Kevin Sabet has multiple degrees in Social Policy and Political Science and is a former Senior Advisor for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. Sabet, along with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, co-founded “Project SAM”, an acronym for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, where he suggests that legalization and prohibition are both extremes and that there is a middle ground policy on marijuana that would be smarter. He recently participated in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” to discuss his position on marijuana laws, and often referred participants to his new book, “Reefer Sanity” to learn more about his position on marijuana law reform.
I was curious to learn more about how Sabet views these issues, and decided that reading his book would be beneficial. Although he writes in numerous public forums, such as his blog at the Huffington Post and his personal website along with multiple editorials at various news outlets, I often walk away from his writing with more questions about his “smart approach” than answers due to the brevity of the medium. So when I learned about his new book, I promptly contacted the publicity manager to request a complimentary copy to review it. She was wonderfully polite and agreed to ship a copy to me – I received it three days later.
I was excited when it showed up. I looked at the cover, with advance praise from Dr. Robert DuPont prominently displayed across the top of the book. The title appears in crisp, professional looking font intended to illustrate the change in dialogue surrounding the marijuana conversation from the earlier era of “Reefer Madness”; the title is “Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths About Marijuana”. An image with a seedy-looking clump of ‘schwag’ marijuana overlaying the ever-popular marijuana leaf sits next to what appears to be two hand-rolled tobacco cigarettes pretending to be joints. Kevin Sabet’s name appears followed by Ph.D., referring to his Doctorate in Social Policy from Oxford University. Just below that, the very bottom of the cover highlights the forward written by Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, well known for battling prescription drug addiction throughout his two terms as Congressman, seeking treatment on two separate occasions, in addition to multiple encounters with drug and alcohol abuse in his younger years.
I took a picture of the cover and posted it to Facebook, sharing with my friends my intent to review the book. I started to crack open the book, and then decided I should slow down and consider what I thought of this book before I began reading. I wanted to know if my perspective would change or remain consistent after reading the book. I flipped the book over to the back cover, to review the summary and additional advance praise by Dr. Drew Pinsky. The seven myths that the book will discuss are presented in bullet-points on the back cover, and at this point, I realized that the conversation the anti-marijuana advocates are having is not even the same conversation that the pro-marijuana advocates are having. This will not be a quick book review!
I’ve decided that I want to start this review by summarizing my initial admittedly biased opinions of the seven myths that Sabet will focus on in his book – the problems or fallacies I see inherent in his myths. As I posted on Facebook, “I feel like there is a huge breakdown in communication between the ‘pro-marijuana’ and ‘anti-marijuana’ perspectives.” I think it is important that we are participating in the same conversation on both sides of this dialogue, and not just spouting talking points at each other that may not even be relevant responses to one another. I feel it is important to point out that, of the seven myths, at least five of them have no bearing on the pro-marijuana arguments even though they are somewhat similar to what pro-marijuana advocates are arguing. Yet, when it comes time to review the book – I want to be able to address his claims, and not my own. So I decided that this first article will introduce my readers to the book, my intent to review it, and my biases before I begin.
The following are the seven myths in bullet form, taken from the back cover of the book, along with my bias or current position on the argument I am expecting based solely on the bullet point:
1. Marijuana is harmless and nonaddictive
This is a red herring in the form of a hasty generalization. The greatest majority of marijuana proponents are not arguing that marijuana is “harmless and nonaddictive” but instead that marijuana is “less harmful” than it is portrayed through laws and social policy and that marijuana is “less addictive” than other substances that share its Schedule I classification under the Controlled Substances Act (such as heroin). There are a few people out there that believe that marijuana is “harmless and nonaddictive” - I’ve met them too - but they are surely not the front-liners for marijuana law reform. Proponents for marijuana law reform are instead arguing that marijuana politics exaggerate any potential harm and thus, the laws themselves prove to be far more harmful than marijuana itself.
2. Smoked or eaten marijuana is medicine
This is the only point of the seven that I immediately see as an actual debate in the public sphere today. There are many people who believe that specific chemicals found in marijuana have potential as medicine once isolated and put through rigorous FDA approval processes and extracted into single compound medicines commonly referred to as pharmaceuticals; this is a position that Kevin Sabet tends to promote.
The opposition to that position believes that the medicinal potential in marijuana is superior in its raw form because of the way the various compounds found in marijuana work together to achieve their results holistically, including cannabidiol (CBD) and various terpenes. This is a new incarnation of an old argument – herbal medicine versus synthetic medicine – an argument that has been raging since the advent of pharmaceuticals and is still robust even outside the marijuana topic. I think the most important aspect of this point of conversation is maintaining the right to choose between our own healthcare options, whether they include synthetic or herbal medicines.
The remaining topics are all sort of bastardizations of our arguments, and I am afraid that is largely because the pro-marijuana position is not clearly articulating their positions, instead deferring to talking points.
3. Countless people are behind bars simply for smoking marijuana
The marijuana proponents aren’t arguing that all the people “behind bars” for marijuana crimes are there simply for “smoking marijuana.” The fallacy inherent in this argument is that there are two categories of people directly impacted by marijuana laws: those who smoke marijuana and the ‘criminals’ who provide it. The anti-marijuana position basically holds that there are criminals involved in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana, and that those people deserve to be put behind bars; often marijuana charges (or even simply the suspicion of marijuana crimes) enable law enforcement to nab criminals who they otherwise couldn’t convict, particularly violent and dangerous criminals.
Further, they believe that many of those who use marijuana are addicts who need our external help recovering, whether they have suffered adverse consequences or not, and drug courts that use legal coercion to treat addiction help them. And, on the off chance that they are among the few who are able to successfully use marijuana and live productive lives without ever facing criminal charges, like Carl Sagen or Barack Obama, then the argument is that their use of marijuana is fueling the criminals who are the actual problem, such as violent drug cartels. This position overlooks so many different aspects of the social ills created by the prohibition of marijuana.
As a mother, one of the most obvious impacts that I see on a regular basis are children who are placed at a disadvantage as a result of a parent’s marijuana use – whether recreational or medicinal. Some of these children end up in foster care as a result of overzealous enforcement of child protective services, while others suffer less obvious consequences like lower economic potential due to parents who were prevented from obtaining college financial aid or adequate employment due to a criminal conviction (regardless of whether or not the parent ever actually sat “behind bars”). This makes the concern a generational one that impacts entire communities.
The laws against marijuana aren’t just about how many people are “behind bars” but instead on the legal, social and economic consequences of the criminalization of marijuana. The criminalization of marijuana impacts the marijuana consumer, as well as all those associated with the marijuana consumer.
4. The legality of alcohol and tobacco strengthen the case for legal marijuana
The legality of alcohol and tobacco do not “strengthen the case for legal marijuana” but instead illustrate the hypocrisy of any claims that the prohibition of marijuana is about societal well-being. If our society actual made illegal all those things with negative health outcomes, not only would alcohol and tobacco be illegal, but so would processed foods and NASCAR racing!
Alcohol and tobacco present two very different paradigms for how to manage potentially hazardous substances in a free society. Laws surrounding alcohol adhere to strict regulations on production and distribution in most states, provide criminal penalties for public intoxication and driving under the influence, and ensure that alcohol largely remains out of the hands of children (except in certain circumstances that vary by state, but universally include religious use of alcohol for communion and medicinal use of alcohol in various preparations).
Tobacco policy utilizes much more in the way of education and prevention with limited policies regarding providing them to minors that typically include monetary penalties without criminal prosecutions. Neither of these “strengthens” the argument for legalizing marijuana, but both illustrate the hypocrisy of those who claim marijuana must remain illegal to protect our society.
5. Legal marijuana will solve the government’s budgetary problems
Legalizing marijuana will not “solve” our budget problems, but it will focus on a huge waste of budgetary resources and, if taxation is implemented, will also raise additional revenues. Claiming that it would “solve” our budgetary problems is kind of like claiming that cancelling your cable TV subscription when you have no income will “solve” paying your rent and other basic needs. Eliminating wasteful spending is useful when dealing with the problem of budgetary concerns, but is certainly not the solution on its own.
There is a valid argument to be made in here that is worthy of debate, and that is whether the costs associated with potential increases in use from marijuana legalization will outweigh the revenues gained through taxation.
6. Portugal and Holland provide successful models for legalization
Neither Portugal nor Holland has legalization of marijuana – both have decriminalization. Many advocates for marijuana law reform understand that while decriminalization is a step in the right direction, it fails to deal with the question of supply. Decriminalization gives the illusion of marijuana being no big deal, while still continuing to deal harshly with those who cultivate or sell the marijuana that is “no big deal” for the consumer.
Oregon decriminalized possession of less than an ounce of marijuana back in the 70’s, and yet there are still many people prosecuted annually for cultivating or distributing marijuana, which remains felonious and a black market activity. Both Portugal and Holland illustrate clearly that marijuana prohibition is not the best answer and that there are alternatives to prohibition that are possible and tenable, but they are most certainly not “successful models for legalization.” Legalization implicitly includes some method of lawful provision for obtaining marijuana to those who wish to lawfully consume it – Uruguay appears to be on its way to being the first country to potentially offer a model for legalization after recently passing legislation that would license farmers to cultivate marijuana and sell through government regulated stores, although its success (or failure) is a long way off from being proclaimed.
7. Prevention, intervention, and treatment are doomed to fail – so why try?
Particularly when it comes to our youth using any substance, even most advocates for legal marijuana would like to see continuing efforts in prevention. Many of us, myself included, would like to see much more focus on educating our youth about drugs, regardless of the legal status of the drug. Every year a new fad emerges where children are “getting high” from some currently legal substance, and the solution is always to swiftly “ban” the substance, instead of dealing with what is motivating our children to seek out these new “highs”. I think overall, both sides of the debate tend to agree on the need for preventing our children from consuming potentially harmful substances, but we tend to drift apart when we look at adult use of the various substances, ranging from socially acceptable drugs like alcohol to much more potent drugs like pharmaceuticals and heroin.
However, treatment is the most paramount aspect of this point that frustrates me; our current paradigm denies drug treatment to most of those who need it, unless they are financially able to pay large sums of money to cover their treatment (like, for instance, Patrick Kennedy, who visited the Mayo Clinic on two separate occasions to deal with his drug addictions) or they are court-ordered via coercive drug courts (the greatest majority of those impacted by our drug laws). I know plenty of people with addictions that have long sought after treatment options and found that there are no treatment beds available, until finally they are picked up for a criminal charge and then it is mandatory that they get sober and comply with a particular drug treatment program enforced by the threat of incarceration. Further, there is a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with addiction, which largely presumes that everyone’s addiction impacts their life the same way.
Our treatment paradigm doesn’t deal with the underlying problems associated with addiction (or the societal consequences that drug charges carry for the future of the recovering addict), but instead focuses on the metabolites in a person’s urine to ensure “compliance.” Legal consequences are implemented to discourage continued use, including revocation of probation or parole. Often addicts seek out other drugs while participating in these programs, typically more dangerous drugs that will not show up on their drug tests, in order to ensure that they appear to be “compliant”. The whole treatment program becomes a charade with the treatment providers patting themselves on the back for their high success rates while the addict continues to spiral down out of control because he or she is not actually getting the treatment necessary to help them overcome the addiction despite their apparent “success” in the program.
With that, I am going to begin to read Sabet’s book. I will write additional articles to supplement this book review addressing each of the myths as he portrays them in the book in a separate article that I will later link to the myths above. Please subscribe to receive email notification when articles are published and please share these articles via Facebook and Twitter using the links provided.