Drugs

Meet the Hip, Young Talking Head Trying to Stop Legal Pot

He strives to strike a moderate tone, but where is he really coming from?

“Alcohol [is] legal because of its cultural significance. However, I think if you surveyed every public health researcher and asked if they could go back in time and prevent alcohol from being normalized 10 centuries ago… you might be surprised at how many would want to do that.”

The man you hear fantasizing about a return to the good old days of alcohol prohibition is Kevin Sabet. A former researcher and senior advisor at the Office of National Drug Control Policy under the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, he’s currently head honcho of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), an organization he co-founded with Patrick Kennedy two years back. He’s also director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida, and the Great White Hope—or at least, the go-to talking head—of the anti-pot lobby.

To people who wish to prolong the War on Drugs, he’s an articulate, combative guy, still only 35, who has given the ailing US anti-marijuana movement a kiss of life. Having jettisoned the “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” tone of prohibitionists past, Sabet’s schtick is a gentler, fluffier take on banning pot. He dubs this approach “the third way”: By pulling back on some of the more extreme drug warrior positions—but still opposing legalization or even decriminalization—Sabet hopes to stop the rest of America following Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska. As Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance put it, Sabet has ordered “a strategic retreat” to try to maintain the status quo.

Via Project SAM, Sabet preaches the message that marijuana users don’t need prison—they need treatment. If you resent the enormous progress of the legalization movement in recent years, Sabet might represent your last hope of derailing it.

To the pro-reform camp, on the other hand, Sabet is a figure of ridicule, guilty of “soundbite politics” and derided for a habit of making inflammatory, unsubstantiated statements, simply ignoring those who call him out on it, and becoming a bête noire for a host of drug policy reform campaigners on Twitter and in the wider media.

Sabet has, for example, told the world that one in six kids will get “hooked” on weed (debunked here), and that 375,000 emergency room visits per year are attributed to marijuana (debunked here). His outrageous claims can be fact-checked, but Sabet is knows that if a lie is repeated often enough, plenty of people will eventually believe it. However, he’s also smart enough to avoid outright lies most of the time, peppering his sentences instead with lies of omission, misleading emphasis or semantics.

Mahatma Gandhi and Kevin Sabet

“As Gandhi once said, ’First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,’” says Sabet in an email. “For us, winning isn’t about putting people in jail or marginalizing anyone. It is about stopping the advent of the next new industry that will prey upon the most vulnerable for profit. We know we’re up against a lot—the pot barons who see green in their future—but we also know we are right. “

The fact that Sabet agreed to speak with me took me by surprise. I’ve made no secret of my anti-prohibitionist views—and Sabet has made none of his dislike of my writing. He used to contact the editors of one site I wrote for to complain about my work. He blocked me on Twitter when I criticized him. He emailed me, long before we’d spoken, to ask why I was “so vitriolic.” So when the “quarterback of the anti-drug movement” agreed to this interview, I confess I kind of respected him for it. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, that is.

Of course I’m biased (is anybody still neutral about marijuana legalization?). But I’ll also admit that during our exchange, I came to doubt my initial assumptions about Kevin—a testament to his wily politician’s ability to stay on-message.

Beating the Big Marijuana Drum

Sometime last year a decision seems to have been taken at Project SAM that scaremongering about marijuana itself just wouldn’t fly any more with young people. Instead, they decided to beat the “Big Marijuana” drum. Big Marijuana, in case you missed it, is the Sabet-spread idea that the evil, monolithic industry, once unleashed, will ruthlessly market marijuana To Your Children, exploiting the fears of middle-class parents. These days, Sabet rarely speaks without summoning this monster.

“We don’t do this because some evil person in a skyscraper is worried about reduced revenues that will come if marijuana is legal,” Kevin tells me. “We do this because we want to prevent Big Tobacco 2.0.”

Creating this specter—aided by a mainstream media that often repeats his claims without bothering to fact-check—was admittedly a sharp move.“Now, ‘Big Marijuana’ is a thing,” Kevin tells me. “People use it in articles and don’t even talk about SAM or Kennedy or me.” When he says this, it’s hard for me not to picture a high school kid gloating about flipping the bird unnoticed in a class photo.

“’Marijuana kills’ is not the justification for keeping marijuana illegal,” Kevin continues, succinctly outlining the prohibition lobby’s recent change of tactic. “The justification is to reduce normalization, advertising, promotion, access and availability. And one way to do that is to restrict its open sale. It’s about stopping the next Philip Morris.”

Sabet’s opponents don’t buy it. “We already have ‘Big Marijuana,’” counters Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority. “It’s called cartels and gangs. They’ve largely controlled the illegal marijuana trade in this country and globally for the last several decades. Switching to a legalization model will allow for regulation and control of the industry. Under legalization, we can ensure the potency and purity of products and inform consumers about what, exactly, they’re purchasing and putting into their bodies. We can make sure sellers verify the ages of their customers to better keep marijuana out of the hands of children. And we can make sure some of the revenues from sales are put into education, healthcare and public safety. None of those things are possible under the prohibition model that Kevin Sabet is so desperately trying to protect.”

Legalization and the Cartels

When I ask Kevin whether he would rather the profits of marijuana sales go to (a) arming drug cartels or (b) local government spending, his answer is a typical piece of Sabet doublespeak.

“If drug policy was about straight a/b choices, none of us would have jobs,” he tells me in an email. “There are always immense tradeoffs and vexing complications that make any ‘a/b’ choice a completely false one. I frankly don’t think anyone should be getting addicted to profits—whether it’s my local politician or a transnational criminal group.”

But it is an a/b choice, I say. It’s not as if we can ask the cartels not to get “addicted” to the profits, to stop selling pot and go home. Unless everyone in the world spontaneously stops using marijuana, they will continue to rake in the proceeds—they make an estimated $8.6 billion dollars a year smuggling drugs into the US. Would he rather they continue to make that money? Or might it be wiser for the US to earn tax revenue instead?

“But we’ve legalized marijuana in Colorado and other states and the cartels are still raking it in,” Sabet replies.

Which of course is true. After all, most states, where prohibition is still in place, still rely on the black market for their marijuana. But studies suggest that legalization eats away at the cartels’ profits, and some Sinaloa farmers are reportedly already getting out of the pot business because profits are plummeting.

Sabet responds, “[The cartels] aren’t interested in drugs. They’re interested in money. They make money from many sources, including drugs. They will continue to make money—from drugs and other sources—if drugs were legalized. They will undercut the legal price, sell to people outside the legal market (e.g. minors, etc.) and continue unabated. The only way to diminish their influence is to (1) focus on the underlying issues, e.g. political institutions, social structures, social policies; and (2) reduce our demand for drugs.”

Where to begin? A trillion dollars’ worth of prohibition hasn’t so far managed to “reduce the demand” for drugs, so it’s hard to imagine how Kevin plans to pull that off. It’s also hard to imagine how Sinaloa and the rest could offset their losses post-legalization simply by marketing marijuana to kids.

Neill Franklin, a 34-year law enforcement veteran who now heads up LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), is unimpressed. “Kevin can speculate all he wants,” Franklin tells me, “but the clear example here is the re-legalization of alcohol. Yes, organized crime syndicates continued to make money by selling other drugs, like marijuana—but not alcohol. There was no money left in bootlegging … Once marijuana is nationally legal, the prices will fall right into the basement. The remaining small illicit markets will be easily managed by law enforcement and other regulatory systems.”

So he doesn’t believe that the cartels will simply continue to make their money by undercutting the legal vendors? “People want to obey the law,” Franklin chuckles. “They want to sell and buy products legally. They also want to buy from safe environments, both atmosphere and in product. They will even pay a premium for these benefits.”

A Free Drug World?

“I don’t think we’ll have a ‘drug free world’ anytime soon,” Sabet says. “But I also don’t think we should have a ‘free drug world’ either. If legalized, [drugs] will be relentlessly promoted, normalized, and glamorized. That can’t be good for society.”

I should point out the obvious: Marijuana has been glamorized, promoted and normalized for as long as pop culture has existed. Everyone fromFats Waller to Wiz Kahlifa has sung about the joys of smoking, it’s been lionized in books by artists as diverse as Jack Kerouac and Howard Marks. And then we have the likes of Cheech and Chong and Seth Rogan, whose successful, mainstream movies have centered entirely around getting high. There’s no denying that part of marijuana’s appeal—especially to younger people—is its outlaw status.

“Normalization is what removes the mystique from drugs,” Neill Franklin says. “Normalization with education is what creates a safer environment for such drugs. When I recently spoke to a 14-year-old teen from Portugal [which decriminalized all drugs in 2001], she told me that drugs are less attractive to teens in Portugal because ‘they are ordinary.’ … Portugal is having success because drugs are being normalized. Regulations can restrict advertising and the targeting of kids, as we have done with tobacco.”

Contrast the portrayal of pot in popular culture to the portrayal of cigarettes. Thanks to a very successful public health campaign, together with restrictions on advertising and other regulations, tobacco is hardly more popular among young people then bell-bottoms…or drug prohibition.

Social Injustice

I ask Kevin Sabet what his message is to the millennials, a generation that has already changed politics significantly.

“Simple: Do you want to be fooled by our generation’s Big Tobacco? Our Marlboro? Our Joe Camel? Legalization is about one thing: money. It’s not about ending a war on drugs or getting people out of prison; it’s not focused on social justice (if it were, then we’d need to be looking at our criminal justice system as a whole; we wouldn’t focus on the drug that is responsible for less than 1% of the prison population).”

Millennials are into social justice, so Project SAM is painting itself as an underfunded, socially conscious David up against the heartless Goliaths of Big Marijuana.

But of course marijuana activists are focused on social justice (although many also like marijuana, and nothing wrong with that). The great social injustices of the drug war have drawn in many people who otherwise couldn’t give a damn whether pot’s legal or not. Large numbers of people are still incarcerated for marijuana “offenses”—and guess what? They’re disproportionately likely to be black.

Journalist, author and Substance.com columnist Maia Szalavitz agrees that issues of legalization and social justice are inextricably linked. “Historically it’s been very successful for conservative politicians to play the race card on drugs,” she tells me. “As Michelle Alexander correctly concludes in The New Jim Crow, these laws are a way for the establishment to keep minorities down.”

Following the Money

Despite the flaws in Kevin Sabet’s arguments, he often gets an easy ride in the media. Relatively few journalists have dug around to investigate his “facts” or his funding. A notable exception is Russ Belville, a radio host who has made it his mission to be a thorn in Sabet’s side.

Belville—“The Independent Voice of the Marijuana Nation”—recently uncovered proof that Oregon officials were planning on paying Sabet $39,000 of public funds to come there and campaign against Proposition 91 (the state’s ultimately successful marijuana legalization bill) in the guise of an “educational” program.

The ensuing conflict-of-interests scandal led to the cancelation of Sabet’s tour, before the Oregon State Sheriffs Association donated $21,000 to fund a shortened version of it. Belville tailed Sabet across Oregon, distributing leaflets outside the venues and posting a series of videos depicting Sabet’s $3,000-a-pop presentations. They showed a dispiriting series of grim, half-empty church halls and featureless conference rooms, with a smattering of the anti-pot faithful watching as Kevin warned them of the consequences of legalization, reminding them that “no true medicine is a plant.”

“I think Kevin got left out of the cool kids’ clique in junior high and it has motivated him ever since,” says Belville when I ask for his impressions of Sabet. The two have debated previously, and I hoped that Russ might have some insights. “He’s potty trained and socialized, so he’s not a repellant human being… but beneath a veneer of professionalism is a barely-disguised contempt for people who get high or drink… Honestly, I think he’d be more anti-alcohol vocal if that was a paying gig.”

But Sabet is well practiced in deflecting answers about where Project SAM gets its funding. So far, nobody has uncovered a smoking gun. When I press Kevin on the allegations that his group has financial links to Big Pharma and the rehab industry, his denials are firm.

“[Project SAM gets] NO money from Purdue or any other pharma company. We are not in contact with them. … But I know that won’t keep the haters down.”

Kevin Sabet’s Extremist Roots

Sabet is so unflappably polite and convinced of his own righteousness that I start to doubt the evidence of my own eyes. Maybe he really is the middle-of-the-road guy who isn’t saying “all drug users are bad,” but instead sounding a sensible note of caution. A mere “whoa there, not so fast!,” not a blanket condemnation of drug users as something to be pitied or feared. Maybe the idea of him as an anti-drug extremist really is just a media distortion as he claims.

But just as I was wrapping up my exchange with Kevin, Maia Szalavitz, who I’d spoken with about the whole activist thing, brought up some names I hadn’t heard in a while: Mel and Betty Sembler.

The Semblers are notorious anti-drug crusaders and the masterminds behind Straight, Inc., a drug program so misguided and cruel that lawsuits resulted in millions being paid out to abuse victims. The courts heard terrible reports of young people held on the floor so long that they soiled themselves, sleep deprivation, gagging and more. Despite the horror stories, the Semblers remain key players in the anti-drug movement, although of a very different stripe to the image Project SAM wants to project.

“You know something,” Maia told me, “I’ve always wanted to ask Kevin about when he worked for them…”

So I asked him, and once again got a flat denial.

“I never worked for them,” he said. “I am against the use of any of those techniques for treatment or anything else. DFAF [Drug Free America Foundation, the Semblers’ new project] has nothing to do with SAM—it has zero involvement. No money. No influence. Nada. We agree on some issues, yes, but I think you’ll find we are different organizations with different approaches. And I only became aware of any allegations after a few articles on the subject some years ago.”

Which seemed definitive enough. But then Maia sent me something very interesting: the 2007 DFAF Annual Report, which listed a certain Kevin Sabet as a member of their advisory board in the role of “drug prevention expert.” Sabet was also listed as a member of the editorial board for the journal of the Institute of Global Drug Policy, a division of DFAF.

I reached back out to Kevin to ask, “What gives?”

This time, his answer was rather different.

“Tony, I was on the advisory board along with Jeb Bush, Bob DuPont and others for a few years—that’s all unpaid.”

Robert DuPont was the US “Drug Czar” from 1973 to 1978, and now makes a lot of money running Besinger DuPont & Associates, a workplace drug testing company. He’s also advocated that unhealthy patterns of drug use “warrant ‘stigma’.” Worried perhaps about what would happen to those piss-test profits if marijuana were legalized, DuPont once compared legalizing marijuana to “legalizing drunk driving.”

“And I’ve published in their journal and reviewed for them,” Sabet continued, “as have about 100 other academics. In fact their journal is peer reviewed (blindly) and people like Jon Caulkins and other reputable academics have published in it.”

Just to give you a flavor of the kind of guff that the Journal of Global Drug Policy and Practice has preached, take a look at this study, which comes to the conclusion—contrary to the World Health Organization and every other reputable body—that the effectiveness of needle exchanges in reducing the spread of HIV among intravenous drug users is “overrated,” and that access to clean needles for HIV-positive drug users as the major method for combating the spread of HIV among this population is “not correct.”

Given such claims, it’s little wonder, in light of his efforts to rebrand himself as some kind of anti-pot centrist, that Sabet is now eager to distance himself.

He was quick to add: “That work was 8-9 years ago. I’ve never been an employee of theirs. And they have never given a penny to SAM and there’s no connection between them and SAM. Making any connection between DFAF and SAM or me personally and DFAF would be false and unrepresentative of the truth.”

Making “any connection,” one assumes, except for the whole “being on their advisory board, writing and reviewing for their journal, and doing consulting work at the UN for them under the SUNDIAL moniker” thing. (SUNDIAL was, in effect, a “let’s keep prohibition tough” campaign, built around ensuring that the UN drug laws didn’t change and that all signatories stuck to them.)

“While a student in the mid-2000s I did do some consulting work for them regarding the UN—that’s what SUNDIAL was,” Kevin says. “A project I led for them to support the UN conventions, which I’m proud of. We got 1 million signatories to show support. They along with some other groups around the world supported me to do that…”

I wonder if Kevin was really so “proud” of his work with them, when he refused to even acknowledge it until I sent him the evidence.

Looking at the things DFAF believes, it becomes harder to see Kevin’s shift toward the “third way” as anything but opportunistic. DFAF advocates drug testing all school children, and an approach to “harm reduction” that would shutter needle exchanges and methadone clinics around the country, leading to the kind of public health emergency that hasn’t been seen here since the onset of the AIDS epidemic.

It’s little wonder that Kevin is eager to distance himself from his extremist past—it would hardly endear him to any millennials currently taken in by his “compassionate” schtick.

Will the Real Kevin Sabet Please Stand Up?

So who is the real Kevin Sabet? I know the person that Kevin Sabet wants us to believe he is. And I see suggestions of the person he really was, thanks to the bits of his background he hasn’t managed to completely whitewash. But the whole picture remains tantalizingly out of reach.

As unfailingly affable as he usually seems, everything Sabet represents and has spent his life fighting for goes against all I hold dear: freedom, fairness, tolerance.

Which brings me to the very first question I asked him: “Have you ever smoked pot?” Kevin thought it was an irrelevant question, and his answer—”No”—both bothered me and confirmed a deeply held suspicion. After all, in one way or another most of Kevin Sabet’s life has been defined by this plant. Surely, just once, he must have been curious to know exactly what he was campaigning against?

But then again, I used to do coke with a guy in LA who collected rare wines. His obsession eventually became a full-time job. He had a temperature-controlled cellar, and some of those bottles were worth more than my house. The funny thing was, he didn’t drink wine. Didn’t like the taste, he told me.

I thought of him when Kevin told me had never smoked pot. Here were two men who never sampled the thing that had come to occupy their lives. I remember asking my coke buddy why he chose wine to collect if he didn’t like it. “It’s an investment,” he shrugged. “My interest in the stuff is purely financial.”

When I came into this interview, I assumed that’s where Kevin’s main interest also lay. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of it, but my gut was that he had some kind of financial stake in keeping marijuana out of the hands of consumers and patients. (Clearly, it is how he makes his living and travels around the world.)

But now I’m not so sure if that’s the key. After all, this is a guy who cut his teeth with folks who were prepared to let drug users die in the street in the pursuit of their fundamentalist agenda. Kevin was a prodigy of sorts, a 20-year-old kid working with wealthy, prominent fanatics.

So I’ve lost some faith in the idea that Kevin is a money-driven opportunist who latched on to the anti-pot movement because he saw a gap in the market. Unfortunately the alternative is, if anything, even more disquieting.

I think we need to talk about Kevin.

Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the VeinDown and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie).

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