Kevin Sabet and Smart Approaches to Marijuana - the new face of prohibition

For years America has seen a slow push towards cannabis law reform in the form of medical marijuana and decriminalisation initiatives in various states. Then last November there was a breakthrough as Colorado and Washington voted in favour of legalisation. Thanks to this victory there has been talk about legalisation in other US states, and even in countries across the world, so activists are convinced more than ever before that they are on the right side of history. But are the opponents of cannabis reform on the back foot? How are they adapting to post-Colorado/Washington America?

Former US drug czar Kevin Sabet founded ‘Project SAM’ (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) in January 2013, and already the organisation is being seen as the most coherent voice of prohibition. Mr Sabet says that the war on drugs as it is currently being waged isn’t working, but that legalisation is far too soft. He sees it as his task, therefore, to find a golden mean in-between the two extremes. In other words he wants to see a “kinder, gentler drug war”. Those pro-reform have become used to arguing with rabid conservatives who believe that smoking a single joint will inevitably lead to robbing pensioners to fund a crack habit. But SAM represents a more considered, fact-based campaign – perhaps Colorado and Washington have forced prohibitionists to evolve.

Patrick Kennedy, co-chair of SAM and a former congressman says, “The idea is to halt the legalization movement by arguing the U.S. can ease the ills of prohibition – such as the racial disparities in arrest rates and the lifelong stigma that can come with a pot conviction – without legalizing the drug.” This seems to suggest that SAM supports some form of decriminalisation, such as the Portuguese model. This would be a more enlightened way to oppose legalisation, although Kevin Sabet has been quoted as saying in the past that decriminalisation “may actually make us worse off.”

One of the myths that SAM sets out to debunk is that, thanks to cannabis prohibition, many people are put behind bars for nothing more than a cheeky spliff. Their website claims that 0.1% of all state prisoners are marijuana-possession offenders with no prior sentences and that 99.8% of federal prisoners sentenced for drug offenses were incarcerated for drug trafficking. If these figures are true, then prohibition is not as draconian as many cannabis activists claim it to be, and legalisation won’t have as large an impact as they claim.

SAM succeeds in making rational argument in regard to medical marijuana too. They recognise that cannabis-derived medicines such as the mouth spray Sativex or THC pills are in some cases very useful. However, given the variety of chemicals in an average cannabis bud, and given the fact that smoking isn’t great for your lungs, a joint cannot be counted as medicine. “Opium has medical value, and it is called morphine. Marijuana has medical value, too — but just as we don’t smoke opium to receive beneficial effects, we need not smoke marijuana to get its medical value.” As such they call for a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries.

SAM’s mission is to “reject dichotomies — such as ‘incarceration versus legalization’ — that offer only simplistic solutions to the highly complex problems stemming from marijuana use and the policies surrounding it.” This shows that SAM is preparing for a reasonable, sophisticated debate. This isn’t to say that there aren’t flaws in their arguments, but it does mean that cannabis activists will have to step up to the challenge and make sure they know their stuff. To thrive in post-Colorado/Washington America, cannabis reformers will have to evolve too.