April 3rd, 2015

Anti-Legalization but Pro-Reform: Q&A with Kevin A. Sabet, PhD

Editor’s Note: The question of whether or not to legalize marijuana is generating much heated controversy. In the interest of encouraging productive discussion, the plenary session of this year’s Tuerk Conference, at the Baltimore Convention Center on April 17, will be devoted to a debate on this issue, and I will moderate. The anti-legalization position will be presented by Kevin Sabet, whose articulate arguments have deservedly gained him national attention.  I am pleased that as a preview of his position, he has agreed to this interview.

“Drug policy is hard. There’s no magic bullet,” says Kevin Sabet. “Our current policies don’t adequately address the complexities of addictive and non-addictive use.”

Sabet is president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a group advocating for an approach that neither legalizes, nor demonizes marijuana.  He also serves as the director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida.

According to Sabet, “we don’t have to choose between legalization and locking people up. That’s a false choice. This doesn’t have to be a dichotomy.”

This perspective is at the heart of what he considers “clear thinking about drug policy.”  Demonized by some and heralded by others, Kevin Sabet is no stranger to the ongoing debate over drug policy. He has worked in three U.S. Administrations on drug policy issues, and those experiences have shaped his strong opposition to legalization.

Recently, Kevin Sabet discussed his views with Modern Addiction Recovery.

Modern Addiction Recovery: What is your central argument in support of your position on marijuana policy?

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.

MAR: How do you respond to legalization proponents who point to marijuana’s medical benefits as a primary factor in support of their position?

Sabet: Yes, marijuana has medical components, but we should do more research. We need to treat marijuana like any other medicine in a pharmacy with standard components and prescriptions instead of relying on voter-approved recommendations. The government should probably do a better job with funding research that’s needed, but make no mistake: the vast majority of medical marijuana card holders do not have life threatening illnesses – it’s just an excuse to get marijuana legally.

MAR: What do you think are the chief weaknesses in the arguments against your position?

Sabet: No drug policy is perfect. There are always going to be problems, but legalization will bring more problems than it will solve. At the end of the day, do we think we’ll be better as a society if more people are stoned?

Also, proponents of legalization are underestimating the power of corporate control and influence in American life. In reality, we are on the brink of Big Tobacco 2.0, which will result in commercialization and increased advertising, and ultimately more people using more heavily.

In addition, trends in alcohol use should serve as our example. The public health consequences of alcohol abuse should be our warning against the potentially negative public health consequences of increased marijuana use.

Further, there is a gap between the public’s views on legalization and their actual understanding of the impact it may have on their communities. Foe example, Colorado voted for legalization in 2012 – but in 2014 they overwhelmingly voted against having stores in their own neighborhoods. People rightfully thought, “how is more marijuana good for my community?”

MAR: How do you feel about the legislation that’s being crafted in many states?

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 (i.e. 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.

MAR: Is your opinion still evolving? If so, in what way?

Sabet: I let go of my own personal opinions long ago. My views are set by the research and science that becomes available. I continue reading about the science as well as some of the information coming from mental health and recovery communities, whose voices could be better represented in this discussion.

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