SOMERS, N.Y. - Remember “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile,” the 1980s ad slogan that tanked so badly that marketing professors use it nowadays as a cautionary tale?
Well, maybe it’s “Not Your Mother’s Marijuana” that now could be held up as a lesson—but in a useful way—for generations to come, according to Dr. Kevin A. Sabet.
The president and CEO of Virginia-based Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), says he wants folks to replace their Woodstock-era image of the mellow, munchie-craving, pot smoking hippie with something more realistic—that of a suit-wearing corporate shark with dollar signs in his eyes.
Sabet, a prominent critic of recreational marijuana, spoke at a community forum in April held by Somers Partners in Prevention, a group which educates the public about substance abuse, and the school district, with which it administers a $125,000 federal Drug Free Communities grant.
Its avowed mission is to educate the public on the science of marijuana use and its commercialization; to talk about reducing civil and criminal penalties for pot offenses; and to encourage medical marijuana research.
Growers have found ways to pump up levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that produces the high and so “the marijuana of yesteryear is not the marijuana of today,” said PIP president Kathy Cucchiarella, while introducing Sabet.
The reason it’s not your mother’s marijuana involves more than potency, said Sabet, a drug policy advisor during the Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.
It has more to do with the way it’s being aggressively marketed, especially to young people, he said.
Sabet pointed to billboards promoting a marijuana “delivery” service that promised “more joy than puppies and babies combined” and to appealing edibles that include everything from lollipops to toaster tarts. One brewery even came up with a marijuana-infused, non-alcoholic beer, Sabet said.
Folks who are for legalization argue that it would squash the black market, improve quality and safety controls, generate tax revenues, improve the accessibility of medical marijuana (which is legal in New York), decrease gang violence, and allow law enforcement to focus on more violent crimes.
They say the jury is still out on whether pot is as addictive as harder drugs such as meth or if it adversely affects mental health, but concede that secondhand smoke could be a problem and getting behind the wheel stoned is as bad as driving while impaired by alcohol.
According to Sabet, there is a world of difference between the decriminalization and the legalization of recreational weed.
So the folks who argue that the latter will solve the very real issue of social injustice and lower crime rates are just blowing smoke, he said.
Likewise misinformed, Sabet claimed, citing studies, are those who think using pot will keep the young away from opioids, or will financially benefit states and local communities in the long run.
The idea that poor communities will benefit from legalization is so ludicrous, Sabet said, that “if we weren’t crying about it, we’d be laughing.”
He claimed that some folks in Albany are selling the “false dichotomy” that people either have to be arrested, thrown in prison, and saddled with a criminal record for smoking a joint … or, drugs have to be legalized.
“We don’t need to arrest the 13-year-olds who made a bad choice. We need to get them help. But we also don’t need to have the store down the street from a school selling pot gummy bears,” Sabet said.
Neither is legalization going to benefit “the kid from Yonkers without a GED who gets a license to sell pot” because, Sabet said, he’s going to be going up against the well-heeled machines of Wall Street and Madison Avenue.
“The way the market works is very, very simple—the big guys win,” Sabet said.
Powerful tobacco entities such as Philip Morris USA are ready to pounce if New York becomes the 11th state to give recreational pot the thumbs-up, Sabet said.
“We as a country have been totally blindsided by the addiction for-profit industries: alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical,” he added.
No one should feel sorry for Big Tobacco, he said: “They are laughing all the way to the bank. They never put public health ahead of their personal profit. And I don’t know why we think marijuana will be any different, folks.”
To Sabet, it’s a big mistake to think that the black market will disappear once pot is legal.
“Surprise, surprise. The drug dealers (in Colorado) have not packed up and gone to dental school” he said. “They got bigger and badder than ever.”
“Why? Cause you need someone to sell to the under-21 crowd. Someone who will sell at all hours, doesn’t care about licenses, or paying the taxes.
Someone who is happy to undercut the legal prices and outdo the government at its own game,” Sabet said.
Sabet expounded on the history of substance abuse in the United States, the marketing and “normalization” of everything from opium and alcohol to tobacco and marijuana, the insidiousness of vaping devices, the pressure put on well-meaning but sometimes befuddled parents, mental health consequences, and pot’s impact on developing brains.
On Friday, May 24, Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and other legislators introduced a revised Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act in Albany.
The original legislation, promoted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was bounced out of the state budget in March.
Bill A01617A adds a provision for a government agency to manage and regulate all adult-use cannabis-related products, whether they are for recreational or medical use. Those include hemp extracts such as CBD oil.
It sets up a marijuana revenue fund as well, part of the original measure’s aim to promote social justice. A portion of the tax revenue generated by pot sales would be earmarked for communities decimated by the war on drugs.
New York decriminalized cannabis in the late 1970s. Possession of 25 grams or less is an infraction. Violators face fines of $100. However, using it in public can still result in misdemeanor charges, and this has resulted in racial disparities, civil rights groups claim.
It would, if passed, also allow those convicted in low-level marijuana cases to seek resentencing or have their records expunged, according to media reports.
Cuomo had argued that expungement, instead of just sealing records, means the state constitution would have been amended, something that could take years, according to media reports.
It establishes guidelines for growing, processing and selling pot.
The clock is ticking. The state’s legislative session ends on June 19.
Sabet urged residents to let lawmakers know how they feel about legalization.
“They need to hear from you, ‘cause they’re hearing from the pot industry every day.”
Wanting to get ahead of the issue, much like it did with vaping, Somers moved this spring to craft a local law banning retail sales, and possibly the growing or processing of pot.
The state proposal at present only allows counties and cities of a certain size to “opt out.”
Sabet said the “smart approach to marijuana” comes down to prevention and intervention.
It reminded him of the need for speed limits.
While plenty of lead-footed drivers avoid getting into accidents, trashing speed limits would be just as reckless as racing to legalize pot, Sabet said.
“We need to pump the brakes. Talk to our legislators. Slow down on this. Learn from the other states’ bad decisions and not repeat their mistakes.”