Kevin Sabet, the man Salon identify as the quarterback of the new anti-drug movement, the individual Rolling Stone called the No. 1 enemy of marijuana legalization, the 36-year-old political wunderkind whom High Times has deemed the devil himself, takes the stage in a sprawling conference hall at the annual conference of the Association for Addiction Professionals and gazes with confidence over his audience.
What comes out of the mouth of the founder of the three-year-old nonprofit, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or Project SAM, isn’t typical anti-marijuana rhetoric.
“We went overboard.” Sabet doesn’t suggest marijuana is a gateway drug, doesn’t resort to scare tactics like the “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” public service announcement from the 1980s.
Sabet agrees with his pro-marijuana opponents on many matters.
He’s opposed to harsh drug laws that have long criminalized people – mostly minorities – for smoking or possessing small amounts of marijuana.
He’s launched a new war against marijuana legalization, one focused on a new bogeyman.
They’re the co-founders of Privateer Holdings, a powerful marijuana private equity firm.
“In my mind, legalization equals commercialization,” says Sabet, explaining that legal cannabis will lead to the rise of corporations whose bottom lines will be tied to promoting the use of an inebriating and habit-forming substance.
Like the alcohol industry, these marijuana businesses will target excessive users.
“The industry has an incentive to encourage heavy use.” And like the tobacco industry, marijuana businesses will try to hook potential customers when they’re young – hence the growing ubiquity of marijuana-infused gummy bears and other candies.
Do we want to follow the same path for marijuana? Now, more than ever before, the country may be ready to embrace Sabet’s line of reasoning.
Media outlets are reporting on the rise of “Big Pot” and marijuana advocates are bemoaning the fact that the country is entering a new era of cannabis reform in which “Industry is taking over the legalization movement.” Sabet says the Ohio initiative has energized him and led to several new Project SAM donors.
“There’s a real tipping point here,” says Sam Kamin, marijuana law professor at the University of Denver.
“It’s whether the industry runs this going forward or the policy wonks do. There’s real room for Sabet and others to say, ‘Let’s keep this from being tobacco and alcohol.'” All it might take for the marijuana movement to lose ground is someone like Sabet, who has launched Project SAM chapters in three dozen states, to capture the hearts and minds of the people he calls “The marijuana middle,” the vast majority of Americans who don’t smoke pot but also don’t want to put people in jail for it.
Can Sabet even capture the hearts and minds of addiction specialists? At the end of his NAADAC conference presentation, he draws a hearty round of applause – from the 60 or so people in attendance.
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