Zac Alstin, asked what drives his campaign. 

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Zac AlstinWhat’s your biggest fear about the legalization of marijuana in the US?

Kevin Sabet: I am against legalization, but not against reform. We need to rethink current laws and reduce our overreliance on the criminal justice system. We also need better re-entry and recovery programs. At the same time, when I see what’s going on in places like Colorado, we’re foolishly going down the path of creating another Big Tobacco. The idea that we would think of legalization as a public health success is misguided unless in you’re in the business of making money off addiction. That’s what this is about: money.

Zac Alstin: You’re worried that marijuana will grow from a Mom and Pop industry into a corporate behemoth like Big Tobacco. But is anyone actually planning to create Big Marijuana?

Kevin Sabet:  I am concerned with where legislation is headed on this. Legislation is being written by lobbyists who have one goal – to make their clients rich. Most places have been unable to get desired restrictions (ie, advertising and magazine placement restrictions) into the legislation. This country has a history of letting big business usurp the rights of the people. I worry about that happening now with marijuana.

Zac Alstin: If marijuana is legalized and corporatized, what kind of world will American kids grow up in?

Kevin Sabet: I’m not saying the sky will fall. But I’d ask people to think about this for a minute: Are your relationships enhanced when your friends or family are smoking marijuana? Does marijuana make for safer roads? Better workplaces? Smarter students? More corporate marijuana means more people using.

Zac Alstin: But can’t you regulate the industry, just as tobacco is regulated today?

Kevin Sabet: If we were a country with a history of being able to promote moderation in our consumer use of products, or promote responsible corporate advertising or no advertising, or if we had a history of being able to take taxes gained from a vice and redirect them into some positive areas, I might be less concerned about what I see happening in this country. But I think we have a horrible history of dealing with these kinds of things.

The only reason a few of those products happen to be legal now, like alcohol and tobacco, is because of their cultural place in history. Alcohol, for example, dates back to before the Old Testament in terms of widespread use in Western culture.

Yes, marijuana has been used in Western and other cultures for a very long time. I always get emails when this sort of thing is printed, pointing out that marijuana was used in Chinese culture 3,000 years ago.

But in terms of widespread use by the vast majority of the population, that is alcohol and, in the past century or two, tobacco. So we’re sort of stuck with those things. And I don’t think adding a third substance to be promoted by Madison Avenue is something that we want to do.

Zac Alstin: Who are the commercial interests behind Big Marijuana? What motivates them, what kinds of investors and entrepreneurs are putting their money behind this?

Kevin Sabet: Already in Colorado, Washington and elsewhere, massive special interest groups and lobbies have emerged to protect the marijuana industry.

As soon as Coloradans cast their votes for legalization in 2012, would-be profiteers celebrated the expected green rush. One former Microsoft executive proclaimed that he would create the Starbucks of marijuana and “mint more millionaires than Microsoft.”

A couple of Yale MBAs started a multimillion dollar equity firm dedicated solely to financing the marijuana industry. Indeed, the big business of marijuana was born.

Like Big Tobacco of yesteryear, Big Marijuana knows that it needs lifelong addicted customers to prosper. Addictive industries generate the lion’s share of their profits from addicts, not casual users. This means that creating addicts is the central goal. And — as every good tobacco executive knows (but won’t tell you) — this, in turn, means targeting the young.

Welcome to Big Tobacco 2.0. In the emerging marijuana industry, potent edibles in the form of colorfully packaged cookies, candies, sodas and brownies are being advertised on the Internet and in mainstream newspapers and magazines across the state. A relentless marijuana lobby insists that these products are not especially attractive to children, yet continues to block controls on advertising, labeling, shape and color.

When Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper wanted to limit access to marijuana magazines containing cartoon ads and coupons for one dollar joints by placing them behind the counter out of reach of children, the industry sued and won. That was the first of many victories for the marijuana lobby, whose case is buttressed by protections of commercial speech as free speech.

This is not about mom-and-pop pot stores; it’s about, in the words of one “Ganjapreneur,” creating “the Wal-Mart of Marijuana.”

And Big Tobacco is not just an analogy. According to internal documents that the government forced Big Tobacco to release during its historic court settlement, those companies are ready to pounce on the golden opportunity of drug legalization.

It is no wonder that the parent company of Phillip Morris, Altria, recently bought the domain names “AltriaCannabis.com” and “AltriaMarijuana.com.” If this sounds frightening, it should be.

Big Tobacco tried for decades to conceal the harms of their drug, and millions of lives were lost as a result. We are naive to think that this wouldn’t happen with any other drug that is legalized.

Large “cannabusinesses” have already ushered in mass advertising and vending machines. Now with legal cannabis barely in place, they have resorted to product giveaways (really) and they are aggressively embarking on rounds of multimillion-dollar investor fundraising.

In his article entitled “Big Tobacco’s future as Big Marijuana,” Leonid Bershidsky advises investors that, “Big Tobacco is poised to dominate” the legal cannabis market, and for that reason, “Big Tobacco may be one of the biggest opportunities of a lifetime.”

If this sounds familiar, it should. The tobacco and alcohol industries follow similar patterns while hawking their legal, addictive substances. And we know how that story ends: money-hungry industries, targeting the vulnerable, will stop at nothing to increase addiction and profit. Why on earth would we want to repeat that debacle with cannabis?

Zac Alstin: Wouldn’t legalization help governments by widening their tax base and weakening organized crime by cutting out their profits?

Kevin Sabet: No. Alcohol and tobacco have not, marijuana will not either. For every US$1 in tax revenue, it cost us $10 in lost social costs. I am more comfortable with 8 percent of Americans using marijuana (although I’d like to reduce that) from an underground market than I am with 55 percent of Americans using marijuana, half of which is from a legal market with companies like Philip Morris and half of which is still from an underground market. Either way, you’re still going to have an underground market with legalization, just like you do in Colorado now.

The only reason we don’t have the underground market with alcohol is that alcohol has always been legal except for the decade of Prohibition. There really never was a robust underground market for alcohol like there is for all the illegal drugs now.

When you look at cigarettes, there wasn’t an underground market until we started taxing it really highly. And now there’s a very robust underground market for cigarettes — something like 50 percent of the cigarettes consumed in the Bronx are from a quasi-illegal source.

The underground market happens even under our best models in which we say we’ll tax it highly to pay for the problems. Even under legalization, there’s a black market.

There will always be pros and cons. I just think it’s much worse for us to increase the percentage of people who are abusing and heavily using marijuana, which will happen under legalization, especially with widespread promotion.

Zac Alstin: Are you optimistic about changing people’s attitudes toward legalization? Change is looking inevitable, isn’t it?

Kevin Sabet: Inevitability is the number-one talking point of the legalization movement. They’ve even started an organization with the sole purpose of distorting people’s perceptions of this and making it seem like everyone supports legalization, whether it is really true or not.

That’s a really powerful talking point for them, because if people think something is inevitable, even if they’re against it, they’re likely to surrender it because it’s not worth their time to deal with it or fight.

There’s no doubt that there’s some truth to the idea of momentum for legalization having grown over the past 10 years or so. But I think what goes up must also come down. I think these things come in cycles. In the 1970s, we had the exact same thing happen with support for legalization. Maybe not as much as we have now, but we did see a dramatic change from the 1950s to the 1970s — in the same way you’ve seen a change from the 1990s to the 2010s. And that reversed for all sorts of reasons after the 1970s. It might reverse this time, but it might not.

The reason we formed Project SAM with the support of many medical organizations is to get the evidence out there on marijuana’s problems with mental illness, school performance, etc. And we want to warn the American people against promoting this new tobacco-like industry. That’s going to be relevant whether 40 states legalize next year or not. We’re going to keep talking about this.

At the end of the day, I think the best way to stop Big Marijuana is to stop legalization entirely — and that is absolutely the goal that I have. But also, we don’t feel like if we lose a couple of states, it’s time to pack up and go home. We have a long view on this.

Author, consultant, advisor to three US presidential administrations, and assistant professor, Kevin A. Sabet PhD has studied, researched, written about and implemented drug policy for almost 20 years. With Patrick J. Kennedy, he is the co-founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana).