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Does America have a marijuana crisis?

By Sigurd Neubauer

04/03/2024

He has been an anti-narcotics crusader since he was a teenager in California during the 1990s. Now, Kevin A. Sabet, the founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), is on a mission to educate the public on the acute dangers the substance presents to America. He’s also optimistic that the battle against the further legalization of drugs can eventually be won.

In 2021, 52.5 million Americans used marijuana versus 17.5 million in 1992, according to Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), an anti-marijuana watchdog. While the usage of marijuana is steadily increasing, the perception of harm from using marijuana is decreasing, especially among high schoolers, according to SAM data. 

For Sabet, who has served in three consecutive U.S. administrations – from the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations – the fight against legalization of marijuana began when he saw friends being adversely impacted by low-potent marijuana. “Marijuana usage clearly hurt their success later in life,” he explains.

In 1996, California became the first state in the nation to put legalization of medical marijuana on the ballot. “I initially supported it because I thought it was only for sick and dying people.” But the more Sabet looked into it, the clearer it became that it was really about legalization and normalizing of marijuana, he recalls while adding that he believes that the eventual goal is to legalize all drugs, not just marijuana.

“Most groups who are pushing for the legalization of marijuana are using the same playbook, and the same arguments, which rest on the notion that it is not dangerous. Now, groups are even pushing for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (psilocybin, DMT, mescaline, and LSD), and some want to even legalize heroin.” Some are even calling for establishing government heroin injection sites, he adds.

Sabet doesn’t mince his words when asserting that the movement to legalize all drugs, and not just marijuana, is spearheaded by the Drug Policy Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Open Society Foundation. Two billionaire activists, Peter Lewis and John Sperling, are also supporting these initiatives. SAM, for its part, “primarily receives its funding from individuals and families who have seen the negative impact of marijuana first-hand, and does not receive funding from the alcohol, tobacco, opioid, or prison industries,” he adds.

As of November 8, 2023, 24 states, two territories and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana. But the push to legalize marijuana in other states across the nation is continuing. 

Kevin A. Sabet, PhD, is a graduate of Oxford University and University of California at Berkley. Photo credit: Courtesy

 Sabet has served in three consecutive U.S. administrations as an advisor at the White House National Office of Drug Control Policy. He's currently an Adjunct Professor at Yale University
A common misconception about 'recreational drugs' is that the THC levels in marijuana are safe and even healthy: Sabet

Narcotics and foreign actors 

Amid the concerted effort to legalize marijuana across the nation, organized crime has become a growing threat to society, including at the U.S.-Mexico border from where records amounts of fentanyl are being smuggled into the country.

“While Mexico and China are the primary source countries for fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances trafficked directly into the United States, India is emerging as a source for finished fentanyl powder and fentanyl precursor chemicals,” according to a 2020 report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The legalization of marijuana has led to an increase in organized crime because of the demand which the legal market cannot meet, Sabet says, then pauses before quipping: “One of the promises of legalization was that we were going to get rid of crime, but the opposite has happened.” The criminal entities behind the drug productions are both foreign and domestic, he explains. 

“And some of them even pretend to have a marijuana license but they don’t, and some are even connected to the Chinese government. We have seen that in Oklahoma and Oregon where there are multiple actors related to foreign governments who run illegal marijuana businesses.”

These actors cultivate and plant cannabis. 

In response to whether these foreign governments seek to destabilize the American people, Sabet acknowledges that that is one theory. Citing his conversations with various European government officials and regulators focusing on drug policy, Sabet reveals that “they cannot believe how far America has gone when it comes to legalizing and commercializing marijuana. They’re particularly alarmed by marijuana gummy bears,” which contain up to 90 percent THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol). 

During the 1960s and 1970s, marijuana had somewhere between 2-4 percent THC. The level of THC depends on how the marijuana is consumed – whether it is through smoking or eating. 

In his conversations with Russian and Chinese officials, Sabet reveals that they do not admit to U.S. intelligence reports concluding that their governments are behind some of the steady supply of narcotics into the U.S. Instead, they say “it’s terrible what’s happening in America.”

Strategic Competition between the U.S. and China may be a contributing factor to the recent increase in fentanyl shipments from China
Some groups are pushing for the legalization of psychedelic drugs (psilocybin, DMT, mescaline, and LSD) and some are pushing for legalizing heroin: Sabet

In search of a bipartisan solution

“Democrats are concerned about the mass commercialization, but publicly some members of Congress are afraid that it will scare off young voters if they bring it front and center,” Sabet explains while adding that there can eventually be a bipartisan movement against it. 

But, he admits, “we have to live, unfortunately, with the negative consequences that legalization of marijuana has brought a little longer before action will be taken.” He also points out that “it makes no sense of banning smoking but then promoting marijuana.”

Sabet is referring to New York City Smoke Free Air Act (SFAA) of 2002, which prohibits smoking and the use of electronic cigarettes (vaping) in most workplaces and public spaces,

The SFAA, which was spearheaded by then mayor Michael Bloomberg (2002-2013), set the standard that cities and municipalities around the country sought to emulate. 

But the campaign to legalize marijuana has “a strong branding and successful marketing behind it.” To counter it, he adds, a strong bipartisan push is required as it simply cannot only be a Republic or Democratic issue. “Drug policy is by definition non-partisan. If we can take the politics out of it, we can get to the policy.”

Americans, along with their representatives in Congress, tend to be misinformed. “They need to be informed about how today’s marijuana is a major danger as psychosis and schizophrenia are directly linked to marijuana consumption, which politicians don’t know,” he stresses.

SAM’s mission is to educate the public on this, which includes “meeting the politicians where they’re at.” But its mission also has support from every major medical organization in the U.S. “If you’re pro-science and learning about health, then you cannot be pro-marijuana. A lot of politicians don’t understand science. It starts with providing education and going from there,” he adds.

A false dichotomy?

SAM is calling for a bipartisan position that straddles a middle ground between those who Sabet describes as opposing legalization all together and those who do not want to imprion people from drug usage. “What we want to do is to slow down the legalization of marijuana, but we reject the false narrative between either legalizing marijuana or putting those who use it in jail.” The marijuana industry is creating that false dichogamy, he asserts.

On how to reach teenagers and adolescents, Sabet emphasizes that the message must be science-based. “On the other hand, when we demonstrate the dangers of smoking during the anti-tobacco campaign, it worked.” But to find a receptive ear, including from teenagers and adolescents, emphasizing the marijuana industry’s role in it has also proven to be successful. “Kids are smart, which is why showing them what the industry is doing is actually very helpful. A common misconception about ‘recreational’ drugs is that the THC levels in marijuana are safe and even healthy. The opposite is true: smoking has a detrimental impact on brain development,” he concludes.

Marijuana consumption is negatively impacting the brain development of teenagers and adolescents
Kids are smart, which is why showing them what industry is doing is actually very helpful: Sabet
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