While advocates for marijuana use 4/20 day in part to reiterate their call for nationwide legalization, their opponents are marking the weed holiday in a different way.
One group that’s against legalization — Smart Approaches to Marijuana — is running a conference on Thursday in Washington, D.C., that’s dubbed the 2023 SAM Summit & Good Drug Policy Conference.
Ahead of the conference, SAM’s president and CEO, Kevin Sabet, spoke with MarketWatch about the event’s goals, Oklahoma’s vote last month against recreational marijuana, other policy developments, pot stocks
Our Q&A with Sabet, who previously worked in the Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, has been edited for clarity and length.
MarketWatch: Your group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, has been described as an anti-cannabis organization, and your own materials say you’re aiming for a middle road between incarceration and legalization. In a nutshell, how would you characterize your group?
Sabet: We advocate for a public-health, science-based and a public-safety approach to marijuana, so we are skeptical of extremes. We’re skeptical of a war on drugs that saddles people with criminal records or other records and increases incarceration or criminality. We’re also very skeptical of this move to commercialize, normalize and legitimize marijuana in any way, shape or form — which is clearly the route we’re on, although I think there are huge speed bumps and I want to think at least that we have something to do with some of those speed bumps.
If you think about how fast this has gone in the last 10 years, it’s like a runaway train, but we’ve been able to make some huge inroads, especially recently. I think people sometimes have to feel the effects of something to realize its danger. We often have to burn our hand on the stove to be convinced the stove is on.
A lot of people have a view of marijuana as a harmless plant that they used in college and moved on from, and it’s true that most people try it and don’t like it and move on. But there’s a growing number of people, under legalization, that are not only trying it but becoming heavily addicted, having severe mental-health outcomes. We’re trying to raise the alarm on that.
At the same time, we’re not harkening back to the day where we demonize marijuana or use it as sort of racial injustice policy. We think we can have a science-based approach that does not criminalize its use, but still discourages it and still does not legalize it.
MarketWatch: President Biden last fall pardoned prior federal offenses of simple possession of marijuana and asked U.S. agencies to review how the drug is classified. What do you think of those two moves?
Sabet: Definitely the former, I think, was the right thing to do. One thing that did inadvertently, by the way, is revealed to everybody that there’s not one person in federal prison for marijuana possession. I’ve been screaming that from the rooftops for 25 years, and no one was believing me.
From a reclassification point of view, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I want the review to happen, because I want it to prove what we’ve been saying. I’m not afraid of the scientific review. So on balance, I’m glad he did it.
But I am concerned that the legalization movement in the industry, which is very savvy, has been able to take the messaging around reclassification and essentially make it sound like it’s a foregone conclusion that marijuana will be reclassified. So they’re getting ahead of it, as they always do.
The president himself has said they will be guided by the science, that this should not be rushed, and that this should be done properly. The president is against the legalization of marijuana, whether people want to believe that or not. He has said so numerous times.
MarketWatch: What’s the goal of your conference?
Sabet: The goal of the conference is to raise awareness and to activate people to make a difference in their local communities, and to help our efforts federally as well, because we are the only organized, professional team that doesn’t take marijuana money working on Capitol Hill on marijuana policy. It’s David and Goliath. We’re up against the American Bankers Association, Altria
the American Vaping Association. We’re up against all the marijuana companies
that basically hired most of K Street. We’re sort of “The Little Engine That Could” that keeps getting in the way of federal legalization. And so we want to talk about that, talk about how to continue to do that.
MarketWatch: Let’s talk about the day that you’ve picked for the conference. It’s a day that pot smokers celebrate. Why are you having your event on 4/20?
Sabet: We’re having it on that day because we know that there will be a lot of discussion about marijuana. It’s the unofficial marijuana holiday. We want to take back 4/20. If you want to talk about marijuana on 4/20, let’s have a balanced discussion at the very least, and talk about what the majority of scientists are saying, as well as the majority of public-health associations, the majority of American medical groups.
There is such a disconnect between what scientists know and speak about as fact and what the average American thinks about marijuana. That’s because there has been a sustained campaign to legitimize, legalize, commercialize and normalize marijuana for over 50 years. That has effects, when you have literally hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into something. We had hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into the idea that cigarettes are bad for you, so even smokers think cigarettes are bad for you. We’ve had the opposite for marijuana. Some people will say the government’s always been against it, but the government is not able to do what the private sector and these political groups and campaigns can do. The government can’t fight ballot initiatives. So we’re there to really try to be that counterweight.
MarketWatch: One notable development this year is Oklahoma voted against full legalization for marijuana in a referendum last month. The state has low barriers to entry in its medical-marijuana industry, so one view is the vote was a backlash to that specific situation. Do you think that’s the case, or does the vote have a broader meaning?
Sabet: I’m sure it’s not black and white, so I’m not going to pretend to be able to explain it all to a tee. But what I do see is that in many states that have very loose medical marijuana laws — that has just facilitated full legalization. People have said, “Listen, it’s legalized anyway. Let’s stop kidding ourselves.” And companies have said, “Yeah, let’s just take that mask off, because it’s a pain, and we need full legalization.”
We had a big uphill battle in Oklahoma, because marijuana has been so ingrained for the last few years. And so I think what we saw was a backlash to medical marijuana. I think people said, “We thought we had signed up for something, but this is not what we signed up for. We don’t want to make it worse.”
And at first blush, you could just say, “Hey, it’s a red state. Are you kidding me? Of course they’re going go against this.” But it’s a red state with looser medical marijuana laws than Colorado and arguably California. When it comes to this, it’s not really super conservative. This was much more about a backlash than it was about being a politically right state.
MarketWatch: What are some other states where you’re where you’re tracking initiatives?
Sabet: We saw millions of dollars poured into Arkansas to legalize marijuana after they medicalized it, and we defeated it. We saw the same thing in North and South Dakota. So it’s not just Oklahoma. We have multiple wins. We’ve seen it in Hawaii — it will not be legalized there. We’re going to see what happens in a couple days in Delaware [where the governor must decide whether to veto legalization bills]. I think we’re doing pretty well federally as well.
Sabet: We think it’s a terrible idea because it opens up institutional investors to the marijuana market, and it opens it wide up to Wall Street. I can’t understand why some members of Congress who hate banks love this bill, because this bill will just give the banks free rein to commercialize marijuana and get big investors. I also think that the supposed premise for passing this — public safety, and for robberies because of cash businesses — is totally a farce. There are over 700 banks that work with the marijuana industry. At most marijuana dispensaries, you can use a non-cash type of payment. That is a total excuse to just get into this industry and make it even more corporate than it is now. So it’s a really bad idea. We do not think it has any legs anytime soon.
MarketWatch: Overall, the number of states voting in support of marijuana initiatives has been growing over the years, so now 21 states allow recreational use of marijuana, and 37 allow medical use. How discouraging is that for you? Does it feel like you’re losing?
Sabet: Obviously, there are some days where it’s discouraging, because you see how much progress the legalization movement has made, but I would say especially as of late, we’ve been pretty encouraged. We’ve stopped legalization in multiple states. We’ve stopped it on the federal level. We have a president who’s on our side. If I were in the pot industry, I’d be pretty discouraged right now, because I would remember that I was told 15 years ago we should have legalization.
MarketWatch: We have readers who are buying and selling the stocks of the publicly traded cannabis companies. Your group talks about holding Big Marijuana accountable. What do you think that means for those readers?
Sabet: I think it means buyer beware. We’re going to have a reckoning in this country, whether it’s in 10, 20 or 30 years. Like we have in cigarettes, where there will be lawsuits. We’re already getting ready for them. There’s tons of liability on this.
MarketWatch: Are there any cannabis stocks that you think look like a buy, or is it all sell ratings from you?
Sabet: I think it’s a bad investment right now for many, many reasons.
MarketWatch: Parts of the alcoholic beverages industry and pharma companies have opposed marijuana initiatives in the past…
Sabet: I would argue that they’re in favor of it. You just had a wine and spirits group come out in favor of legalization. You have multiple pharma companies involved in the marijuana business.
MarketWatch: So do you have industries that are your allies, or do you feel like that’s changed over time?
Sabet: Our allies are parents and concerned citizens. Scientists don’t have a lot of time or funding to help a group like us, although they do what they can to get the word out. And that’s why we’re going to have them at the summit, for example.
MarketWatch: There is a trend of using the term cannabis rather than marijuana, and a view that the term marijuana is racist. What do you think of that shift? Has your group thought about changing its name?
Sabet: I think that the move to use the word cannabis is a means to legitimize cannabis and make it sound scientific. It’s not a move to reduce racism. Scholars like Isaac Campos and others have talked about how, by removing the name marijuana, you’re actually removing the influence of Mexican culture on the early 1900s in the United States.