Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
As a tide of marijuana legalization seems to be sweeping the country, one man has stepped up to stop it and he came to Salon to make his case.
Kevin Sabet, who served in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in three administrations, has become one of the country’s most outspoken advocates against legalization. Last month, he joined with former Democratic congressman Patrick Kennedy to form Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which advocates a new “commonsense, third-way approach to marijuana policy.”
But reform advocates have criticized Sabet and SAM as little more than a new face for the old regime. Rolling Stone called Sabet the No. 1 enemy of legalization, warning that SAM “uses clever language to disguise what essentially remains a prohibitionist argument.”
“Kevin is just the latest in a long line of individuals dead set on maintaining marijuana prohibition,” said Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project. “Kevin and his organization have crafted a clever approach in which they condemn the harms of prohibition while simultaneously advocating for maintaining them.”
“What makes Kevin dangerous,” the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim, who wrote a book about drugs, said recently, “is that he’s effective in delivering the anti-legalization argument, which is extremely unusual among the drug warrior set.”
In addition to Kennedy, SAM has the backing of former Bush speechwriter and current Daily Beast columnist David Frum, who joined its board along with a number of public health officials. It also seems to have the hefty financial resources necessary to wage any effective public policy campaign, though those details won’t be known until the group releases its 990 tax forms.
Sabet and his group are filling a vacuum in the drug debate. The status quo remains even though the “tough on crime, tough on drugs” politicians of the 1980s and ’90s are long gone, or have tempered their rhetoric as crime subsided and marijuana became more accepted. The national attitudes on the drug have changed tremendously in the intervening decades, to the point where most Americans now favor legalization, according to several polls, and a growing number of figures from across the political spectrum have endorsed reform.
Sabet’s call to arms was the passage of referenda in Colorado and Washington to legalize marijuana for recreational use last year. After the votes, it was almost impossible to find a dissenting voice – SAM is taking up that mantle. Kennedy — an addict himself who calls marijuana a “very dangerous drug” that “destroys the brain and expedites psychosis” — called up Sabet and said they had to do something.
In a lengthy interview with Salon, Sabet made the argument for his approach. To his credit, he reached out to us after a recent story about a new effort to legalize marijuana in Congress.
He said he and Kennedy “started talking about the issue and came to the realization that, unfortunately — in a sort of a classic dilemma that we see in policy circles — you have groups that are presenting one of two options for policy. One extreme or the other other,” he said.
There’s the current prohibitionist regime on one side, and the legalize, tax and regulate response on the other. “We decided that, based on the science and the evidence, we need to reject both of those extremes and do something that was truly science based,” he explained.
This includes, for instance, teaching Americans about “how today’s marijuana is 10 times more dangerous than the marijuana of the ‘60s that many parents smoked in their dorm rooms,” he told us. (He said it was “five to six times greater in potency and strength” in his interview with HuffPo’s Grim and “4-5 times stronger” in a recent U.S. News Op-Ed.)
Overall, this approach means keeping marijuana illegal, but with many fewer arrests (though not none), much more treatment and education (some of it forced on users), and a liberalization of medical usages (though not free rein). SAM’s website has much more, though some specifics remain hazy.
For instance, perhaps the most pressing question in marijuana policy today: How should the Obama administration respond to Colorado and Washington’s votes to legalize pot? The Department of Justice hasn’t said what it will do yet, and there’s a wide spectrum of possible responses that could determine whether the nascent legalization effort lives or dies. Legalization advocates are hoping the federal government will leave the states alone and make marijuana the lowest priority for DEA and other federal agents in the states.
A more restrictive approach would be for Washington to proactively sue the states on the basis of preemption (the idea that federal law, which still prohibits marijuana, trumps state law) and get the state laws wiped off the books. An even harsher approach would be to threaten to prosecute any state officials who help carry out the state legalization law for being a party to criminal activity.
So where does SAM’s third-way approach fall on this spectrum? “I would support a preemption challenge in court, because that would be completely consistent with what you do when states just try to nullify a federal law on its own,” he said.
Noting that liberals support preemption challenges on immigration and guns, he said, “It’s intellectually dishonest and inconsistent to also not be concerned with the fact that we have a federal law and now have two states denying that.”
As for prosecuting state officials, he replied, “Not necessarily, no.”
What Sabet fears is, if we legalize marijuana, it will create an entrenched industry that will fight any and all efforts to limit abuse. “I hope that we will learn from the carnage left by American-style legalization, which we already have with alcohol and tobacco,” he said.
Sabet made it clear that he does not advocate the prohibition of alcohol, given that it has a “completely different cultural history, dating back to 9,000 BC,” but said we shouldn’t “do what we did with alcohol and tobacco, those are not models.” Dismantling Prohibition in the 1930s was “a choice that we made, and we made it to our peril, in terms of a public health perspective,” he said. Alcohol taxes should be higher to discourage use, but the industry blocks it at every turn, he explained.
Sometimes, it feels like Sabet’s positions come down to a fine parsing of policy to find a way to be reform-minded while preserving most of the current prohibition infrastructure.
For instance, he supports the current classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which means that it has “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” (cocaine and meth get lesser, Schedule II, classifications). But at the same time, he supports greater research and implementation of medications derived from marijuana that don’t need to be smoked and aren’t psychoactive. “The whole plant hasn’t met those standards” for rescheduling, he explained.
Some reform advocates have also worried about SAM’s idea of mandatory marijuana education classes for users, but Sabet dismisses the concern. “The only people that are nervous about that are the people who are addicted to marijuana,” he said. It’s unclear who would be forced to take the classes, but Sabet said that intervention has proven to be an effective technique in helping addiction.
Even if momentum is on the side of legalizers, the inertia of the status quo will trump the momentum of reform almost every time, especially for an issue that remains a sideshow for most politicians.
And one well-organized group with one credible voice like Sabet’s may be all that’s needed to increase the political costs of reform just enough to ensure that most politicians and pundits continue to ignore the issue, or even join the fight against reform.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)