Former Presidential Drug Policy Official Advises Against Legalization Of Marijuana

Photo Credit: Daniel Freel

The president of an advocacy group that opposes the legalization of marijuana encouraged an audience of medical professionals to understand the negative impacts the drug could have if legalized in our community.

During a roughly two-hour keynote speech, Kevin Sabet, a former government adviser on drug policy for three presidents, spoke to more than 185 attendees at the Red Tail Lodge in Vernon Thursday for the Center for Prevention’s annual spring conference.

This year’s theme, “Marijuana’s Real Deal — The Impact on our Environment, Roadways, Workplace and Youth,” was timely as New Jersey policy makers contemplate legalizing recreational marijuana.

Gov. Phil Murphy has championed for legalizing the drug and in March announced the expansion of the state’s medical marijuana program. Now, marijuana legalization is at the forefront as lawmakers must approve a July 1 state budget, and with it, a proposal from Murphy for possible tax revenue from the drug.

Sabet, however, is driving a campaign of his own across the state to educate others about the ramifications marijuana’s legalization could pose.

As he spoke with passion, pacing around the room filled with drug treatment counselors, physicians, pharmacists, and members of law enforcement, Sabet stated the impacts the drug has on the workplace.

“You can repair the Brooklyn Bridge with a cigarette, tobacco, hanging from your mouth, it’s not going to make you have an accident on the bridge,” he said, adding, “Marijuana is a very complex plant, it has hundreds of ingredients.”

Among those ingredients is THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical compound in cannabis responsible for a euphoric high.

“THC messes with your mind, it triggers you to get intoxicated,” he said. “The workplace danger is very real, as it’s different than tobacco.”

Sabet said that in Colorado, as reported in the New York Times, employers have to look for workers outside of the state because the pool of Colorado workers wouldn’t pass a drug test. Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2014.

Sabet also called the strategies from marketing firms embracing the new pot business “brilliant,” since they consider their direct audience.

“Half of the people who say they want to legalize marijuana say they are thinking about the cancer patients or for its use for epilepsy for kids,” Sabet said.

In turn, Sabet said, marketing firms try to “turn the age of marijuana from a drug option (to get high) and focus on the kid with cancer,”

He spoke of the possibility of “pot shops” emerging in the county should the drug be legalized, and asked the audience rhetorically if they “wanted that in their community.”

While he focused a lot on the effects of THC, which he says metabolizes in the body unlike alcohol, Sabet didn’t find it fair to place all the blame on opioids for what he calls the “addiction” epidemic.

“Opioids aren’t the things that push you off the cliff. Nobody gets up at the age of 40 and says I’ve never done anything in my life, I’m going to (take opioids),” he said.

Sabet said that studies have shown 85 percent of people that have problems with opioid addiction had a prior substance use disorder.

“That disorder? Marijuana,” Sabet added.

Sabet is the director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and founder and president of SAM, an acronym for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a non-profit he founded with Congressman Patrick Kennedy and David Frum.

He worked for the Clinton administration as a researcher, was the senior speech writer on drug policy for the George W. Bush administration and helped assist President Obama in his national drug control strategy.

Becky Carlson, executive director of the Center for Prevention and Counseling, said Thursday’s conference served as a way to educate others from different working sectors in the county on the topic so they could form their own thoughts and opinions.

“There are misconceptions that (marijuana) is not that harmful of a drug, that it’s less harmful than alcohol, but there are a lot of fallacies out there,” she said.

She urged the community to ask questions and educate themselves on the drug, stating, “Is this really want we want? Our bottom line, we want healthy kids, safe communities, and a place where people are proud to live and want to stay and raise their kids.”

Other speakers during the day-long conference included Sussex County Prosecutor Francis Koch; Ashley LeBelle, a school health specialist; Diana Litterer, the CEO and executive director of the New Jersey Prevention Network; Jeannette Hoffmann, a public affairs consultant; and Grace Hanlon, the former executive director of the state’s Division of Travel and Tourism who served as the chair of Prevention First, a non-profit that worked to disseminate drug, alcohol and violence prevention programs to children.