WEEDWEEK // June 4, 2016

Editor Alex Halperin spoke to anti-legalization activist Kevin Sabet, head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), about his plans for the election. (The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.) 

WeedWeek: What’s the plan you're rolling out?
Kevin Sabet: The last couple of months SAM’s sister organization, SAM Action, which is a political advocacy group, has been quietly raising money to support the different statewide campaigns we feel are most likely to vote down legalized marijuana in November. We announced this week a $300,000 fundraising round, which isn't a ton of money compared to the deep pockets of the marijuana industry, but it's certainly not trivial. 

We are now even getting calls from folks who don't fancy themselves as anti-drug activists, but they're seeing what's happening in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. They're concerned about high potency edible marijuana as well as concentrates. They're concerned about car crashes and about the massive marketing campaigns to kids, especially of edibles.  

WeedWeek: Why did you choose Las Vegas and Los Angeles to open field offices?
Kevin Sabet: Our data show that those will be very important places in November. Los Angeles will determine whether or not California legalizes marijuana. Las Vegas’ Clark County is the most populous county by far in that state. We felt like we have very strong support in rural Nevada and Reno, but we know that haven't done as much outreach in Las Vegas, especially among the Hispanic population, which polls show oppose legalization between 60 and 70%. There are large Hispanic populations in Los Angeles and also in Las Vegas. 

WeedWeek: How would you characterize your donors?
Kevin Sabet: They are all unknown individuals by their own admission. Not a penny from any kind of business, or corporate entity, or anything like that. These aren’t even law enforcement folks or rehab owners. These are moms and dads who have felt the effects of drug addiction in their families. 

WeedWeek: In Nevada, do you expect support from [casino billionaire and sometime legalization opponent] Sheldon Adelson?
Kevin Sabet: That's literally the $10 million question. I don't speak for him. I've had some discussions with people close to him, and we're keeping them aware of developments. 

WeedWeek: What do you see as the messages that are going to have the most traction for you? 
Kevin Sabet: It depends on where you are, but I think the idea of having a pot shop in your neighborhood selling marijuana gummy bears is not appealing. I think this issue of out-of-state corporate interests advertising and promoting marijuana in neighborhoods is very unpalatable for most communities. 

We even have [marijuana users] who have reached out. They're disgusted at the way laws have been written to benefit the industry, and they're helping us. For example in Nevada, home grows within 25 miles of a pot shop will be criminalized. The old time marijuana hippies, I think, are finally realizing that they are being left out of the corporate machine that is now legalizing marijuana. 

WeedWeek: I’d like to talk to one of those people.
Kevin Sabet: I don't know if they will. 

WeedWeek: What do you think a sensible marijuana policy in this country would look like five years from now?
Kevin Sabet: It would look like removing criminal penalties for low-level use, but keeping some kind of sanction, perhaps an assessment, fine, etc., and also more education and prevention. I would not legalize marijuana in any way, shape or form. 

As for medical purposes, I happen to subscribe to the radical idea that all medicines should be dispensed at pharmacies by doctors once they go through the scientific process to determine safety and efficacy. Sounds crazy, right? And for those who may benefit from some form of marijuana we could enroll them in special research programs. 

So I see a sensible marijuana policy as one where the 8% of Americans who smoke once a month may not be given a criminal record, but at the same time if they're using in public or while they're driving or on the job, there would be consequences. 

But right now, it’s a corporate free for all. And I think a backlash is coming. The question is not “if” but “when” that backlash will occur. 

Kevin Abraham Sabet-Sharghi, Ph.D., also known as Kevin Sabet, is an assistant professor of psychiatry and Director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida. With Patrick J. Kennedy, he co-founded SAM in January 2013.